Kurdish communities in the Middle East have been struggling for independence, autonomy and civil rights since at least the 1880s. While Kurdish movements across the region have suffered from fragmentation, the more formidable obstacle to fulfilling Kurdish aspirations are regional and global geopolitics. Djene Rhys Bajalan explains the many challenges, both historically and in the present day. This article is in Middle East Report, issue 295, “Kurdistan, One and Many.”
Kurdish communities in the Middle East have been struggling for independence, autonomy and civil rights since at least the 1880s. While Kurdish movements across the region have suffered from fragmentation, the more formidable obstacle to fulfilling Kurdish aspirations are regional and global geopolitics. Djene Rhys Bajalan explains the many challenges, both historically and in the present day. This article is from the forthcoming issue of Middle East Report, “Kurdistan, One and Many.”
At first glance, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seems to have come out ahead from the takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the flight of the Iraqi security forces from Mosul and its environs, the autonomous Kurdish authority has sent its peshmerga fighters into large swathes of northern Iraq, most notably Kirkuk and its oilfields. These gains have given the KRG new forms of leverage with Baghdad in negotiating Kurdish nationalist demands. They also have triggered expectations of Kurdish statehood among the Kurdish population of Iraq, a long-sought goal that could be bankrolled by large-scale, independent Kurdish oil exports.
With the civil war in Syria past the point of no return, the country’s economy is undergoing unprecedented shrinkage. Inflation is running rampant. Purchasing power is plummeting as the value of the Syrian pound falls against the US dollar.
Damascus and Aleppo, the main economic hubs, are badly affected, but the country’s eastern and northeastern regions are also in dire straits.
Upheaval in Syria has given Kurdish groups new opportunities to advance their nationalist agendas while serving as proxies for neighboring states. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK has taken advantage of the rift between the regime of Bashar al-Asad and the Turkish government by turning to the former to help it launch its armed operations. In Iraq, after some delay, Kurdish elites have entered Syrian opposition politics as well, highlighting the ironies and internal tensions of their own position. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is keen to persuade Turkey, its key regional patron, that it can contain the PKK elements based in Iraqi territory and moderate Syrian Kurdish demands, while also assuring its Kurdish brethren that it will support their claims. And in Syria itself, Kurds have created the Kurdish National Council in parallel to the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC) — a reaction to the possibility that the SNC will morph into a successor regime led by Muslim Brothers under Turkish influence.
Herro Kader Mustafa is a Kurdish-American, originally from Iraq, who has built an impressive portfolio of responsibilities in the course of her career at the State Department and the National Security Council of the United States. She is currently the acting chief of staff for the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department. Mustafa served as the senior US civilian official responsible for administering the Iraqi province of Ninawa—of which Mosul is the capital—in the aftermath of the 2003 war. She is the subject of an upcoming documentary entitled American Herro. In May 2008, Mustafa spoke to MERIP about her experiences.
When and under what circumstances did you and your family leave Iraq?
“The aim of the Turkish armed forces is to ensure that the separatist terrorist organization bows down to the law and the mercy of the nation.” Thus did the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, brusquely dismiss the one-month ceasefire announced on August 19, 2005 by the Kurdistan People’s Congress (or Kongra-Gel). Kongra-Gel is the name adopted in 2003 by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had renewed its armed struggle with the Turkish state just over one year before proclaiming its latest truce.
When Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit arrives in Washington, DC this week to meet with President George W. Bush he will come bearing a symbolic gift: a replica of a 16th century Koran, beautifully embroidered and written with real gold lettering. The original of this Koran comes from the Topkapi Palace Museum, once the seat of the Ottoman Sultans who ruled the Muslim world for over four centuries.
Less than five years ago, the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein established a “safe haven” in Iraqi Kurdistan following Iraq’s brutal suppression of an uprising against the regime during March-April 1991. The mood among the majority of Iraqi Kurds was highly optimistic: A certain measure of self-rule had been forced on the central government in Baghdad, a goal for which they had been fighting for almost half a century.
There may be more landmines deployed per person in Kurdish Iraq (population around 3.5 million) than in any other region in the world. A 1993 State Department report estimates that the Iraqi army laid 3 to 5 million mines there during the Iran-Iraq war and in the months leading up to the 1991 Gulf war. Others estimate that the number may be as high as 10 million, including mines that Iran also laid. Rough estimates of the ratios for the worst-affected countries are one mine per person in Angola and Afghanistan, and one mine for every two persons in Cambodia.
Four years after Operation Desert Storm, and the mass uprisings that followed in the southern and northern parts of Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the country’s economic and social fabric is in tatters. Economic sanctions, following a destructive war and compounded by the Iraqi government’s abusive and divisive social and political policies, have devoured the country’s once substantial middle class and further impoverished the already poor. Even if tomorrow the sanctions were lifted and the regime were to vanish, the capacity of Iraqi society to reconstitute itself is in grave peril.
Nader Entessar, Kurdish Ethnonationalism (Lynne Rienner, 1992).
Philip Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl, eds., The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview (Routledge, 1992).
Sheri Laizer, Into Kurdistan: Frontiers Under Fire (Zed, 1991).
Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan (Zed, 1992).