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27 June 2014, Gateway House

The Kurds: a historic opportunity?

Recent geopolitical shifts has given birth to the very real possibility of a fractured Iraq. The on-going civil war in Syria and an unstable Iraq has renewed the call for a Kurdish nationhood. Although presented with a historic opportunity, rebel factions and authoritarian governments still present a hurdle to the quest for an autonomous Kurdish region

Director, Gateway House

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Two years ago, when Gateway House researched the Kurdish question, Kurdish independence or unity appeared an impossible dream, but there has been a rapid geopolitical transformation. The massive weakening of the Iraqi state by ISIS advances in northwestern Iraq, the capture of Kirkuk by the Iraqi Kurdish armed force – the Peshmarga, and the persisting civil war in Syria are creating an expanded landscape of possibility for Kurdish autonomy, if not independence. The Iraqi Kurd leader, Mahmud Barzani has called for the independence of what was derisively called his “statelet”, now that it can be sustained by the oil riches around Kirkuk and the commencement of oil flows to Israel. The Syrian Kurds are rapidly following the Iraqi Kurdish example of creating a safe haven in the region of their dominance without hindrance from a preoccupied Syrian central government.

Meanwhile, the growing Turkish economic interdependence with the Iraqi Kurds will, at some point revive the urge for separation among the Turkish Kurds. This long-persecuted group was coordinated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, whose charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, remains incarcerated in a Turkish jail. Only the Kurds in Iran, too few and too poor, have yet to show any defiance to the powerful Iranian State. Repeatedly betrayed first by Britain and later, the U.S., the Kurds – divided for a hundred years among the four modern nations of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – may be on the threshhold of achieving their search for a collective identity. Their chances of success will improve exponentially if they moderate their demand for statehood to an experiment in federation among their 4 component parts, while remaining autonomous entities within their present country borders.

– Neelam Deo, Director, Gateway House


In war-torn Syria, the Kurdish quest for autonomy has become an imperative feature of the conflict. Since July 2012, Syria’s armed Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has taken over some of the northeastern areas of the country, encroaching the municipal offices in Afrin and Korbani in Aleppo Province in the north and Amude and Deirik in the east.The independent Kurdish flag now flies in these towns, where many Kurds reside.

Having taken over government buildings and infrastructure, the heavily armed PYD is reportedly providing security to the inhabitants of the Syrian northeast. Simultaneously, this militia is also fighting the anti-Assad opposition rebels, who are alarmed by the rapid and opportunistic Kurdish rise over the past three months. Whereas their success brings the Syrian Kurds a step closer to gaining a long-desired constitutional autonomy once peace is regained in the country, they still have a long way to go.

Throughout the Arab Awakening and the subsequent eruption of conflict in Syria, both the Assad regime and the opposition rebels have tried to win the sympathies of Syria’s three million Kurds. However, the Kurdish militias’ aggression in Syria has concerned the opposition. A leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riad al-Assad, warned in July 2012 that the retreat of Bashar al-Assad’s regime from several Kurdish areas has enabled Syria’s PYD to take control and could be a strategy used by Assad to further challenge the opposition. He emphasized that “preserving the unity of Syria” is the rebels’ main goal.

In their quest for autonomy, the Syrian Kurds have been inspired by their Iraqi counterparts, who, in 2005, successfully created an autonomous Kurdish region within Iraq. After enduring decades of persecution under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, the Iraqi Kurds, who constitute 15%-20% of the country’s population of 31 million, now enjoy autonomy in a flourishing, resource-rich region. As the Syrian Kurds pursue a similar dream, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has taken on a supporting role. The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, has tried to broker an accord between the two main Kurdish fronts in Syria: the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which includes 15 political Kurdish groups.

It is hard. In spite of the Kurds’ recent successes in Syria, the fragile unity between these two main Syrian Kurdish groups has aggravated tensions. Additionally, regional realities place significant hurdles in the way. Gaining constitutional autonomy will depend heavily on various shifting elements not only in Syria but also its neighbourhood. In particular, Turkey, Iraq and Iran – which, along with Syria, are home to most of West Asia’s 30 million Kurds – will play an influential role in the political future of the Kurds in Syria, and of the Kurdish people at large.  While struggling to contain their own Kurdish populations, they are closely watching the recent emergence of Kurds in Syria.


Turkey is the Syrian Kurds’ most significant adversary. The Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has alleged ties with Syria’s PYD, has been warring with the Turkish army since the 1980s. Turkey and Syria previously clashed in the 1990s when Syria gave refuge to PKK founder, Abdullah Öcalan. Although relations improved after Öcalan was expelled in 1998, and Syria agreed to deter PKK’s terrorist activities, PKK’s presence and popularity had already been established in Syria.

Today, Turkey’s 14 million Kurds aren’t as repressed – the ban on their language has been lifted, among other measures. But PKK remains a threat to the country’s national security. Turkey suspects that with the rise of Kurdish militias along its borders, PKK has found a safe haven in war-torn Syria. Fearful of the increasing Kurdish power near the Syria-Turkey border, Turkey has threatened military action against Syria. Beyond Syria, Turkey is concerned about the cross-border alliances of the Kurds in the region, especially the military training offered by Iraq’s KRG to Syrian-Kurdish refugees.

Turkey is not alone. The Iraqi and Iranian governments fear separatist quests by their own Kurdish communities too. Already challenged by its inability to establish national stability, the Iraqi central government worries that the prosperous and stable Iraqi Kurdistan undermines its sovereignty – as made evident by their disagreements over Iraqi KRG’s independent oil-trade relations with Turkey and other countries of the region. Encouraged by Iran, Baghdad has supported Assad in the conflict, creating more regional discord as Iraqi Kurdistan pursues its own individual policies in Syria’s Kurdish areas.


While the Iranian Kurds enjoy a degree of constitutional recognition, they too have been persecuted repeatedly by the Iranian government. Often led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), heavy security measures have been imposed in the Kurdish areas of Iran. Kurdish nationalist militias with bases in Iran such as the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) have also launched numerous counter attacks in these areas.

Still, Iran sees some opportunities in the rise of the Kurds in the region. While it is worried about the uncertainty within Iraq, its good regional friend, Iran is carefully watching the successful Iraqi Kurdistan, and it may ultimately seek closer relations with it. As the main regional supporter of Assad’s regime, Iran may implicitly welcome the rise of the Syrian Kurds if their struggle in the northeastern areas could indeed weaken the opposition rebels.

Regardless of its regional pursuits, at home the Iranian government remains prepared to forcefully subdue even the slightest indication of anti-regime protests and separatist pursuits by its various ethnicities, including the Kurds and Azeris. Even though there are informal interactions among the Kurdish groups in Iran and the region, until the current Iranian government is ousted, Iran’s Kurds will not formally join the Kurds of the region in their quest for statehood.

Challenges ahead:

So, domestic and regional politics severely hinder the Kurdish quest. Moreover, the region’s natural resources may spur interference from outside West Asia. For instance, one of the key reasons the U.S. supported the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005, was because it sits on a wealth of oil-rich areas. The U.S. government also had close ties with Barzani, the now President of the Iraqi Kurdistan. This is an advantage that the Syrian Kurds and the other Kurds in the region at large do not seem to presently enjoy.

To this end, while Syria’s northeast is its most resource-rich locale, it only produces modest quantities of oil and gas. The country’s role in the energy market is strategic not for its oil reserves but because it connects the oil fields of West Asia to Europe via its ports, and was planning several possible transit routes before the conflict erupted last year. Countries with major investments in the region, such as the U.S. and China, will support the Kurds only if it means getting significant economic returns. Russia, alternatively, will lose an important ally with Assad’s fall, and may be keen to cultivate a friendly Kurdish territory to guarantee the protection of its regional interests.

Even if the external stimuli fall into place, a significant aspect of the Kurdish destiny remains in its own hands. Despite recent signs of empowerment, Kurdish populations across borders are still fragmented. The mountainous terrain of the Kurdish-majority regions has prevented the formation of a single identity and common written literature; the traditionally nomadic Kurds have typically settled in small groups and adapted to varying dialects and tribal norms. To ensure enduring success, the Kurds must unite and put an end to their own internal disputes.

Still, the task of Kurdish regional solidarity is easier today, thanks to increasing literacy and accessible modes of communication. Economically, an independent Kurdish nation could rely on its resource-rich environment and its strategic location for sustainability. Besides the resources of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey have untapped oil reserves of an estimated 270 million barrels, located mainly in the Hakkari basin. Less optimistically, a United Kurdistan will be landlocked by the very states from which it will gain independence (see map), making trade quite contentious.

Autonomy is still a far-fetched quest for the Syrian Kurds. Yet, if the Syrian Kurds successfully gain autonomy, they are likely to create a formal cross-border alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government; paving the way for a regional Kurdish alliance inclusive of Kurds throughout West Asia.

The Kurds are presented with a historic opportunity. Regardless of the outcome, no government in the region can wish away the Kurdish struggle any longer; it is now a key factor in regional stability.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

Azadeh Pourzand was a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Venessa Parekh was a Research Intern at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

This feature was originally published by Gateway House on 7 September 2012.

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