What’s The Deal With Kurdistan?
The 101 on Kurdistan & Why It’s Important You Know About it.
Many of us may have heard the news that the Turkish Military have launched an attack on the city of Afrin, in Northern Syria – some of us may even see it as just another development in the Syrian civil war and the fight against Assad. But, it’s much more than that.
Afrin, a city that lies on the northern border of Syria and Turkey. It is a multi-ethnic region but is regarded as part of the greater Kurdish family, and has been in Kurdish hands administratively as well as militarily throughout the war in Syria.
In this post I will aim to break down as simply as possible why the attack on Afrin has occurred, who the Kurds are, why they are stateless and who fears or indeed supports a free and united Kurdistan.
Where is Kurdistan?
When we hear ‘Kurds’ or ‘Kurdistan’ in the news, it can be a little confusing. No globe or map will illustrate the boarders of this nation, but the Kurdish people live across South Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, Eastern Iran and a handful of boarder towns and provinces in Syria.
For many years there has been oppression of the Kurds across the nations in which they live. Many Kurdish people want freedom and independence from the nations which their lands are encompassed by, but face fierce resistance from those nations; as many of the regions that the Kurds call home have some of the largest reserves of natural resources in the Middle East. Estimations show that if Kurdistan achieved freedom and unification that it would lie within the top 10 nations of Oil & Gas producers in the world.
But it’s not all about natural resources for the Kurds. The Kurds have had principalities and claims to stake for their lands since before the 6th century all the way through to the Ottoman Empire and the of course the present day; long before the lure of ‘Black Gold’ guided the path of international relations.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are a separate people entirely from Arabs and Assyrians. They have their own unique culture, dress, language and international history. The Kurds we hear about most in Western news are the military groups fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq – most notably the many fearsome female soldiers (YPJ).
YPG - The YPG are a militia mainly made up of Kurds in the north of Syria, fighting against ISIS, and now with the invasion of Afrin, the Turkish as well. Many international volunteers from the West have joined the YPG or female led YPJ fighters. The YPG, by instruction of the USA and the West in general, have encouraged more moderate Arabs and rebels to be fostered into the YPG, in order to take down ISIS strongholds such as Raqqa.
Peshmerga – Peshmerga soldiers are the official military forces of the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Alongside the YPG/J they have been a formidable force when battling ISIS forces who have been wreaking havoc across the Middle East. They have both operated within Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria as the boarder had been effectively dismantled and disrespected by ISIS and now by the U.S and European forces who provide air cover for the Kurdish and rebel fighters across Iraq and Syria.
Turkish PPK – The PPK are a little different from the Peshmerga and YPG/J as they operate in Turkey, where over half of the Kurdish population currently live. Their aims and regional operations are not as closely linked as the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria.
In Turkey the PPK are regarded as a terrorist organisation because they have fought against the Turkish state for the rights and autonomy of Kurds within Turkey. Many PPK fighters and activists were inspired into resistance against the Turkish state after the suppression and discrimination against Kurds in the region. The Turkish State had even banned/ criminalised the Kurdish language from being spoken, Kurdish names were also banned - singing Kurdish folksongs or dressing in their traditional costumes was also made illegal. Many arrests and incarcerations took place even for some of the lesser infringements like singing or dressing in their own clothes.
From the 1980’s up to the present-day, innumerate PKK members and Turkish Kurds have been killed or displaced as the Turkish forces have decimated entire Kurdish villages and towns. It is estimated that well over 2 million people were displaced by these actions.
Their status as a ‘Terror’ group remains a deeply divisive issue. Many Western nations currently have them listed as a terrorist organisation. An argument for why this may be the case is that the Western world would like to see Turkey westernised and resist the nationalistic and increasingly authoritarian political landscape under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Recently the European Courts reviewed their status as an alleged terrorist group and questioned the justification for their categorisation as terrorists. It was suggested that they be removed from the terror lists, however, E.U politicians dismissed this ruling, and the PKK remain listed as terrorists despite the advise of the courts.
Do the West support Kurdistan & why?
Whether the West support the Kurds and Kurdistan in general, can on the surface appear quite confusing. Naturally the West want to have as many allies in the region as possible, particularly those with a shared interest in destroying ISIS and those with anti-Western views and values – however the support given Vs what is said, is often at odds. The Short answer to this question is a “Yes”, but in a non-vocal way. Below are some of the reasons why, and what the West are doing to keep a foothold within Kurdistan, Militarily, Politically and on a ‘soft power’ level.
Trade, Oil & Gas – Kurdistan, despite the wavering political voice of the West have always, generally, been supportive of the U.S and Europe. Having this ally is particularly important when it comes to access to trade within the region, particularly for the supply of natural resources such as Oil and Gas. If the Kurdish people were to gain independence they would be one of the worlds largest producers of Oil and gas and have significant power and influence.
Although U.S Oil policy has tried to move away from dependence on foreign Oil & Gas dependency, having access to these markets is incredibly important; particularly for the Europeans, firm allies of the U.S.
During the 1970’s, in reaction to Western support of Israel over the Yom Kippur War, Arab and Middle Eastern Oil producing nations raised the price and put an embargo on oil to USA and the West and utilised for the first time ‘the Oil Weapon’ to influence international affairs and punish any nation who gave aid or military support to the Israelis. It was clear from that point on who the enemies of Israel and the West were.
Ensuring that a Western friendly nation with access to the Mediterranean Sea and therefore Europe, would be a significant strategic win for Western nations and ensure a stable future without reliance on hostile nations that include Iran and to an extent Turkey and Russia who could use this ‘Oil/ Resource Weapon’ to dominate international politics in their favour to implement financial, military and cultural supremacy over Western nations and its allies.
State-building & Military Support – Regardless of actions taken by the Western world towards Kurdistan, there is no real doubt there is support. Yes, the U.S have tried to appease the Turks by stopping the flow of weapons directly to Kurdish military groups in the past months but it has not stopped them from pouring money into other areas, such as infrastructure, property and the building of governmental/military facilities in Kurdistan.
The U.S State Department has announced that contracts have been issued to build a consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The consulate would be a diplomatic hub, community connection suite and would also house residencies and accommodations for U.S Marines. Similarly, more military bases through the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan are being erected. The new US base will mark the fifth of its kind in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Even civilian building is underway by American and Italian companies who are building ‘Mini America’ villages across Erbil. Homes and communities mimicking the American Dream, with white picket fences and all the trimmings are being speedily developed.
The blending of both hard and soft power here is a real indicator that there is support for Kurdistan despite the withdrawal of outward and overt support because of the geopolitical tension with Iran, Turkey and Russia in Syria.
it is however important to note that although the U.S claims to have stopped the supply of weapons and denies supplying heavy artillery there certainly are ways for governments to supply and arm groups in an indirect way. This can be done by arms flowing through a ‘middle man’ - for example Saudi Arabia.
It may also be facilitated by other means, as was well detailed in Iraq. Many Isis fighters got hold of U.S military vehicles, artillery and ammunition through battle with the Iraqi Army and the allied groups that they supplied. Also, because the U.S and Europe have been operating in the Middle East for many years, it has become somewhat of a scrap yard for surplus or old equipment that has been left behind once forces move out of an area. How deliberate these methods of weapon supply are is of course impossible to verify, however, the CIA have done crazier things.
2017 Referendum – In September of 2017 the Kurds (Northern Iraq) decided to hold a referendum on independence; and much like the situation we have seen in Europe regarding Catalonian independence, the Iraqi government declared that this vote was illegal. The Kurds however proceeded to continue with this vote which resulted in the Kurds voting for independence in a landslide.
Many international bystanders were quiet or gently disparaging of the referendum, mainly for stability reasons within the region, so did not vocally support the vote. The only nation that outwardly support the active strides towards an independent Kurdistan is Israel.
Israel has good relations with the Kurds and see the creation of a Kurdish state as a bulwark against persecution in the region from religious extremists and theocracies, such as Iran, who largely believe Israel should be wiped from the map.
A free and Independent Kurdistan would also be an oil rich nation which would have significant economic powers, meaning that an alliance between Israel and the Kurdish nation would serve to protect Israeli interests, and gain ‘friends’ in the region.
Who Are The Enemies of The Kurdish People & Why?
Syria – Syria did not support the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, the Syrian Kurds also maintain they wish to remain part of a “Decentralised” Syria where devolution of power is given to the Kurdish regions, but not independence.
However, with the Invasion of Afrin by Turkey, it is clear to see that the ‘rescuing’ of the Kurdish population from the aggression of the Turk’s only serves to solidify Assad’s power and further and weaken the position of the Kurdish people.
As no other nation has come to the aid of the Kurds in Afrin, Kurdish people are forced into an alliance with Assad; which is dangerous for both The West and Israel because it weakens their power in the region and by proxy, under the umbrella of a united Syria, pushes the Syrian Kurds into a forced alliance with Iran and Russia who are grave enemies of The West as well as enemies of freedom, democracy and tolerance.
Turkey – Having a thriving Kurdish semi-autonomous state on it’s boarder is naturally going to rattle the Turks. The assault on Afrin is purely about internal Turkish goals to retain control over their large Kurdish population who are bucking against the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is focused on re-islamification of Turkey and suppressing liberty.
Kurds in Turkey, as detailed above, have suffered innumerate horrors and face imprisonment for resistance, just like many other Turks who oppose, protest or speak out against Erdoğan. Language used by Erdoğan could not be more emphatic. He said that "Our mission is to strangle it before it is even born", when referencing the Kurdish people's wish to live as a devolved part of Syria (Rojava).
Letting Kurds live freely, in peace while retaining their own culture and operating as a democracy in Syria and Iraq will mean when democratic referendums do come around for independence and autonomy, the Turks will lose land, income and have a boarder with a Western friendly nation who oppose the direction of Turkey; as they become increasingly corrupt, criminal and authoritarian.
Russia – When it comes to Kurdish independence Russia couldn’t give a damn. Their main goal in the region is power and a seat at the table with The West, as well as securing their economic future.
They are ensuring their goals not only by providing military support which is in the favour of big powers such as Iran, Turkey and Syria, but by massive investment in many Arab nations.
Russia has amped up development and trade with countries like Lebanon, effectively trying to usurp the influence and power of the U.S and Europe who have been investing and giving aid to the Lebanese for years.
By having a foothold in Middle Eastern Oil producing nations they have a trading base and influence over the ‘Oil Weapon’ (as discussed above).
With a plethora of allies and power to wield Russia can execute their own aims in Central and Eastern Europe. Europe and America would be powerless should Russia begin the annexation of Ukraine and a repossession of old Soviet states.
Iran – Iran, much like Syria and Turkey aren’t demonstrably in favour of a Kurdish state. Kurdish calls for freedom and independence will mean the Kurdish regions in North-West Iran will undoubtedly want unification with their brothers and sisters. This breakaway could put significant stress on an already precarious Iranian state who are battling against protests from disgruntled citizens wanting an end to the misogynist, murderous and theocratic regime currently in power. A Kurdish uprising could be used as a catalyst for a democratic and secular revolution, potentially sparking a civil war which would give Israel, their sworn enemies, more leverage in the region.
With all the information at hand, making a decision about whether or not to support a free and independent Kurdistan is a simple one. To support Kurdistan means to support and promote liberal, tolerant, Judeo-Christian values against theocratic, murderous and brutal ideologues or dictators. Allowing the likes of Russia, Iran and Turkey have global supremacy will lead to an erosion of all that is good about Western Civilisation and the peace and tolerance of the modern Western world.
Europeans such as Britain and France do also have a duty towards the people in the Middle East. After the Sykes–Picot Agreement, where many ethnic groups missed out on becoming free and self-determining nations due to oversight and the ‘politicking’ of the day.
Overall, the question boils down to ‘do we support freedom, democracy and tolerance?’ or ‘do we support authoritarianism, brutality and discrimination?’