Analysis of geostrategic options for the Kurds in west and south Kurdistan

The Kurds are divided into four oppressor states, two of which – Turkey and Iran – are also key regional power brokers. Divided Kurdish forces have had to work together to survive.

A Syrian Kurd refugee in Iraq 390 (photo credit: Azad Lashkari/Reuters)
A Syrian Kurd refugee in Iraq 390
(photo credit: Azad Lashkari/Reuters)
Experts predict that by 2040, due to climate change, population growth and poor water management, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers will be completely dehydrated. Already, the disappearing water reserves are noticeable and are one of the most important, if not the most obvious reasons for the regional conflicts. However, it is likely that these conflicts will be massively worsened as the struggle for inadequate resources becomes more important.
For the Kurds, this means that they have 10 to 15 years to stabilize their position in the Middle East. Otherwise, they could face scenarios like genocide or diaspora.
The Kurds are divided into four oppressor states, two of which – Turkey and Iran – are also key regional power brokers. Divided Kurdish forces have had to work together as much as possible on many levels to survive.
The Kurds also lack direct sea access, which would help provide the opportunity to build an independent economy. The Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq is dependent on Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The open transfer lines of Turkey to the Kurdish autonomous area, is the reason for the large influence of Turkey on the southern Kurdish area. The closed borders of the three neighboring states – Iraq, Turkey and Iran – would mean that the autonomous area would starve.
Building an economic system in Kurdish areas is essential for the Kurdish freedom movement. This idea was pursued by the PYD/SDF in Syria with the plan to create a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea along the Turkish border. Ultimately, the SDF was prevented from establishing the conditions for post-civil war stability, a prerequisite for the Kurdish freedom struggle.
Turkey had no interest in making the Kurds in Syria economically independent. A corridor to the Mediterranean would limit Turkey’s influence in Iraqi Kurdistan and strengthen the Kurdish areas of Rojava and Bashur with other trading and economic partners around the globe. Turkey’s disruptive actions to weaken Kurdish aspirations include the January 2018 Afrin invasion and its Idlib aspirations.
All four states with Kurdish regions, such as Turkey and Iran, are powerful economically and militarily. Turkey is supported by NATO and Syria by Russia. At the moment, Iran is even in a position to support Syria and Iraq. Likewise, the Iranian-Russian relationship continues to develop. These power structures mean that the Kurdish liberation movement on a large scale requires international supporters.
CURRENTLY, THIS is mainly focused on relations with the US and European countries such as France and Italy. These potential alliances are limited by Turkey’s NATO membership, the country’s strategic importance, its location on the Bosporus and its ability to blackmail European countries through the refugee deal. These states will, in case of doubt, take the side of Turkey, such as in the Afrin invasion. States and nations are more interested in an established nation for a partnership than in an ethnic group that lives in areas that are rife with internal conflicts. After all, Turkey offers many profitable opportunities for investors; the Kurds have no power over the area they live in. The proximity to European countries and access to the Mediterranean facilitate the will to cooperate with Turkey as a European country. Especially states that face an economic crisis or pre-crisis, such as the UK exiting the EU through Brexit, seek to offset the loss of access to the free European market by seeking alternative economic partners and investment opportunities.
But there are differences between the European states. France is increasingly trying to act as an international security guarantor and is in the process of developing its relations with the Kurds. With its slightly greater geographical distance from Turkey, Turkey’s threats to dissolve the refugee deal can also be ignored, much like Italy or Spain. Clever negotiations could to some extent build effective alliances with these states.
It is becoming more difficult with countries such as Germany or Britain, where relatively many Turkish citizens live and maintain close economic cooperation with Turkey. A special case are Greece and Cyprus, which maintain a deep-seated historical hostility to Turkey. With the economic recovery of these countries and calming of the refugee problem, reliable partners could be won here, even if they are not as powerful as some other countries.
Also, Austria is a special case. Its noticeable aversion to the recent political developments in Turkey and the expansion of authoritarian structures keep Austrian-Turkish relations in suspension. Austria is Turkey’s biggest enemy in NATO and the EU. In the last European vote on the promotion of the Turkish entrance talks into the EU, only Austria decided to completely break off negotiations. According to one statement, Turkey is not fit to be part of the European Union because of the expansion of its authoritarian structures, the restriction of freedom of expression and speech and the violation of human rights. By developing Kurdish-Austrian relations, an important and strong political friend can be found here, a political negotiator for the Kurdish-European relations that stands in opposition to the dictatorial aspirations of Turkey.
The most important partner of the Kurds is the USA, on the other side of the Atlantic. With the Iraq invasion and the resulting freedom and independence of the Kurds in Iraq, the Americans have won the sympathy of the Kurds. This friendship between the Kurds and the US government is particularly evident in several bases of the US armed forces in the Kurdish autonomous region, joint military exercises and operations and cooperation in the fight against Islamic State. The biggest flaw in this relationship, however, is the small scope of the Kurdish influence, their inferior economic and political stability and the great expectations of the US in their efforts to expand their influence in the Middle East at the expense of Russia and Iran. The Kurds have too little power in the Middle East to support US aspirations, which is why other existing states are far more interesting partners than the Kurdish autonomous region.
Unfortunately, flawed US strategic thinking has lessened its chance to break Iran’s and Russia’s influence. The crucial point is the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and limited support of the Kurdish autonomy area in the north of Iraq harmed the Kurdish freedom movement. With the Kurds unable to lobby properly, Turkey managed to invade Syria with the blessing of the US, occupy the regions previously exempted from ISIS by the SDF and block Kurdish influence. As a NATO member, Turkey will continue to be more favored than the Kurds. Due to the lack of political strength of the Trump administration, sympathy for the US values and the friendship of the Kurds is not sufficiently appreciated, which means that the US loses an important influence factor and the Kurds do not get a reliable ally.
HOW ARE the alliance opportunities outside the NATO countries? In the Arab world, it will be difficult to find partners. Most of the states are either hostile to the Kurds or, like Egypt, are preoccupied with internal problems. Saudi Arabia has already indicated some degree of readiness for an alliance, but there is always a risk that it may be too drawn into the Sunni-Shi’a conflict line, especially as Saudi Arabia is partially responsible for the spread of Salafists and is pursuing an almost catastrophic strategic policy, which, despite massive investments, has little success in almost all states. The domestic tensions inside the country are also a factor in the increasing instability of the state. Although Saudi Arabia may, to some extent, be a reliable partner, this partnership will not last.
While regional states such as Georgia and Armenia are friendly to the Kurdish liberation movement, they are struggling to work on joining Europe and do not wish to be drawn into the conflicts of the Middle East. In particular, Armenia’s threat to Azerbaijan regarding Artsakh, a de facto independent state in the South Caucasus, is almost entirely focused on its own defense.
An important opportunity for the Kurds could be cooperation with Israel, a prosperous and militarily powerful state with no allies in the region that is virtually surrounded by enemies.
Cooperation with Israel offers significant and realistic opportunities. Israel is the only state that voiced support for the referendum on the independence of the Kurdish autonomous region.
The Israeli-friendly attitude of the Kurds and similar situations are factors for a possible close friendship on a political and military level. With Turkey’s increasing anti-Israel sentiment and Iranian rivalry, Israel is more than interested in a Kurdish state as a buffer for stability in the Middle East. The antagonistic attitude of Turkey and Iran toward the Kurds and Israel therefore provides ideal conditions for close political cooperation. Like the US, Israel is interested in pushing Iranian influence out of Iraq and Syria; cooperation with the Kurds is essential. The Kurdish freedom movement should design a strategy to strengthen Israeli-Kurdish relations, but not build them at the expense of Islam so as not to force other Muslim states into an antagonistic attitudes as hostile as Turkey’s and Iran’s.
THE PERSPECTIVES of important world powers such as Russia, India and China now remain to be discussed. Russia, as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s patron, has proven in the Syrian war that it can act as a loyal and powerful ally. As a geopolitical antagonist of the US, however, one would have to move away from the Americans for a theoretical alliance with Russia. Even then, the question would be whether Russia would be interested in this alliance at all.
India and China, as geopolitical up-and-comers, have not been particularly involved so far. The conflict in the Chinese Sea can be regarded as the first muscle game and could be the starting signal for further international operations. Here, too, the problem is that China, more likely to be seen as a counterweight to the United States, has so far shown no significant geostrategic interest in the Middle East and is likely to prefer to work with established partners.
India has made few major international operations so far. Due to its enmity with Pakistan, which can be counted in the wider range to the axis of Erdogan, here at least it might tend to be sympathetic. If Kurdish authorities succeed in addressing and negotiating them intelligently, an important alliance could emerge here. Since India is still inexperienced on the geopolitical stage and will hardly show any irresponsible arrogance like the US, India could act as a reliable ally, which could be a tremendous advantage for the Kurdish Movement. The difficulty here is to convince India to become active in foreign policy.
In summary, despite powerful opponents such as Turkey and Iran and limited loyal allies at the international level, the Kurdish liberation movement still has possibilities that could be actualized with intelligent moves. In addition, possible future large-scale internal disputes in Turkey and Iran cannot be ruled out, which would create a tremendous opportunity. Excluding Turkey from NATO is unlikely, but would also create significant opportunities that could enable the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Fundamental to this is the unity of the various Kurdish factions as well as the fight against corruption and collaborators. There can and will always be differences of opinion between the Kurdish parties, but they should confine themselves to a political arena and not jeopardize military unity. The future is unpredictable, but you must act strategically if you want to survive in the Middle East.
Manuel Leiti is studying political science in Bavaria, Germany. Passar Hariky is an actor and student in political science in Berlin, Germany.