Kurdish Independence Aspirations Raise Red Flags in Middle East

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The Kurdish issue is one of the most intricate political jigsaw puzzles for anyone to fully comprehend, let alone solve.

The Kurds are spread throughout the Middle East, causing problems to host countries and in return, they are being affected by the governments of those countries.

An estimated 40 million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia. The Kurds constitute almost one third of Turkey’s population, making up 25 million out of the total of 80 million. Eight million live in Iran, while the rest are divided among other counties. Like Iranians and Armenians, the Kurds are of Indo-European stock, while the rest of Turkey’s population have descended from Central Asian invaders of the region.

Through the last century, Armenia has been the only country which has recognized the ethnic and cultural rights of Kurds, both during the Soviet era and after independence.

Throughout their history, the Kurds have never enjoyed a sovereign state, although they have aspired to and struggled for it. Having lived under different regimes and geographically distant areas have left their impact on Kurdish aspirations and have divided them around their common goals.

The Kurds have been used against the Armenians by the Sultans and then by the Ittihadist government of the Young Turks during the Armenian Genocide. The Hamidieh Units, which were the most ferocious persecutors of the Armenians, were mostly composed of Kurds.

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Successive Turkish governments have exploited the Kurds to usurp Armenian property and wealth as well as sow religious fanaticism, as the Turks and Kurds belong to the same sect of Sunni Islam. It has been only after the emergence of the Kemalist movement that the Kurds realized the historic mistake they committed against the Armenians by willingly becoming accessories to the Turkish designs of ethnic cleansing.

Since the establishment of the Turkish republic, the Kurds have rebelled 27 times and their insurgence has been crushed ferociously each time, especially during the 1930s rebellion of Dersim.

Kurdish political leaders have apologized to the Armenians on every possible occasion but the collective amends may come once the Kurds attain their independence or autonomy.

The Treaty of Sevres of 1920 finally recognized the rights of the Kurds for an independent homeland and codified it in its Article 64. But like the Armenian rights in the same treaty they were superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne, which became the basis for the founding of the Republic of Turkey.

One of the outcomes of the Iraq war was the emergence of the Kurdistan Regional Government though technically it remains a part of the fragmented Iraq.

During the war, the Israelis set up shop in Iraqi Kurdistan, and among the regional leaders, only Benjamin Netanyahu has officially called for Kurdish independence. That allows Israel to have an ally on Iran’s border and prevent the emergence of a revanchist government in Iraq in the mode of Saddam Hussein.

Turkey, although worried about the overall Kurdish presence in the region, extended its conditional support to the Kurds in Iraq benefitting from the illegal pumping of the oil from the Kurdish area but above all, pitting the Kurdistan Regional Government against the PKK, which has been waging a national independence war within Turkey for the last three decades.

President Masoud Barzani recently held a meeting with political parties in the Kurdistan Region when it was announced that the region would hold a referendum on September 25 that would also include “the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration.”

The announcement raised red flags all over the region, suddenly rallying around the same position countries which otherwise have conflicting agendas.

Predictably, the first reaction came from the central government in Baghdad, which claimed that the entire population of Iraq must have a say in determining the destiny of one region in Iraq.

As long as the Kurdistan Regional Government was doing business with Ankara and was fighting its brethren in the PKK, the Turkish government considered it a docile ally. But the declaration of independence altered the equation and jolted the leaders in Ankara. Turkey called the plan “a terrible mistake,” saying that Iraq’s territorial integrity and political unity was a fundamental principle for Ankara.

Just to illustrate how duplicitous Ankara’s concern over Iraq’s territorial integrity is, it suffices to mention that as of this moment, Turkey is violating its neighbor’s sovereignty by maintaining its armed forces in that country, against the vehement complaints of the Baghdad government.

Over and above the principled statements about Kurdish aspirations, Ankara is worried about the ripple effect of the independence movement and also, it identifies a real threat of Kirkuk being incorporated in the Kurdish region. Kirkuk has most of the oil reserves in Iraq and Turkey has set its eyes on the region for a long time. Already, a fifth column of ethnic Turkomans inhabiting the area are seeking Ankara’s support in any emergency.

Ankara and Tehran don’t see eye to eye, but there seems to be a confluence of interests in the Kurdish events: “The Kurdistan region is part of the Iraqi Republic and unilateral decisions outside the national and legal frameworks, especially the Iraqi constitution … can only lead to new problems,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on June 10.

During the previous regime, Shah Reza Pahlavi was not more merciful in his treatment of Kurdish minority. After the fall of the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini inherited the mantle of his predecessor in suppressing the Kurdish insurgency in Iran.

Tehran is worried like Ankara that an independent Kurdistan next door may fuel Kurdish aspirations at home. Additionally, Iran has virtual sway over Iraq, ruled currently by a Shiite regime. With Kurdistan’s independence, a piece of territory will be chipped away from its influence and may switch to an opposing camp.

Saudi Arabia has seldom made a public policy statement about Kurdish independence but it is surprising that the kingdom has joined the foray by becoming an advocate for Kurdish independence. However, the motivation is very transparent; during the recent Saudi-led coalition fallout with Qatar, Ankara switched its allegiance from the Muslim Coalition, so carefully crafted recently by President Trump, and sided with the besieged Qatar. Thus, Riyadh is rebutting Ankara while at the same time serving its strategic ally, the US, and secret ally, Israel.

The US has yet to comment on the issue. Some sources have revealed that the State Department has shown sympathy towards Kurdish national aspirations.

Today, there are many theories floating about the Kurdish referendum. One school of thought suggests that independence movements succeed in such fluid political situations extent at this time in the Middle East.

Another theory contends that the declaration is a political gambit by the Kurds to incorporate Kirkuk within their territory in any future deal with the central government in Baghdad. But an expert on the region, Nahwi Saeed, believes that incorporating Kirkuk into Kurdistan is considered a red line by the Arabs and Turkomans. “Any unilateral attempt by the Kurdistan Region to cross the red line will lead to violence,” says Mr. Saeed. And Turkey will not be a passive onlooker in that case.

Therefore, Kurdistan has two choices: either seek independence without Kirkuk, which is less perilous, or try to incorporate Kirkuk and rally all the enemies of independence together and block the way.

Whether Iraqi Kurdistan attains independence or not, the Kurds in Turkey will press for their rights. The independence of Kurds in Iraq and Syria, which is already a fact of life, will accelerate the process in Turkey, should the latter still harbor dreams of joining the European Union.

One may wonder what the fallout would be for Armenians in the wake of the Kurdish independence movement. That partly depends on evolving developments but also what course Armenia and Armenians around the world choose. When the National Delegation was active during the Versailles negotiations, it contacted Kurdish leaders in Europe to coordinate policy. That initiative also had the blessing of the government of the First Republic. This course was adopted despite the fact that the Kurdish atrocities were very much alive in the memories of those present. When the Sevres Treaty was abandoned, the two groups dropped their official cooperation.

Today, when the Kurds are struggling for their independence, Armenian support goes a long way — above all, political support as well as any other support.

Once the Kurds attain their autonomy or independence in Turkey, it will be relatively easier to deal with them rather than the Turks, especially if we pay our dues today.

Currently the Kurds have been inhabiting historic Armenian territory. It is not realistic to expect them to abandon it for our sake, after spilling so much blood. But it is within reason to expect that independent Kurds would be amenable to come to an accommodation with Armenians to preserve our heritage for us and for humanity.

But first, let us find out where all the red flags against Kurdish aspirations would lead.