When the oppressed and marginalized die because they are oppressed and marginalized, the powerful are to blame. – John Green on the refugee crisis It has become routine to demonize the Middle East.
Conflict-ridden and with no end to the hostilities and tragedies in sight, the tendency is to see the whole region as a failed one.
Although this glass-half-empty attitude is understandable, it is in fact dismissive and obtuse for the following reasons: it undermines the abilities of the Kurdish forces to defeat Islamic State, particularly the Peshmerga in Iraq, and it disregards the remarkable potential for a pro-Western, democratic and secular state – a Kurdish State.
The estimates vary, but there are about 25 million Kurds across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, and these people represent the largest minority in the world without a state. Up until now, the geopolitical situation of this turbulent region has prevented them from becoming a nation in their own right. Nevertheless, as it stands, Islamic State in its various forms (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh or Judean People’s Front) has virtually erased some borders within the Middle East.
Additionally, the governments in Iraq and Damascus have been critically weakened and this has allowed the Kurds to exploit the opportunity and come to the fore as legitimate and important political actors.
The last time Kurdish independence was discussed meaningfully was in 1919 under the Treaty of Sèvres, when the British and the French divvied up territory within the Middle East and drew the borders for what we now know as Iraq. Arguably, the reason for the failing of this negotiation was that it did not take into consideration the two proposals made by Kurdish nationalists as to how the state should look and instead proposed one based in Turkish Kurdistan only, which, naturally, was vehemently opposed by Ankara. Furthermore, despite League of Nations findings that Mosul and Kirkuk were Kurdish, these territories were left to Iraq. Ultimately, the treaty was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) and the Kurds were given little to no opportunity by those holding the purse strings to influence the shaping of the region. Perhaps it is time they were actually given the chance they are owed.
It is no secret that the Kurdish forces in the Middle East have comprised the ground forces in the fight against Islamic State and consequently have born a significant number of casualties. Yet their progressive efforts are widely unseen. Despite receiving military aid from European Union countries such as Estonia, Croatia, Denmark, UK and Germany, who provided them with the MILAN anti-tank missile, they are still being out-gunned by Islamic State due to shipments being small or never even reaching them. This is truly bad form: the Peshmerga indisputably merit much more established and continuous backing, otherwise Islamic State will succeed.
The PKK (7,000), YPG (50,000) and Peshmerga (200,000) were vital in the November 2015 Sinjar Offensive, which marked a real turning point in the war. Their motivation to defend their identity has inadvertently made them allies of the United States and Britain, and has made them of interest to other armed forces present in the region, such as Russia.
However, there remains a divide in the approaches of the Peshmerga and YPG and their allies, PKK, which has terrorist status in many countries, including the US, as does the PJAK (the Iranian wing of Kurdish resistance). The labeling of such groups has become more convoluted along with the blurring of the borderlines.
Although the US was backing the rebels in Syria, they have recently been linked to the PKK by the Turkish government.
Turkey’s particularly uneasy relationship with its Kurdish population – 20 percent of the whole – and in fact, with all Kurds is amplifying the problem.
Turkey even bombed its own Kurdish area in 2014 because the government deems the PKK to be more dangerous than Islamic State, which really plants seeds of doubt as to the Turkish government’s ability to exercise reasonable judgment.
In the meantime, the PKK thinks that Erdogan’s government is secretly supporting Islamic State.
Whether this is true or not, Erdogan’s nationalist government has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant. The Economist suggested that in order to diminish his hold and see a real political shift in the country, Turkish people should vote for the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the next elections. This certainly would push things in an interesting direction.
The issue is further complicated by Russia’s military intervention in Syria as this, expectedly, has had repercussions across the region: they have demonstrated support for Assad through air strikes, and then the Kurds through ammunition supplies. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Kurds (YPG) in particular have benefited from this, given that their political wing, PYD, now has an office in Moscow.
For the time being, because we know how temperamental certain balding leaders who are inclined to reassure us of their manliness can be, the Kremlin is supporting a Syrian Kurdistan, called Rojava. However unclear Russian President Vladimir Putin’s real intentions are, it seems that both he and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan are responsible for creating a humanitarian crisis on the Syrian-Turkish border that will push Europe into action.
Iraqi Kurdistan is the exception in this complex region. Since the implementation of the no-fly zone and the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has blossomed. In 2006 the regional government passed an economic investment law supporting free trade and foreign investment, because they recognized that without this financial support the likelihood of becoming a state would diminish.
Moreover, these Kurds, who are moderate Muslims, have shown a level of maturity that is severely lacking in many parts of Europe through including Arabs, Christians and Kurdish Jews, as well as encouraging gender equality. Since the war against Islamic State began, the Kurds have welcomed Christians and newly, Yazidis who are fleeing persecution and killing from the extremists. The Kurds’ inclusive model could eventually be expanded throughout all Kurdish territory.
It is equally important to note that Kurdish ideology is based neither on terrorism nor on finding paradise through the killing of themselves and others with old Soviet weapons, a trait that really should be commended through concrete action from the West, and potential foreign investors.
The question is: what will the Kurdish State look like? Iraqi Kurdistan has a GDP of $23 billion; if the Kurds were to gain independence of the total area, it is estimated that the country would have a GDP of $133b., which is the same as Hungary, more or less, which would come mainly from oil sales primarily and then, taking into account their aforementioned support for free trade, would then expand. This is far from insignificant. Alternatively, the most simplistic form of a Kurdish State would be one without including the Turkish side. In other words, northern Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish Iranian territory would make a nicely shaped federal model for a country, too, but as has been established, this is simple and naive. Although they do not share political beliefs – and not many of us do with our fellow countrymen – they share a language and an ethnicity.
To conclude, come what may these people have a right to self-determination after defending both their identity and indirectly upholding our safety.
To assume that regional crises have no impact on a global scale is simply delusional.
Ultimately, the issue is not whether a Kurdish state will be formed, because it already exists to some degree, but what will happen with the neighboring countries afterwards. This state and its people’s efforts to defend their identity and democratic values should be robustly supported. Instead of allowing chaos to exist and trying to rule over it from a distance, our governments could approach this situation constructively and fairly, keeping in mind our esteemed values, so that a stable and stabilizing state can be built and a necessary partnership can be formed.
The writer is an Estonian Member of the European Parliament.