What now for Kurdistan?

To even begin to guess at what might happen next, we need to understand what is happening now in the areas around Kurdistan.

WHAT COMES next for the Kurdish region. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WHAT COMES next for the Kurdish region.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s a traditional end of the year question, but also a question that is being asked a lot at the moment as events in the surrounding countries shift almost daily. Things that may have been true as little as a week ago may not be true today, and almost certainly will not be true a week from now.
To even begin to guess at what might happen next, we need to understand what is happening now in the areas around Kurdistan. We need to work out what events such as the sudden withdrawal of US troops from Syria might mean for the future, as well as looking at domestic issues.
At first glance, the withdrawal of US troops might not look like much, since there were only ever a few thousand personnel on the ground anyway, and many of Kurdistan’s other allies will still be involved. However, the nature of modern warfare means that troops from the most technologically advanced nations can sometimes have an impact that is far from proportionate to their numbers.
Then there is the question of the move’s symbolic value. Syria became a battlefield in a proxy war reminiscent of the Cold War, with American troops on one side and Russians on the other. Only the presence of a third, common enemy kept it from being a direct confrontation by proxy. The US pulling out signals to Russia that it has carte blanche to do what it wants in the wider Middle East.
Other players in the international field, such as Turkey and Iran, may feel the same, and that may be particularly dangerous given their feelings about Syria’s Kurdish rebels. Turkey has already declared that they will be buried in ditches (in imagery reminiscent of war crimes the world over), while Iran no longer seems to be constrained by hard talk from the American side, now that the potential build up of anti-Iranian feeling there has started to fade.
Since 2010, it has been a worry to me that this conflict would rumble on and become dangerous to Kurdistan. Back then, it was a relatively small conflict, and there were plenty of younger Kurdish observers who wanted to believe that there was no chance of it being more. They had not lived through conflicts, and they did not know how easily they could turn into something bigger.
More than that, they did not understand the dangers inherent in the area; dangers that have turned it into a regular ground for conflict. Without addressing these issues, it seems hard to see how Kurdistan can ever get away from conflict. There are issues of Iran’s desire to express its regional power, focusing on a mixture of religion and resource acquisition in which one is often disguised as the other. There are genuine divisions over religion, and over the distribution of oil; always oil. There are the fears of the larger powers around Kurdistan that instability, or worse, a successful independence movement, might trigger the same in their own lands. There is the fact that figures truly committed to independence are unlikely ever to give up on it.
Worse, history teaches us that this is the dangerous moment. This is the moment when a Kurdish ally has withdrawn support from one group of Kurdish fighters, effectively leaving the way clear for Turkish, Syrian and other forces to attack them. As harsh as it sounds, that might not be a problem for Kurdistan if it were only those forces in Syria that were at risk, yet there is always a risk of contagion with this kind of conflict, forming a real potential for it to spill over Kurdistan’s borders as it has before.
One real problem is the uncertainty over US actions in the near future when America’s president seems to make a virtue of his unpredictability, and is very open about his wish to put America’s interests above all else. He is not the kind of man to be persuaded by the humanitarian arguments for keeping troops in place or withdrawing only once the situation is settled. As to what else Donald Trump may choose to do, that is anyone’s guess.
Does America as a whole plan to sell Kurdistan’s hopes down the river for the benefit of its other allies? That is harder to judge, but the case from history suggests that it would have no problem doing so. At the same time, Kurdistan faces a new prime minister and president combination, politics that are still largely fragmented, and an uneasy relationship with the Baghdad government. Any one of these factors might be enough to bring about a conflict, but Kurdistan seems to provide new potential sparks for the flame every day.
There are even risks beyond Kurdistan. Its ally, Israel, is protected in part by the limitations to Iran’s ability to strike at it. If Iran is able to act freely without the buffer of Kurdish held areas of Syria, wouldn’t that produce a much greater threat?
It is not enough, though, to point out the threats without at least suggesting some of the solutions. Obviously, those involved could sit and hope that the US decides to act more slowly, and making sure that the job is done in Syria, but that seems unlikely.
Instead, if the PKK finds itself faced by Turkish forces in Syria, I suspect that it must consider pulling out of Syria completely. It does not have the strength to take on Turkey, Syria and the Russians. Receiving a few weapons from the US to fight IS does not make them allies, and they are not protected by them. They have to realize that they have a humanitarian duty to both the civilians on the ground, and to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, both of which could be dragged into any conflict.
Within Kurdistan, we have to keep up the possibility of meaningful political engagement. It is possible. Our politicians are able to meet with people today who just a few months ago were calling for their imprisonment or execution. This is a time for talking and for peace, not for building up a conflict that could prove disastrous.
The writer is a student of law, an author, a political activist, a member of the British Association of Journalists, and founder of news site The New Mail. His books include The Idea of Kurdistan and Kurdistan: Genocide and Rebirth, which was an international book awards finalist in 2015.