Lost Kurdistan

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War in Syria has for the second time in the last 10 years breathed life into the Kurdish national movement in the countries of the Middle East (the first time it occurred was after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003). Inhabitants of Western Kurdistan (Syria) are mostly resisting Islamic fighters supported by Turkey, and the “southerners” (Iraq) are cooperating with these militants. The clans of the Iranian Kurds, who are continuing their long-term game under the name “negotiations with Tehran” are meanwhile in a holding position.

Lost Kurdistan

Originally appeared at Odnako, translated by Carpatho-Russian exclusively for SouthFront

The denial to Damascus of centralized control over territories of the Syrian Kurds has become an inspiring example for their fellow tribesmen in Turkey. It reached such an extent that Ankara announced negotiations with their “historical enemy”, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (in the person of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, leaving his life term in Turkish prison). At the same time the Turkish government has decisively quarreled with Baghdad which is extremely dissatisfied with the fact that Turks are buying oil from the Iraqi Kurds in an “unsanctioned” manner.

Significant remote polemics by correspondence flared up recently between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the head of the government of Iraq, Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, who has accused Ankara of incitement of instability in the region. In the heat of dispute, speaking in the lobby at the conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, Davutoglu declared that Turkey has never resorted to “discrimination against various ethnic groups: Turkmens, Arabs, Kurds and various sects” (the current leaders of Turkey constantly ascribe to “sects” the Alawites, an Islamic movement among whose adherents are many representatives of the ruling elite of Syria). The words of the Turkish minister made a strong impression on the Kurds.

“Oppression of ethnic minorities, genocide of Armenians during the First World War, and the genocide of Kurds are facts of Turkish history. Let us at least remember the suppression of Kurdish revolts in 1925 and 1937 when tens of thousands of people died”, declared the adviser of the chairman of the Parliament of autonomous Iraq Kurdistan, Dler Ahmad Hamad. “One would not wish to defend al-Maliki, but in this dispute the Turkish minister is wrong. Al-Maliki can be accused of excessive ambitions and authoritarianism, but as Prime Minister of Iraq, he does nevertheless consider the Constitution which guarantees the rights of all national communities of the country. The Turkish authorities do not have such limitations, since after all according to Turkish basic law all citizens of Turkey are Turks”.

Iraqi Kurds: Barzani’s “feudal lords” against federal soldiers of the Taliban

Cooperation of Ankara and the Kurdish regional government in the area of energy policy was the most thorny question displeasing the Iraq cabinet. Not by chance did Davutoglu hasten to take a dig at his Baghdad opponent who “heads the government rich in in raw material, but which cannot provide uninterrupted supply of electricity to the cities”. “There is tension between the central power and Iraqi Kurdistan concerning distribution of profits from producing and transporting oil”, explains Dler Hamad. According to him, the president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the leader of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK), Masoud Barzani, improved good relations with Turkey through which the local black gold is pumped to the outside world.

Barzani calls Kurdish autonomy “a strategic entrenchment” of the Middle East. His nephew, the prime minister of the Kurdish state Nechirvan Barzani, also is being guided by Turkey, supporting the Syrian Free Army (SFA) and Sunni leaders in Iraq. And here the Secretary General of Jalal Talabani’s competing party Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PSK) whom, let us recall, is the President of Iraq, has to the contrary maintained good relations with Prime Minister al-Maliki although in doing so he is trying not to have a dispute with Turkey. It is not surprising that the 79-year-old Talabani’s illness (at the end of December he had a stroke and was hospitalized in Germany) caused considerable concern in the region. In the Arab press there originally even appeared rumors about the death of the Iraqi president. According to the popular Turkish newspaper “Aksam”, “the balance of forces in Iraq became immediately the subject of active discussion”. Possessing purely nominal functions as the head of state, Talabani until the last moment played the role of intermediary in the conflicts between the center and Kurdish autonomy. When he left the game, in a strange twist of fate, this was especially a blow to his ancient rival Barzani.

From the mid 1970s until the late 1990s, the PSK led by Talabani conducted a hard-fought struggle with the “tribal feudal lords” from Barzani’s Democratic Party, a struggle which quite often led to armed conflicts. Talabani declared himself the leader of the “Kurdish Social Democrats”, Barzani was considered a hereditary clan politician (since after all his father was the hero of the fight for national liberation, Moustapha Barzani). The truce between conflicting groups was decisively concluded only in 1998 with the active mediation of the USA.

It is characteristic that when Talabani came to Moscow in July, 2003 (as the Secretary General of the PSK), he declared in conversation with the author of these lines that the Iraq Kurds have quite good relations with Turkey, but at once made the reservation that “in the northern regions of Iraq there are many migrants from Turkish Kurdistan, who evoke clear interest in Ankara”. “The Iraqi people must decide themselves what to do with them”, he proposed. The emphasis was placed accurately. Unlike Masoud Barzani, the future Iraqi President has examined relations with fighters of the RPK through the prism of federal interests.

Today, of 111 seats in the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan, 59 belong to the ruling coalition of the DPK and PSK, 41 belong to the opposition, and 11 more are reserved for national minorities (Assyrians, Turkomans, etc.). The representative of PSK Arsalan Bayiz presides in the regional parliament. But as his adviser Dler Hamad recognizes, too much in the destiny of Iraqi Kurdistan depends not on political parties, but on foreign oil companies. Responsibility for this lies also on Russia. After all in Kurdistan along with British BP, French Total, and American Exxon Mobile and Gulf Keystone Petroleum, GazpromNeft Middle East B.V., a subsidiary of Russian Gazprom Neft, is actively operating. Other corporations, including from our country, are operating in the region. Masoud Barzani discussed further prospects for Russian-Kurdish cooperation in this sphere, including signing of new contracts, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chairman of the Board of Gazprom Alexey Miller on February 20, during his first official visit to Moscow.

According to some information, 60% of black gold extracted in Iraq belong to Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as adjacent Kurdish areas which are nominally under direct jurisdiction of Baghdad, but actually under control of the authorities in the Kurdish “capital” of Erbil. According to Article140 of the Iraq constitution, the future of conflict regions will be defined after conducting local referenda. But due to administrative confusion and political instability in the country which has lasted past the period of American occupation, this will hardly occur very soon.

Syrian Kurds: a militia against Islamists

An ancient Kurdish proverb says: “Pain in all the fingers is identical, even though they are all different”. Just like in our days: you can make a call to one of the Kurdish cities of Iraq, Syria, or Turkey during evening Mohammedan prayer, and you will hear the traditional “background” prayer of the mullah, at the same time also the characteristic Kurdish speech, and it seems as though you are talking to people from one country. But this is far from true. Life has scattered the Kurdish ethnos into different “national quarters”. And the Iraq Kurds are not now in the most difficult situation: unlike their western and northern colleagues they are at least not at war.

And here in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Ras-el-Ayn (Kurdish name Serekaniye) near the border with Turkey, there have been for far more than a month protracted fights between the Kurdish militia and detachments of the militant Islamic group attacking it, Jabhat an-Nusra (“Victory Front”), a part of the Syrian Free Army. And unlike the Kurds, the Sunni militants have tanks. Where they acquired them is rather a rhetorical question for Middle Eastern experts. As a professor of the Lebanese State University Mufid Koteysh described it to “Odnako”, “Information that Ankara has been delivering modern military equipment to the Syrian insurgents to break through a corridor to the Turkish border has appeared long ago”.

Yes, it is possible to obtain tanks, but it is also necessary to train fighters and organize logistics support, which means not doing so without foreign specialists. And who better than Turkey in those regions knows how to fight the Kurds? Navaf Rageb al-Bashir, the commander of one of the military groups with the magnificent name “Front for the Liberation of the Euphrates” (competitors of an-Nusry in the battle for deliveries of Turkish weapons), in an interview with an Iraqi newspaper recently turned on his patrons, after expressing gratitude to Ankara for their “magnanimous” help.

Certainly, it is difficult to predict how events will develop, but the Sunni insurgents are already trying to build bridges with the Kurds: On February 19 after a week of negotiations the parties managed to reach their first ceasefire agreement.

Assad’s Allies

In November of last year, the different organizations of the Syrian Kurds closed ranks so as to achieve regional autonomy following the example of Iraqi Kurdistan. Moreover, the intermediary in the negotiations between the conflicting groups – the Party of Democratic Union and the Kurdish National Council – was none other than Masoud Barzani. He had earlier secured the support of Turkey, aspiring thereby to neutralize the activity of the detachments of the hated RPK. Neither in Ankara nor in Erbil, evidently, did they expect that the Sunni Islamists would appear for the Syrian Kurds a much more fearsome enemy, than President of Syria Bashar Assad. At the end of January, the Kurdish National Council, uniting 12 parties, addressed the command of the Syrian Free Army with the demand to put an end immediately to the “criminal war”. The statement of the Council emphasized that mercenaries fighting for the FSA were an “obedient tool in hands of Turkey which is pursuing its own goals in the conflict”.

“Between the Syrian Kurds and Assad, there are certain private arrangements. In exchange for loyalty, the President permitted them to control “their own” areas. In the Middle East this has long been an open secret, says Dr. Koteysh from Lebanese State University. — And it is totally appropriate that Kurds from Syria and Turkey are cooperating between themselves. I do not think that the present prime minister of Turkey and the RPK will reach an agreement any time soon, since after all the Kurds insist on self-government, and Erdogan, although representing an Islamic party, is under the influence of old Turkish nationalism. This will be an endless armed conflict”.

The Lebanese scholar is probably right, and “only a comprehensive solution of the issue is possible — as soon as the Kurds achieve success in one of the countries, they will be lifted up in others”.

Turkish Kurds: the Northern Ireland model

The authorities of Turkey did not actually declare complete cessation of military operations against Kurdish insurgents, and the militants of the RPK did not promise to leave the territory of the country. Deputies of the Turkish Parliament, both from the pro-Kurdish Party of Democratic Society, and from opposition Turkish parties, are not tired of declaring this to journalists. For anybody, it is probably not a secret that the “canard” was launched from above — it is simply necessary for Prime Minister Erdogan to save face in the conflict both with “his own”, and with the Syrian Kurds. He seems not a nationalist, but a supporter of Islamization without national distinctions. However, apparently, this is only declared in party manifestos.

According to RPK leadership, the project of Kurdistan as a federal subject as part of Turkey would be the most workable one. In 1997, even before his imprisonment, Ocalan, speaking by teleconference with London, declared that the solution of the Kurdish question could make use of the experience of Northern Ireland. In this regard, it is interesting that in early February the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Peter Robinson met with Masoud Barzani. One of the newspapers published in Erbil even wrote about the “fateful” visit of the Kurdish leader in Belfast. Colleagues not only talked about common issues of national identity, but also discussed cooperation with NATO countries. Note that this occurred at the very moment that one of Barzani’s rivals in the Kurdish movement was serving a life term and the second rival was not leaving a German clinic.

What the present leadership of RPK represents is hard to say. The very fact of its contacts with Erdogan’s government still does not say anything. In the late 1990s — both before and after the arrest of “the head of Kurdish Communists”, Ocalan – I had to go more than once to interview Mahir Valat, the representative of RPK in the countries of Eastern Europe and the CIS. As quite often happens in underground political systems, he was eventually accused of participation in a plot and practically being in the service on Turkish intelligence. The RPK combatants held Valat for 45 days in the Kurdish mountains. To the honor of the local “security officers”, they showed adherence to principles: not finding proof of treachery from their comrade, they released him.

Iranian Kurds: under ashes, the flame is still smoldering

In turn, representatives of the Iranian Kurdish parties in emigration declare readiness to carry on negotiations with the government of the Islamic Republic about returning home, but only if Kurdish rights are recognized and supported. In their opinion, they chose the best “historical moment” for this purpose.

“Every time that the Iranian government mentions its aspirations to conduct negotiations with Kurdish parties, we agree to conduct these negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations, the international community and the president of Kurdistan”, declared Shamal Pirani, the official representative of the Iranian Party of Freedom of Kurdistan, during a time that clashes between militants of the Syrian opposition and a Kurdish militia were being aggravated.

But Azim Hosseini, the Consul General of Iran in Erbil, commenting on the situation to the Iraq newspaper Rudav, said that his country is prepared to conduct negotiations with the Kurdish parties in exile exclusively within the territory. The dispute continues. In any case, as we know from the representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Iran Nazzem Dabbag, nothing is lost yet and a dialogue of Kurds with the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran is quite possible. After all, decades ago the leader of PSK Jalal Talabani, running between the regional capitals and operating including on behalf of the Iranian Kurds, successfully found compromises with Tehran. “In Iran the Kurds are not yet up in arms, but as an old Arab proverb says, ‘under the ashes the flame smolders'”, warns the Lebanese professor Mufid Koteysh.

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