Monday, September 5, 2016

The Kurds, against all odds - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Kurds do not receive the same support and attention from the international media, nor the same affection that "enlightened circles" across the planet generously grant the Palestinians

Between 30 million and 40 million Kurds live in the Middle East, from Iran in the east to the Syrian coast in the West. It is not a unified tribe; there are many political differences, and cultural ones as well, that divide the Kurdish communities in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. And yet, over the past century a national identity has blossomed to unite them, in the name of which they seek the right to self-determination and even the right to live in their own nation state.

The 20th century, however, was a failure for the Kurdish struggle, even when other artificial states with no historical roots were created from nothing, such as Syria or Iraq, which are now shattering to pieces. 

It is fair to say the Kurds played a part in their own failure to secure an independent state, due to their lack of unity around the question of leadership. At the same time, though, one cannot ignore the fact that the Kurds do not receive the same support and attention from the international media, nor the same affection that "enlightened circles" across the planet generously grant the Palestinians. The world does not stand with the Kurds, and that mainly applies to global powers that have used them to advance their own interests but abandoned them in the moment of truth. And we can assume that in the future as well, the Kurds will again be left to their fate. 

Here we have a large ethnic minority which is undeniably unique in both its history and culture, and yet is supported by no one in its struggle to receive its own state. It is quite possible that the Kurdish dream of a state will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future. 

For many years, the Kurds in Iraq fought the dictatorial Saddam Hussein regime, but they were only able to carve autonomy for themselves after the Iraqi state disintegrated. This autonomous framework exists in large part due to the goodwill of Washington, which needs the Kurds because they provide the only trustworthy foundation in the Iraqi sphere, certainly in regards to the war against Islamic state. Ironically, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also supports the Kurds in Iraq, as part of his fight for regional hegemony against Iran, which is supported by the Shiites in Iraq. 

The Kurds in Syria are currently in the eye of the storm. For years, their relationship with the Baathist regime was respectful yet suspicious, and when the revolution erupted they chose a policy of sitting on the fence. After all, from the beginning they never had faith in the Syrian rebels, who just like the President Bashar Assad regime opposed their nationalistic aspirations in Syria.

Aided by the chaos in Syria, the Kurds have tried benefiting from all worlds. They are cautiously venturing to form autonomous institutions, while their militia is fighting to secure territorial continuity in the north, with aim of establishing a true autonomy there similar to the one that exists in Iraq. This endeavor, of course, was a call to arms for Turkey, which is fearful of Kurdish sentiments in Syria spilling over the border, and whose relationship with the Kurdish population at home is already at a boiling point.

Thus the Kurds are maintaining a dialogue with the Syrian regime and with the Russians, who want to use them to hit the Syrian rebels -- Arabs supported by Turkey and Arab states. Meanwhile, Washington has also come to their aid, coldly calculating that the Kurds can be used to fight Islamic State. As usual, however, when it comes to the Obama administration, American policy is shortsighted, merely capitalizing on a tactical and perhaps cynical opportunity that could end in the abandonment of the Kurds when American interests call for appeasing Turkey; or as part of a deal with Russia and the Assad regime to end the war in Syria.

It appears the regional and global game is too big for the Kurds. When they are called to the table once the fighting ends, they are liable to discover they were invited to be part of the menu, not a fellow victor to feast on the spoils of war. But this is the painful reality in our region, and the Kurds are one of the more prominent examples of it.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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