“The Kurds, the Kurds, the hapless Kurds”

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UN special envoy Kofi Annan acknowledged last weekend that efforts to find a political solution to the Syria conflict have failed. Russia, meanwhile, is circulating a draft resolution that seeks to extend the UNSMIS mission for another 3 months, which to some (Russia & China) means one more shot at finding a political solution, while others (US, France, UK) would see this as prolonging the crisis at the cost of the civilian population – for them, a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, allowing for diplomatic/economic sanctions and/or military intervention, is the way to go.

Another Libya-style intervention might help remove Assad from power and accelerate regime change. A compromise might see a transitional government made up of representatives of the opposition and members of the Assad administration, though neither side seems to favour that option. The opposition is by no means unified, which would make any future discussions on a transitional government with or without Assad’s representatives all the more daunting.

Last week, at a meeting of opposition groups in Cairo, Kurdish delegates walked out, claiming that without official recognition of the Syrian Kurds, they would only continue to be marginalised. At a conference in Iraq earlier this year, overseas Syrian Kurds had called for self-determination.[1]

The Kurds represent approximately 9% of the population in Syria. Kurdish minorities further live in Turkey (app. 18-20%), Iran (app. 7%) and Iraq (app. 17%), totalling between 25 and 40 million people across the Middle East. They refer to themselves as “the largest people without a nation”.[2] Kurds share a culture, history and language, though even here differences exist and the narrative of a Kurdish identity is not representative of historical realities.[3]

Kurdish groups have long advocated for their own autonomous territory, Kurdistan. A Kurdish state was within reach after the Ottoman Empire faltered, but subsequent regional power plays overrode the opportunity. Iraq’s autonomous province Kurdistan nowadays comes closest to a Kurdish homeland, even allowing for some degree of foreign relations independent of Bagdad. In Iran and Turkey, the Kurdish minority is still subject to ongoing repression and discrimination. Also in Syria, where the Kurds experienced repression under subsequent administrations, the relationship with the Arab majority is unlikely to improve overnight due to historical antagonism.[4]

The question of Kurdish political rights seems unique in that the Kurds cover a territory that includes four sovereign states, where one’s sovereignty was arguably infringed not too long ago, another’s is currently up for discussion at the UNSC, and yet another might be subject for renegotiation if US hardliners get it their way. Turkey has no reason to worry about foreign interference, yet Ankara might still be concerned about any Kurdish assertiveness in a future Syria. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been a threat to Turkey’s security for some time. Yet one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and the Kurdish struggle for self-determination in Turkey also takes many non-violent forms.

According to Avineri, national movements need geopolitical allies, else they fail.[5] He suggests that every war for national liberation is intertwined with realpolitik. Since the Kurds lack powerful allies, the ongoing political reshuffling in the Middle East might leave them out in the cold. Iraqi Kurds have achieved some level of success. As unlikely as it may be, a consolidation of Kurdish political rights in Syria might provide a boost to Kurdish dreams of independence in Turkey and Iran. Time for a Kurdish Spring, maybe?

An independent Kurdistan encompassing the Kurdish territory across national boundaries seems out of the question – this is not Timor or Sudan, too many voices and interests are involved. Moreover, the Kurds are everything but united. But if a future Syrian government does not concede some level of self-governance to Syrian Kurds, this could sow the seeds of future ethnic conflict. The Kurds are well aware of this ‘historic opportunity’, but the divisions within the Syrian opposition, and even within the Syrian Kurdish minority according to one writer have “all the hallmarks of an Iraq”.[6]

What role, if any, should the international community play in matters of minority rights? In view of current Middle East political reshuffling the ‘Kurdish question’ seems a good place to start. Surely there’s no straight answer, as the 2000 documentary Good Kurds Bad Kurds – No Friends but the Mountains shows. Is it, as Avineri claims, all realpolitik in the end? Why has the UN been so consistently silent on the plight of the Kurdish people? Is it plain ignorance or part of an organisational hypocrisy that runs through the institutions that we like to believe can make the world a better place?


[1] “Syrian Kurds in Iraqi meeting call for self-determination,” BBC Monitoring International Reports 2012.

[2] Michael Rubin, “Are Kurds a pariah minority?,” Social Research 70, no. 1 (2003).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shlomo Avineri, “Self-Determination and Realpolitik,” Dissent 52, no. 3 (2005).

[6] Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel, “Syrian Kurds dare not waste historical opportunity ” The Kurdish Globe, 10 July 2012 2012.

Title: Mike Moore. “The Hapless Kurds.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 55, no. 2 (1999)

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2 comments on ““The Kurds, the Kurds, the hapless Kurds”

  1. A Kurdish spring? The Kurds have lots of springs. The territories occupied by the Kurds contain the sources, headwaters and upper reaches of the Middle East’s two main rivers: the Euphrates and the Tigris. Most people in Syria live along the Euphrates River and the coastal plain. Should the Kurds use all or most of the water upstream for dams and irrigation, millions of Syrians would be affected. Iraq would be even more affected given both the Tigris and Euphrates pass through Iraq and provide the only sources of water. A kurdistan nation could literally turn Iraqi taps off.

    Turkey is key to the equation since the largest part of Kurdistan is in Turkey. Like Syria and Iraq, water is an issue. Turkey has an extensive dam system to make use of Kurdish water resources. The US has a number of major military bases in the country and therefore doesn’t want to upset Ankara. The American people may sympathise with the plight of the Kurds, but unfortunately Washington has no desire to rile Ankara which wants Kurdish water and wants the protection afforded by the Kurdish plateau and mountains. I heard from Kurds in Iran last year that the Kurds in Iraq have their own state in all but name. With support of the Americans, they have their own governance structures and even big shopping malls thanks to overseas aid. They told me the real sticking point to an independent state was Turkey-US relations. I’m sure Tehran wouldn’t appreciate losing most of its western flank either.

    Perhaps this partly helps explain why the UN has been so silent on the issue. Unfortunately for the Kurds, the West has little appetite to upset Turkey, Syria and Iran or fan wider regional instability. The UN, for better or worse, is based on the nation-state system and the view of the majority of a nation-state is what tends to form the official policies of that country in the UN, not those of the minorities. The UN is simply hamstrung by the system.

  2. henning says:

    Thanks, Clinton, for the response. I was not aware how big an issue water is in the Kurdish question, but it certainly adds an interesting dimension to questions of minority rights more generally, as there is an undeniable correlation between minorities and resources – many of the most resource-rich regions are often also those with the lowest HDI and the highest frequency of human rights violations, including Mindanao, Papua and Pandora.

    I agree that the UN, despite all the rhetoric, is an unlikely actor in asserting minority rights so long as these rights conflict with the national interests of member states. As I suggested in response to Frass’ blog on UNSC reform, this would make regional representation an interesting alternative in order to detach national interests from human security concerns, though I’m not too sure how such a model could or should respond to a crisis as the one we’re currently witnessing in Syria. Ultimately, unpopular decisions will quite likely be construed as serving certain political agendas and national interests.

    The interests of the Kurdish nation might soon be served from an unlikely quarter, though. I just read a commentary by James M. Dorsey published today via RSIS.1 In it, Dorsey points out that the ongoing insurgency has sparked moves for an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. If ever this was to materialise it could potentially create a volatile situation along Turkey’s borders with Syria, as the PKK would have a welcome retreat from which to prepare launches against Turkey, he continues.

    However, I was also not aware of the close ties Turkey entertained with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership and the substantial investment by Ankara in the autonomous region, in an attempt to pre-empt Iraqi Kurds from fostering similar demands for autonomy in Turkey – a rather odd policy, it seems, but Turkey must have had some grounds to go on. Syria, however, provides a different challenge and it is unlikely that Ankara could nurture two autonomous Kurdish regions across their borders all the while their current minority policies remain in place.

    Dorsey speculates whether a Turkey embracing a pro-active Kurdish policy could contain the potential for further conflict and moves for autonomy or independence. All aspects considered this might not be too far fetched. Unforeseen circumstances have led to surprising outcomes before. The ball is in Turkey’s court now but for the time being it appears as though they might concede an own goal.2

    1 James M. Dorsey. “Turkey and Syria: The Kurdish dilemma.” RSIS Commentary 143/2012.
    2 “Tensions Rise as Turkey Continues Offensive Against PKK.” Voice of America, 3 August 2012.

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