27.01.2014 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

The role and importance of the Kurds in geopolitics of the Middle East Part 2

100413_0The Democratic Union Party (DUP), and its military wing, is maintaining closest contacts with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (commonly known as the PKK) of Turkey, whilst the Kurdish National Council – with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq. The Kurds of Iraq and Syria cooperate in the field of security along the common border and humanitarian assistance for refugees. The President of Iraqi Kurdistan acts as a mediator in bringing together various political forces of Syrian Kurdistan and provides his territory for the negotiations and forums of Kurdish political and social organisations.

The year 2013 also brought about some positive changes in resolving the Kurdish problem in Turkey (over 20 million Kurds). The government of R. Erdoğan managed to reach agreements in principle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on a phased peaceful resolution of the conflict. As is known, the PKK leader is serving a life sentence in prison, and the party itself has been included in the list of terrorist organisations in Turkey, the USA and a number of other countries. The PKK militants based in the hard-to-reach mountainous areas at the junction of the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian borders have been waging a guerrilla war against the Turkish authorities for many years. The road map envisages ceasing the fire and all hostilities, withdrawing the armed groups of the PKK from Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan, introducing amendments to Turkish legislation recognizing the rights of the Kurds and other ethnic minorities, releasing Kurdish political prisoners, including Abdullah Öcalan, from prisons, legalising the PKK and granting amnesty to all its members etc. The first phase of the road map was completed successfully, but the implementation of its next phases was put on hold, mainly because of the sharp escalation of the internal political situation in the country. It should be borne in mind that many Kurds as full Turkish citizens have already become Turkish parliament deputies, whilst the pro-Kurdish parliamentary Peace and Democracy Party (commonly known as BDP) enables to legally defend the rights of the Kurdish minority.

The Iranian Kurds remain in the most difficult situation: some of them are continuing their armed struggle against the ruling regime and thereby provoke the authorities for further repressions, even group executions of Kurdish activists. Iranian Kurdistan, which includes Kurdistan Province, Kermanshah Province, West Azerbaijan Province and Ilam Province, has a Kurdish population of about 7–8 million people, or 9–10% of the total population of Iran. The Kurds also live in northern Khorasan and north-eastern Iran, major administrative centers (Tehran, Sanandaj and others). By religious belief, a considerable number of them are Sunnis, but they are also represented by other branches of Islam and the Yazidi.

Modern Iran as a unitary state does not recognize ethnic minorities and prohibits setting up organisations based on ethnic considerations; any Kurdish movement has to build its activity on an illegal basis. The IRI’s Kurdish movement is fractured and does not constitute a single political whole; the structures that it consists of and their leaders are competing and feuding with each other for ideological reasons. However, most of them agree that the only possible way for them to change the situation is to overthrow the Islamic regime with the help of weapons, since their chances for creating the Kurdish autonomy peacefully are very slim. According to information of the Kurds themselves, in recent years, about 10,000 of their fellow tribesmen have been subjected to repressions, hundreds of leaders of Kurdish organizations and activists were executed, others were imprisoned or forced to flee abroad.

In the Kurdish opposition, the leading role is played by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) headed by Mustafa Hijri since 2006. At the present stage, the PDKI proclaims that the main objectives of its struggle include the establishment of a democratic, independent and federal Iran, the realization of the right of the peoples of Iran to self-determination, the socio-economic transformation of Kurdish areas, equality of men and women in society and in the family, the separation of religion and the state. The PDKI rejects all forms of armed struggle and considers constructive the consolidation of all the interested political forces abroad which can have a meaningful say on the Kurdish issue. The party’s leadership believes that the West is merely trying to use the national contradictions in Iran in its own interests in order to speed up the change of regime in Tehran, whilst the discriminatory sanctions imposed by the West have the most negative impact on the Kurdish population.

In Iran, there are also other, smaller, Kurdish parties of a nationalistic nature. Presently, the only Kurdish group continuing its armed struggle against the Iranian regime is the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is regarded as a branch of the Turkish PKK. In 2009, the USA included the PJAK in its list of terrorist organizations.

Due to the fact that the other ethnic minorities of Iran, such as the Baluchis, Gilakis, Arabs and partially the Azerbaijani, share the Kurds’ ambitions regarding autonomy, the agenda now also raises the issue of creating a single national front with a view to continuing the political struggle for establishing a pluralistic authority system in Iran. In Iran, with the accession to the presidency of H. Rouhani, who is trying to pursue an accommodating policy and weave between different political currents within the ruling clergy and political elites, the likelihood of the implementation of consistent, evolutionary reforms in the field of national policy is increasing. The Kurdish leaders are at least hoping for the termination of the persecution of their political parties and the launch of a dialogue with Tehran. In the same context, they are considering the initiated processes for establishing a dialogue between the IRI and the USA. In their view, Washington should not limit its demands only to Iran’s nuclear programme, and it should also insist on a review of the whole set of issues related to ensuring human rights in the country, in general, and the rights of national minorities, in particular.

Thus, the role and importance of the Kurds in the political life of each country with compact Kurdish population are growing steadily. It seems that the period of silencing the Kurdish problem or trying to resolve it by force and discrimination against the Kurds on ethnic grounds is coming to an end. Authorities of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria have to increasingly comply with their Kurdish minorities, which are getting stronger, and are trying to resolve the arising contradictions and conflicts with them in a peaceful manner. The Kurds are encouraged to participate in the work of central and regional authorities, measures are being taken to accelerate the social and economic development of the Kurdish enclaves, they are allowed to create their own political parties and social organizations, introduce education and the mass media in the Kurdish language etc. Of course, the process is progressing in each of the above-mentioned countries unevenly, but the overall trend towards the recognition of the legitimate rights and freedoms of the Kurdish ethnicity prevails.

As for the Kurds themselves, at the level of the national idea or slogan, they continue to advocate for their national independence and the creation of a Kurdish state, but, considering the objective reality that has emerged to date, they are not demanding an immediate secession from the existing countries with compact Kurdish population. Moreover, given the secular nature of the Kurds and their tolerance towards representatives of other ethnic groups and religions, it is the Kurds who have been playing a bridging role in Iraq and Syria, which are currently falling apart, and who have supported R. Erdoğan’s positive steps and reforms in Turkey – it cannot be ruled out that H. Rouhani can count, to some extent, on the support of the Kurdish electorate in his future political struggle against the conservatives. It is generally recognized that it is the Kurds who can become a reliable stronghold and a kind of restraint against the further expansion of the radical Islamist groups in the region.

At the same time, we cannot rule out the possibility of new attempts on the part of external players to play the “Kurdish card” in their national interests by provoking them into taking up arms under separatist slogans against the central authorities. Today, such a threat exists in Syria and Iran, where the opponents of the ruling regimes represented by the USA, its Western allies, the Persian Gulf monarchies, Turkey and a number of other countries are seeking to ensure, at all costs, the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and thereby to further isolate Iran in the international arena. However, it is unlikely that the Kurdish leaders, who have certain negative experience of contacts with representatives of the Western democracies, will agree to continue playing the role – assigned to them by Washington – of a “match” which can set the region ablaze at the right moment on instructions from the other side of the ocean.

Stanislav Ivanov, senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Candidate of Historical Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.