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There is an elephant in the room in the Middle East that will resurface once the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are over: the Kurdish issue. It is ever present in Turkey, where the Kurdish uprising is ongoing; it will be in Syria, where Kurdish militias are playing a key role in the fight against ISIS; and it has been dominant in Iraq over the past decade, where Iraqi Kurdistan is a de facto State within the State.

The origins of the problem

The Kurds are an ethnic group with its own culture, traditions and language. They are mainly Sunnis, although there are Shia minorities in Iran and Azerbaijan. They originate from the Middle East. There are about 30/35 million Kurds worldwide mainly scattered across Turkey (15/16 million, around 15-18% of the population), Iraq (5/6 million), Iran (6/7 million) and Syria (2/2.5 million, accounting for roughly 10% of the population). The exact demographic figures are unknown as several countries don’t want to keep a precise count to prevent unrests. The issue is that they are a people without a country. Except for Iraq, they don’t benefit of any form of autonomous rule.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Sykes Picot secret agreement (1916), followed by the Sèvres Treaty in 1920 divided the Middle East along British and French spheres of influence. This initially meant the Kurds could have foreseen a country of their own. But three years later, the Treaty of Lausanne gave in to the pressure from Turkish nationalists that were against the project and had begun transferring non-Kurdish people in Kurdish territories. Ever since, the Kurds have been discriminated and persecuted in the new-born countries, fueling both resentment and demands.

They were persecuted by the Assad regime in Syria where they had no voting rights; by Saddam Hussein who pushed for a genocidal agenda; they are under strict control and marginalized in Iran; they have been persecuted by the Turkish government for decades, Kurdish areas are a de-facto war-zone and anyone allegedly supportive of the Kurds is prosecuted or arrested in the name of the “fight against terrorism”, be they MPs, journalists or activists.

The Kurds in Turkey

Over the years and until the present day, the repression orchestrated by the Turkish government against the Kurds has pushed this minority to embrace an armed struggle that has turned into terrorism against the authorities in Ankara, mainly targeting the military and security forces.

The main group is the Kurdish Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, PKK), a paramilitary formation created in the ‘70s that, at least until 1999, was of marxist-leninist inspiration. Until 1984 the PKK fought a political battle, had representatives elected in Parliament and then decided to pick up arms. Over the last 30 years the PKK’s armed struggle in Turkey has had highs and lows, causing an estimated 40 thousand deaths.

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested in Nairobi in 1999 and was then extradited to Turkey, where he has since been held in solitary confinement on the Imrali island. Ocalan played a role in the secret talks with the government in Ankara that went on from 2008 until 2013, when the PKK announced a truce. The move could have envisaged greater autonomy for Turkish Kurds.

However, the talks and the truce were unilaterally violated by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2015. The bombing of the PKK bases in northern Iraq were dictated by domestic policy needs: Erdogan’s AKP had failed securing a majority in the June 2015 elections, which had seen the pro-Kurdish HDP enter Parliament for the first time. Stirring up the Kurdish conflict once more with the nationalism that followed allowed the AKP to reach a majority in the November 2015 early elections. Who cares if a political victory was scored at the expense of a portion of the Turkish population and has since pushed the country towards a democratic involution that led to the failed coup in July 2016?

Ankara labels as “terrorist” any form of opposition, whether democratic or not, to the regime. The lifting of the immunity for the MPs had allowed the judiciary – strictly under government control after the failed putsch – to indict and arrest several members of the HDP. The same happens for those members of civil society that denounce the growing authoritarianism of the government, or the permanent state of emergency that afflicts Kurdish-majority areas in Turkey and grants the government in Ankara the power to remove local municipalities on grounds of “terrorist support”. However, there is no evidence of ties between the HDP and the PKK, if not their common fight for Kurdish rights.

The return to hostilities has led the PKK to carry out a series of deadly attacks on Turkish soil against government or military targets. The group’s base is in Iraq: in Qandil, where the HQ is located, and in the Yazidi areas of Sinjar. Qandil also hosts Iranian-Kurdish militias from the PJAK and is often the target of Turkish and/or Iranian air strikes. The PKK’s presence in Iraq is the result of the 2013 deal and of Masoud Barzani’s availability to host his Turkish counterparts. Instead, the base in Sinjar came about after Kurdish support to the Yazidis when they were under attack from the ISIS. Joint Kurdish-Yazidi militias now patrol the area. Following Turkish threats, US pressure and facing growing Iraqi hostility, one of the PKK’s leaders, Murat Karayilan, has recently said his group is willing to withdraw from Sinjar.

The fresh wave of violence in Turkey has also fueled the growth of an extremist Kurdish faction: the TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons). The group had refused to participate in the talks with the Turks back in 2004. They have now claimed responsibility for some of the biggest and more gruesome terrorist attacks outside of Kurdish-controlled regions.

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The Kurds in Syria

The civil war in Syria has allowed Kurdish Syrians to liberate themselves from the persecutions of the regime and obtain an autonomous territory. Their umbrella group is the YPG (Popular Protection Units), which is the armed branch of the PYD (Democratic Union Party). Founded in 2003, until 2011 the PYD fought an underground struggle. When the war broke out, they emerged as one of the key groups in the fight against the ISIS and kept at large from fighting Bashar al Assad. By doing so, the Kurds have now control over a stretch of land in northern Syria and at the border with Turkey which has been renamed Rojava, the west, also thanks to US military support. The Kurdish fighters, an estimated 20 thousand men, lead the Syrian Democratic Forces, currently fighting their way to the caliphate’s “capital” in Raqqa. Also fighting with them are the female units made up of Kurdish Syrian women, the IPJ (Female Protection Forces).

Turkey considers the PYD, a leftist, Kurdish and armed group, a terrorist group much like the PKK. Ankara’s rhetoric pushes for the blacklisting of the YPG, a thesis which was not, at least until now, supported by Washington that still considers the Syrian Kurds a key ally.

The Kurds in Iraq

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Kurds have obtained a de-facto independent administration of their region. They have their own military – the 90 thousand Peshmerga have not been integrated in the Iraqi army, and just like the Syrian Kurds, thanks to US military support they have shown to be the most efficient forces in the fight against the ISIS. While there is growing unrest in Iraq, Kurdistan is an oasis of peace.

Iraqi Kurds are politically split between the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) led by Masoud Barzani, that rules over Kurdistan, and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) run by Jalal Talabani, former Iraqi president from 2005 till 2014. The competition between the two parties has seen an infighting that sparked an all-out conflict between 1994 and 1998. In political terms, Barzani is a good friend of Turkey, while Talabani is closer to Iran. The close relationship with Ankara – that postulates the hostility against the PKK and, as a consequence, the PYD – is dictated by close bilateral ties, rich trade deals and oil sales.

In the future, Kurdistan’s autonomy can only be extended to other territories currently not under Kurdish control. The one missing policy target is the takeover of Kirkuk and its vast oil reserves. Facing the opposition from the Shia-led government in Baghdad, the Kurds claim the city that once was predominantly Kurd and that Saddam Hussein flooded with Arabs. The Kurds presently represent less than 20% of the population of Kirkuk, while around 600 thousand barrels per day exported to Turkey are good enough reasons to try to control the city.

Iraqi Kurdistan is facing economic problems and a huge public debt, around 22 billion dollars, owed mostly to Turkey. In the middle of December 2016, PM Nechervean Barzani hosted a conference on the independence of Kurdistan in Dahuk and invited Kurdish delegations from neighboring countries. During that meeting he openly talked about secession, but linked any move to previous talks with Ankara and Baghdad. The Kurdish PM also extended an olive branch to both the Turks and the PKK, offering to mediate between the two.

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The Kurds in Iran

Iranian Kurds also have a long history of struggle aimed at obtaining independence or autonomy. The PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party), a marxist organization, has fought against the regime in Tehran until 2004. Active on the border with Iraq, it is blacklisted by the United States for its affiliation to the PKK. Its armed branch is known as the YRK (Eastern Kurdistan Defense Units). As has happened elsewhere, the Iranian regime has crushed every insurgency, but not with the same brutality as in neighboring countries. Tehran is against any form of Kurdish autonomy.

The future

Now more than ever, the Kurdish communities across the Middle East have a greater chance of their demands being heard, if not solved. If independence is not an option, greater autonomy and rights are. Any further delays could fuel more unrest in the region. The biggest obstacle to Kurdish requests is Turkey’s opposition to any development towards greater Kurdish rights both at home and in neighboring countries. Ankara remains the strongest military power in the region and will have a say in the future assets of the Middle East.

The divisions among the Kurds is another issue. The pro-Turkish stance of Iraqi Kurds is in opposition to the hostility displayed by the Syrian and Turkish Kurds. The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-independent entity goes against the legitimate interests of other Kurdish minorities in other countries. This also implies that there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to Kurdish demands. One has to wait for the end of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and against the ISIS to foresee the future. What is very likely is that, once again, external players will decide the fate of the Kurds.

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