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.
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”. 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.
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.
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. 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”.
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?
 “Syrian Kurds in Iraqi meeting call for self-determination,” BBC Monitoring International Reports 2012.
 Michael Rubin, “Are Kurds a pariah minority?,” Social Research 70, no. 1 (2003).
 Shlomo Avineri, “Self-Determination and Realpolitik,” Dissent 52, no. 3 (2005).
 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)