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Letter from Van : The Kurds’ Great Sorrow after the Iraqi Kurdistan Independence Referendum

Letter from Van : The Kurds’ Great Sorrow after the Iraqi Kurdistan Independence Referendum
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The battle for Kobane, which occurred from September 2014 to January 2015, was a defining moment for Kurdish nationalist movements and identity awareness. Before Kobane, it was still possible to hope for the pursuit of a dialogue between Ankara and PKK leaders (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, listed by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization). Erdogan was indeed, at the beginning of his term, perceived as the man who tried to give a serious chance to a PKK-compatible solution by engaging in secret negotiations with its leaders in Oslo, as soon as in 2009. The Kurds were starting to get important benefits from these talks, such as Kurdish speaking TV channels, newspapers and private schools. A truce in the everlasting guerilla in Kurdish territories was even implemented, from June 2012 to June 2015.

The most recent elections demonstrated that a non negligible portion of Kurdish voters continue to cast their vote in favor of Mr. Erdogan’s party, the AKP. This is one of the issue’s main paradoxes: modern Turkey’s kingmakers are actually Kurdish people that are hostile to PKK and who allowed Mr. Erdogan to maintain his power. 

The long, spectacular and intensively mediatized Kobane battle, which confronted Kurdish fighters – mostly Syrians – to Daesh soldiers, led to the final break between Ankara and Kurdish groups living in Turkey. In response to the Islamic State attack on Kobane, President Erdogan decided to exacerbate the hardships endured by the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) – the Syrian branch of the PKK – by forbidding Iraq and Turkey’s Kurdish minorities to send them help. This battle reminded the international community of just how brave Kurdish people can be, especially in times when they have to stand in the way of Jihadist terrorism. It is true that the United States and its allies spared no efforts to assist them – both equipment and air support lacked. The Kurds also benefited from the benevolent coverage that was made of their fight in Western media, emphasizing on their singular identity (secularism, women’s rights, etc.). While at the same time, Sunni Arab fighters, with limited foreign aid, were forcing Daesh to get out of Aleppo without raising much interest worldwide.  

"This alliance between Western countries, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, supported the idea thatthe time has come for the Kurds to raise to their ambitions"

With hindsight, it seems that Kobane heated up the imagination of a significant part of the Kurdish youth and provoked the rising anger of Mr. Erdogan, which he seemed to have recycled for political purposes. Following the battle, the conflict between Ankara and PKK transformed into what has been called a “war of the cities” (by contrast with traditional forms of conflict used by PKK, mostly focused on rural areas). This deadly war was lost by the terrorist organization and resulted in the current situation: any political solution put forward seems to be a dead-end, from which extremists of both sides are benefiting. 

During this time, the Kurdish minority of Iraq, under the authority of Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government, was leading the fight on its own against the Islamic State. Simultaneously, Iraqi Kurds grew stronger vis-à-vis Baghdad despite facing long-time internal dissensions, a deteriorating political situation and a worsening of their economic difficulties. Iraqi Kurdistan was remaining in good terms with Turkey, which acted as its safety valve against economic hardships. In Syria, the partnership built between the United States, their allies and the PYD during the Kobane battle was developing further. The PYD, contributing to the anti-Daesh coalition by providing troops on the ground, sometimes supported by Russia but sporadically hit by its air forces, was enlarging its territory in Syria to the great displeasure of the Turks but without damaging its relationships with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

Despite multiple setbacks endured in Turkey by the PKK, this alliance between Western countries, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, supported the idea that the time has come for the Kurds to raise to their ambitions. Back then, many took for granted the myth according to which once Daesh would have torn apart borders and weakened the States issued from the Sykes-Picot agreements, the Kurds would finally get the chance to create their own destiny as a nation

"A strong alliance is currently arising between Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran, to counter Kurdish ambitions in the region"

It is however a very different picture that we see emerging from this versatile Middle-East. Although the September 25th referendum organized by M. Barzani showed a massive popular endorsement for independence, it immediately backfired against Kurdish interests. Iraqi Kurdistan is now almost under embargo from Baghdad and Turkey. The city of Kirkuk – considered by both the Iraqi State and Iraqi Kurds as their “Jerusalem” (and which controls the oil’s wealth they have been benefiting from in recent years) – has fallen into the hands of forces loyal to the central government in just a few days’ time, with the help of Shiite militias affiliated to Iran. The taking of Kirkuk cruelly demonstrated an unflattering image of the Peshmergas, which was in contradiction with their reputation, and exposed their divisions (notably between Talabani’s PUK and Barzani’s KDP). Even more importantly, a strong alliance is currently arising between Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran, to counter Kurdish ambitions in the region

In France, traditional supporters of the Kurdish cause, such as Mr. Bernard Kouchner and Mr. Bernard Henri-Levy, were vocal about their opposition to the West’s betrayal of the Kurds, using them when they needed to and letting them down after the first hurdle. This is a somewhat bizarre argumentation: every Western capital and the United Nations have repeatedly asked Mr. Barzani to postpone its referendum, whose adverse effects to the Kurdish cause were predictable. The U.S. went as far as to offer Mr. Barnazi and Baghdad a deal that would have allowed both of them to save face. In some Kurdish circles, despite public solidarity, tongues are now being loosened. They recognize that Mr. Barzani’s motives were essentially personal. Some say that, used to years of feudal type of power, he has been “badly counseled by his famous foreign friends, especially by the French”. 

Actually, it would take years of negotiations between Irbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) and Baghdad to heal the wounds caused by the referendum. This should represent an additional reason for the West to get more invested in Iraq than they have during the Obama administration.

Syrian Kurds or their leaders could nevertheless be potentially afraid of a new “betrayal"

One of the many questions that arise from this referendum concerns its psychological impact on Syrian and Turkish Kurds. There could be a “disenchantment effect”. To act cautiously, Kurdish leaders should recall the opinion of PKK leader Öcalan, who advocated for a maximal autonomy within preexisting States, rejecting the idea of a “pan-Kurdish” project, back in 2003. However, it could be feared that the September 25th referendum would have the exact opposite effect, by becoming another defining moment, which would reinforce the pro-violence side, mostly in Turkey, by claiming the argument: “look at what happen when you choose the political way”. This scenario has become even more likely, since Mr. Erdogan tied himself with the nationalist party, famously known for its strong opposition to any kind of Kurdish emancipation. 

In Syria, the “post-referendum” era could see a strengthening of the distrust from PYD al-Assad’s regime under Russian protection (even though Russia’s position on the referendum was not different from the Western one). After the fall of the ISIS “Caliphate” in Syria, a new defining moment could now emerge for the Kurds since the U.S. and its allies will have to reexamine their options. Syrian Kurds or their leaders could nevertheless be potentially afraid of a new “betrayal”, were Americans to step back again, leaving them defenseless or bypassing them by negotiating directly with the Russians for a new regional deal. 

What would be the alternative? We could suggest that Western countries’ main objective should be to offer Syrian Kurds (meaning the PYD) a politico-military pact, that is a sustainable guarantee of their protection and support for their rights in post-war Syria, in exchange of tangible insurances regarding their retreat from any intervention in favor of PKK in Turkey. We would then be in a better position to ask from Ankara the same insurances with regards to their withdrawal from any aggression towards Syrian Kurds. The goal of this operation would be to build a similar relationship between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, as the relationship between Ankara and Iraqi Kurdistan was before the referendum. This is an ambitious proposition: it would be very difficult to recreate even a minimum level of trust with the Turkish President on this matter, the leadership of PKK will do anything to prevent his Syrian branch to get some autonomy and, above all, it implies that Western governments would be capable of implementing a real strategy

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