Writing in the aftermath of the 1990 Gulf war about the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey
and Iran, David McDowall was quite pessimistic about the prospects of Kurdish
nationalism, saying: “One must doubt whether Kurdish nationalism can ever
prevail against three hostile governments willing to apply ruthless methods to
contain the challenge.”
Paradoxically enough, McDowall’s assumptions were
based on his intimate knowledge of Kurdish history, which taught him that the
20th century was indeed one of the worst periods in the Kurdish people’s annals.
However, events at the turn of the 21st century tell a different story: The
convergence of regional and international transformations together with the
crystallization of a strong national movement in Greater Kurdistan made the
crucial difference between the two eras.
To evaluate these tectonic
changes one should examine them against the background of the changing paradigms
among the Kurdish, regional and international players and to highlight the
causes for these changes.
CHANGING PARADIGMS The image and self-image of
the Kurds in the 20th century was that they were the ultimate victims of modern
history; that “they have no friends but the mountains”; that they are inclined
to tribalism and fratricide; and that they are passive actors being cards to
play with by others. However, by the beginning of the 21st century they have
metamorphosed from victims to proactive players and game-changers in the region.
Moreover, the Kurds have managed to internationalize their cause and mobilize
support in Europe and other parts of the world.
In the past the Kurds
lent themselves to the central government’s policy of divide and rule both
between the Kurds within one state as well as between Kurds of the different
countries. The most glaring examples were the progovernment Kurdish auxiliary,
the juhush in Iraq and the korucu in Turkey who fought against their Kurdish
brethren, or the PKK of Turkey which fought against The KDP of Iraq. Now it
seems quite unlikely that a new civil war among the Kurds will occur.
dynamics of the 20th century were such that there were fears that the
achievements of one part will be at the expense of the others. This may no
longer be the case. In spite of ongoing rivalries and competitions the
achievements of one part may empower the others since now, the borders are
porous, and the mutual influences are much quicker and profound than before.
There is now also a Kurdish center in Iraq.
Concurrently with the changes
among the Kurdish players there were changes in the states themselves. The ethos
of the nation-state has suffered a severe blow. Iraq is split into two parts,
the Arab part and the Kurdish part, where a quasi-state was established. In
Syria the collapse of the state triggered the establishment of a Kurdish
autonomous region resembling in a way the Kurdish autonomous region established
in Iraq in 1992. In Turkey the state had to give up the idea of a Turkish state
for Turks and is now conducting a peace process with its fiercest enemy, the
PKK. As to Iran, behind the façade of a nation-state, the non-Persian ethnic
groups, most importantly the Kurds, are only waiting for a trigger to challenge
this hegemonic state.
Throughout, the states attempted to delegitimize
the Kurdish national movement by labeling it a terrorist organization that
should be put down by force. Recently, however, they began to internalize in the
most agonizing way that it is in fact a national movement with which they should
find a modus vivendi. Similarly, until not too long ago the states cooperated
with each other against the Kurds. Now this seems almost impossible due to the
transformations in the region and the changing geopolitical map. The most
glaring example is that Ankara forsook its longstanding anti-Kurdish alliance
with Baghdad for the sake of an alliance with the KRG against Baghdad.
the same time there were changing paradigms in the international arena as well.
In the 20th century the Kurdish issue was considered a domestic problem in which
the international community and international organizations were reluctant to
interfere. However, by the beginning of the 21st century this taboo was broken.
In Iraq, for example, many countries are developing relations with the KRG
against the will of Baghdad.
With regard to Turkey the solution of the
Kurdish domestic issue became part and parcel of the EU’s condition for
accepting Turkey into its fold. In other words there formed a Gordian knot
between Turkey’s relations with the EU and the Kurdish domestic issue. In Syria
too the PYD, the leading Kurdish party, which controls the autonomous region,
had managed to publicize the Kurdish cause in Europe where its leaders are
personae grate in many capitals. Interestingly, unlike the PKK, its mentor, the
PYD is not considered a terrorist organization either by the EU or the
Another important development was that at the turn of the century the
international community no longer upheld the notion of the sanctity of
Thus, between 1990 and 2010 the number of states in the world
grew from 151 to 192, most of which arose through secession. Thus, it is
possible to say that in the 21st century there has been legitimization of new
entities and states.
THE CAUSES FOR THE CHANGE The main trigger for the
change was the coming of the Americans to the region in 2003, namely the war on
Iraq, and their departure at the end of 2011.
This American move can be
compared to the coming of the British to the region in the aftermath of World
The common denominator in the two cases is that they triggered the
opening up of the region’s geopolitical map – with one major difference, namely
that in the American case it was an unplanned consequence of the war on
The other important causes for the change were the three
interrelated revolutions, namely the revolution of the new media, the Arab
revolutions, and the Turkish revolution with regard to its relations with the
Kurdistan Regional Government and its capital, Irbil.
revolutionary conceptualization of the KRG may be described thus: While in the
past Irbil was perceived as part of Turkey’s internal Kurdish problem, now it is
being perceived as a partner to a possible solution. No doubt economic interests
were a main driving force for Turkey’s new approach.
Linked to this is
the attractiveness of Kurdistan to the outside world because of oil and gas.
While the prospects of finding oil in the Kurdistan region had at the end of
World War I moved the British to annex the oil-rich Kurdistan region to Iraq,
the attraction of this same oil to global companies has assisted the Kurds,
maybe unintentionally, to begin disengaging from Iraq in the 21st
Another crucial factor is the role of the Kurdish diaspora,
which is becoming engaged, politicized and a power to be reckoned with in the
articulation of Kurdish nationalism and its goals. Yet, the most important
factor is the growing assertiveness and cohesion of Kurdish nationalism in
AT A CROSSROADS, YET AGAIN The situation of the Kurds
at the beginning of the 21st century resembles to an extent that of the early
20th century. In the aftermath of World War I and the division of the Kurdish
homeland into four parts the Kurds were at a crossroads.
Will they be
granted independence as promised in the Treaty of Sevres? Will they have
autonomy in the new Turkish state as promised by Kemal Ataturk, or will they be
assimilated in the emerging new states? The latter alternative was the one which
they did not choose but that was imposed upon them by the states for the next 80
At the turn of the 21st century the Kurds are standing yet again
at a crossroads, facing similar dilemmas and question marks. Will they have
independence in the Iraqi part? Will they have an enduring autonomy in Syria? Or
will they resign themselves to being equal partners in the Turkish and Iranian
states? For all the similarities there are huge differences between the two
While in the first case they were divided and separated, now the
borders and the dividing lines are blurred. While in the first case other forces
and players were acting upon and deciding for the Kurds, now the decision making
has gradually shifted to the Kurds. While in the first they were cut off from
the outside world now they are much more visible and vocal.
purporting to predict the future, the following conclusions seem fairly certain:
The pace of progress is likely to be different in each of the parts of Greater
Kurdistan, but the synergistic effect will continue to reverberate.
KRG is expected to move forward toward independence. As for the Kurds of Syria,
they stand to hold on to their autonomy because they are much better organized
than the other groups and because of their fait accompli on the
Regarding the peace process between Turkey and the Kurds, it
might face a lots of ups and downs, because the Turkish public is not ready yet
to accept the notion of Kurdish nationalism, because the government might use
the Kurdish card for tactical reasons and because the Kurds themselves are quite
bewildered with the sudden changes and do not have clear-cut goals. Whatever the
results of the peace process, it will be difficult to turn back the wheel on it.
As to the Kurds of Iran, they are greatly influenced by the developments in the
other parts but they are waiting for the tectonic shift to reach
All in all, the Kurds have learned in the hard way how to deal with
governments and not be solely the proverbial card manipulated by them. The Kurds
are now on the map, but much depends on them if they manage to use this momentum
to alter the geopolitical map to their own advantage.
The author is
senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv
She is the author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State
within a State.