“There is only one group that has consistently and effectively battled Islamic State in Syria, and that is the Y.P.G. Opening another front in the region – as Turkey has by attacking the P.K.K. – will make the forces fighting ISIL weaker, which in turn makes ISIL stronger” – Redur Khalil, spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The Kurds are an ethnic group that transcend the borders of countries within one of the most unstable regions on earth. Inhabiting South-East Turkey, Western Iran, Northern Iraq and Northern Syria, they’ve been called the most persecuted ethnic group on the planet. Their fractured statehood is a legacy Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret Anglo-French treaty from 1916 which carved up the middle eastern provinces of the former Ottoman empire into British and French control. Those sweeping lines negotiated by Western diplomats took little consideration for ethnic or historical claims and have been coming undone ever since.
It is estimated that globally, the Kurdish population sits at around 30-32 million people. There are significant populations in western Turkey, especially in Istanbul. The majority of the population is centered around the autonomous region of Kurdistan within Iraq, which straddles the border with Syria. What concerns Turkey though is that large swaths of its eastern territory are held by the ethnic minority, and the opportunity for independence from Iraq and Syria inevitably raises expectations amongst its own people.
On September 13, 2014, a small mountain town on the Syrian frontier captured the world’s attention. Far from the chaotic turmoil enveloping Damascus and its surrounding regions, the border town of Kobane became the centre of a massive offensive by Islamic State (ISIL), intending to secure the strategic border crossing and simultaneously remove the Kurdish stronghold.
Over the following months, the siege of Kobane became a symbol of resistance for the Kurds. Despite coordinated assaults supported by tanks, rocket barrages and artillery, fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Free Syrian army (FSA) successfully held the town despite being outnumbered three to one by a force of more than 9,000 Islamic State militants. By October, the defenders were on the verge of collapse, forming a loose defensive line around the border crossing. With refugees numbered at 60,000 fleeing across the border into Turkey, the world was treated to disturbing first-hand reports of rape, torture, murder and mutilation at the hands of the invaders. The so-called Islamic State’s atrocities drew global condemnation and outcry, placing pressure on the US and its allies to finally intervene in the three year old civil-war. Despite reinforcements from Turkish Kurds as well as Iraqi Peshmerga, it was only thanks to the intervention of US led air strikes that the besieged were finally able to turn the tide and push ISIL back into the desert.
For the Kurdish people, the struggle for survival has become an opportunity for statehood. The war that has so destabilized the region has only reinforced the Kurds own autonomy. As state control has collapsed they now act and govern and indeed fight for their own people.
Now, with Coalition support, the Kurds have successfully secured vast swaths of territory and are widely seen as the only force on the ground. Even so, international backing is fractured and bitterly divided. For many regional states, the Kurdish question is a complex affair. Beyond the public pledges of support and token aid, Iraq and Turkey in particular present a paradox.
Despite proclaiming to focus their efforts on destroying Islamic State the imperatives of history are seeing them simultaneously target their biggest potential partner – the Kurds. This is not only a huge mistake but also a step backwards for a region in desperate need of cooperation in light of the growing threat of Islamic extremism.
To understand the bitter fight for and against Kurdish independence and statehood we must understand the past. The Kurds deserve the right to self-determination after more than a century of occupation. But, this is not to say that they are without their sins. For their part, the bitter struggle to forge a nation has seen retaliatory killings, bombings and terrorist attacks. A new Kurdish state would therefore require reconciliation and forgiveness on both sides for almost a century of genocides, murder and civil-war.
The Syrian Civil War:
The sudden rise of Islamic State amidst the Syrian civil-war has shocked not only the Gulf and Arab nations, but also countries across the globe. Since 2013, the group has been able to take on conventional military forces, successfully defeating President Bashar Al-Assad’s military in Syria, and shattering the Iraqi armed forces during a lightning offensive into Northern Iraq. This has allowed the group to seize strategic bases and territory across Iraq and Syria. It has also given them access to more complex military hardware which includes tanks, heavy-weapons, artillery and even US-made armoured vehicles.
The gulf left by the collapse of Iraq’s security forces has been largely filled up by Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have successfully been able to secure and defend their territory in North-East Iraq. US intervention in the region prior to Kobane had been limited to supporting these forces, most famously in Sinjar province after ISIL began a genocidal campaign against the Kurdish Yazidi minority.
Currently, the Kurds are seen as the most effective fighting force on the ground in conflict zones. The fractured goals and ambitions of the various rebel groups in Syria have only deepened and are becoming ever more complex. The Free Syrian Army is seen as the only viable moderate group but its troop numbers are low, and it must compete with Al-Qaeda supported Islamists alongside the remnants of the Syrian army and ISIL. Meanwhile Iraqi military is barely holding the areas around Baghdad, and requires immense restructuring and retraining that are estimated to take up to a decade before it can become a competent fighting force.
In short, the Kurds remain the only regional force with the national unity, plus the training, structure, and weaponry to successfully challenge ISIL. With the coalition’s support, they’ve successfully been able to push ISIL back and regain lost territory, even expanding their control by more than a third in Syria to 11,000 square miles.
Their success, however, is something that neither Iraq, Syria, nor even Turkey desires. On the 11th of August, 2015, Turkey even launched air strikes against Kurdish positions and infrastructure, beginning a new cycle of retaliatory attacks and bombing and threatening to bring the two groups back into outright war.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Turkey has responded to the Kurdish question with blunt force and brutal oppression. During the 1920s and 30s, the Kurdish Ararat revolts were suppressed through martial law and an extensive campaign of cultural destruction: The use of Kurdish language, dress, folklore and names was banned and Kurdish areas inhabited under martial law until 1946.
In the 1970s, the Kurdish Leninist-Communist parties took hold in the country, the most infamous of these being the PKK. The group is an ethnic secessionist organization that has advocated the use of violence to achieve its aim of a unified, independent Kurdish state. They’ve used ambush, sabotage, riots, protests and demonstrations to further this objective, uncaring of civilian casualties to inflict damage. Suicide bombings on government and police stations as well as assassinations were seen as viable tools of resistance in moves that have divided the global community and earned them classification as terrorists by NATO and the EU. More than 40,000 people have been killed in their struggle and hundreds of thousands have been displaced on both sides. It is a valid argument that this struggle, whilst an expression of resistance to Turkey’s iron fist, has done little more than entrench hatreds on both sides. The use of terrorist techniques has been a crucial mis-step for a people who have sought international support to validate their claims.
More recently, since 1984 through to 1999, the Turkish military engaged in an open war with the PKK. The effects of the conflict were devastating, with much of the countryside depopulated. Turkey’s forces are widely accused of forced conscription, evacuation, and destruction of villages. There are also numerous documented reports of unfair harassment of civilian Kurds, and known extrajudicial executions.
Officially protected death squads are also believed to be responsible for murdering 3,200 Kurds and Assyrians between 1993-4 in so called “mystery killings”. Amongst the dead were targeted members of the intelligentsia – politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and teachers. This is widely seen as state-sponsored terrorism by Turkish Kurds, who believe this is a targeted scare campaign to cow any attempts to unify for independence.
In 1994, Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish female MP, caused controversy during her swearing in ceremony. In front of the parliament, she added to her address a simple sentence in Kurdish. “I take this oath for the brotherhood of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples”. The use of Kurdish and the mild implication of cooperation was enough to condemn her. Herself along with five other Kurdish MPs were sentenced to 15 years jail by the Supreme Court. In 1995, she was awarded the Sakharov prize for human rights by the EU parliament, and was only released in 2004 after immense pressure from the EU while Turkey sought membership.
In Turkey, there is therefore a worrying cycle of state-oppression and terrorism perpetrated in response. For as long as Turkey insists on denying the Kurds increased autonomy or political recognition, they can only expect guerilla war and terrorist attacks by a people hopelessly outclassed by one of the best-equipped militaries in the region.
The formation of the Iraqi state by British diplomats in the Sykes-Picot agreement effectively placed the Kurds most populous region under the authority of Baghdad. This decision has had far reaching consequences ever since by effectively abolishing Kurdish independence and denying the Kurds control over resources within their semi-autonomous territory.
As western influence faded regionally after WWII, the rise of Arab nationalism proved especially deadly for Iraqi Kurds. Ba’athist administrators in Baghdad purposely thwarted Kurdish nationalist movements throughout the 1960s, seeking to retain control of the oil rich Kirkuk region which fell within Iraqi Kurdistan.
The outbreak of war with Iran in 1980 ignited a period of de-facto civil war between Kurds and Iraqis that would ultimately lead to the deaths and genocide of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Kurds were relatively well integrated inside of their foe, Iran, and due to decades of mistrust and political fighting between Baghdad and Kurdistan, Iraq soon began targeting Kurdish populations. Between 1986 to 99, a military campaign code named Al-Anfal, “spoils of war”, began the systematic destruction of two thousand Kurdish villages. Through indiscriminate aerial bombing, deportation and shelling, thousands lost their homes and their lives. Most shocking of all was the construction of concentration camps, where men of fighting age were separated from the women, and massacred by firing squads after digging their own graves out in the desert. When the population rose up in revolt around 1990, Saddam Hussein’s forces brutally suppressed the movement, it’s collapse in 1991 leading to one and a half million to abandon their homes and flee to the Iranian border. 20,000 people never completed the journey, dying of exhaustion and starvation as well as exposure. All told, as many as 182,000 people died during Al-Anfal.
The most infamous attack was during March 16, 1988 in Halabja. In a move that was authorized by Saddam Hussein himself, the Iraqi military sought to test its chemical weapons capability in an attempt to repel an Iranian advance through Iraqi Kurdistan. Following an indiscriminate rocket and napalm attack by the air force, fighter jets dropped gas canisters that billowed smoke that smelled like “sweet apples”. Five hundred civilians were killed instantly with up to 5,000 more succumbing in the following hours. After the assault, Iraqi forces deliberately razed the town to cover any evidence, however the effects of the attack are still being felt with birth defects and disease widely reported decades later.
The end of the uprising and civil-war was not the end of the killing. In the years between the collapse and the invasion of Iraq, Amnesty International has collected the names of 17,000 people who’ve disappeared after being taken by security forces.
Now consisting more than 17% of the country’s population, the Kurds have been steadily growing in influence and political power within their own territory. The rise of Islamic State has been both an opportunity and the biggest challenge that Iraqi Kurds face. With ISIL’s expansion into northern Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have proven to be the most effective at combating the threat on the ground, and have even expanded their territorial control whilst Baghdad scrambles to rebuild its forces. What’s up in the air is how Baghdad will treat Kurdistan post-Saddam and after ISIL. Currently, oil rich Kirkuk is controlled by the Kurds once more and the conflict has only strengthened nationalism across the territory.
Building a Kurdistan:
The Kurdish people, and how we treat them, are a key point within the conflict enveloping Syria and Iraq, and indeed history. Turkey and Iraq are making a potentially disastrous mistake by turning on their potential ally. This mistake stems from two parts. The first part is that both governments believe that the recent setbacks for ISIL and strengthening of their own forces means that the Kurdish ambition must now be curbed lest their gaols and aims grow. The second is that by enacting “limited strikes” on Turkey’s part or directly blocking aid on Iraq’s, the Kurds will simply reassess their position and resume the status quo. Neither of these assumptions are wise and the belief that post ISIL the region will resume its former power structures is folly.
After more than a century of suppression, there is little chance the Kurds will accept limitations to their sovereignty and self-determination. Now armed with complex weapons systems and with a unified, battle hardened army, there is a very real potential that a miscalculation by Turkey or Iraq would only spread war and destruction ever further. Turkey must recognize that it’s long campaign to control and degrade it’s Kurdish population has been a failure and a waste of money, lives and resources. Iraq must not destabilize itself further by attempting to reign in Iraqi Kurdistan’s ambitions, because as it exists today it is effectively a state unified in all aspects except control over its territorial resources.
The world has backed and supported the Kurds as they have fought ISIL and Assad. Now, the world must back a Kurdish state, whatever form that takes. This is not to say such a formation would be an easy or painless transition, and it would indeed require immense good will from all sides under the careful guidance of the United Nations. But, in the ever turbulent Middle East, we are seeing the de-evolution of the Sykes-Picot agreement back into old tribal and ethnic affiliations. If we can manage one such reformation into a peaceful working state the ripple effect could be momentous.
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