The Kurdish Struggle at a Crossroads

(Originally published on The Diplomacist)

Last year, Abdullah Öcalan, the legendary head of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, agreed to a historic cease firewith the Turkish government, led by AKP-backed Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. During Naroz celebrations just this past week, Erdogan announced the initiation of a more formalized peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state, who have been entrenched in sporadic warfare since the late 70’s, a conflict that has claimed the lives of some 45,000 Turks and Kurds. Since that historic and unexpected rapprochement in 2013, the plight of the scattered Kurdish peoples—the largest ethnic group on earth without statehood—has been heavily influenced by increasingly contentious Turkish domestic politics, the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, and the protracted civil war that has torn apart Syria. Amid these chaotic regional developments, Kurds may be closer than ever to realizing some of their basic aspirations of self-sufficiency and socialized politics, fulfilling at least a portion of Öcalan's utopian vision for a united, Marxist, Kurdish republic.

Given the imminence of this possible victory it is curious that absent from the protests in Istanbul that started in May 2013 were Kurdish activists and masses that in the past have strongly voiced their demands against the Turkish government. This silence can be attributed to the “terrorist stigma” attached to Kurdish activism due to their long and violent history with terrorist and urban guerrilla tactics. A latent racism against Kurds even among progressive elements within Turkish society could have also been at play. However, the state repression that met the largely well-educated, middle class, self-employed, and skilled protestors may have given them a small taste of the systematic brutality that Kurds have had to endure throughout history. This unpredicted reconceptualization may aid the Kurdish struggle for cultural and social autonomy in the years to come.

Along the fraying border of northern Syria, Kurdish groups have chosen a “third way” between the proliferation of anti-Assad militias and rebel groups, many of whom have adopted radical Islamist agendas alongside their more immediate desire to topple Assad’s government, and the pro-Assad government forces. Rather, the Syrian Kurds are taking this opportunity to focus on self-sufficiency in the realms of energy and military security, education, culture and basic social services, and have done so with some significant and well-reported success. Kurdish communities in the region are constantly occupied with defending themselves against Al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as the forebodingly abbreviated I.S.I.S., standing for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who are particularly active in northern Syria and the Turkish borderlands. The region is of particular importance to both the Assad government and the rebels because of its significant oil reserves, which Kurds have been largely successful in securing in recent months. As anti-Assad groups have claimed the refineries through which this oil could be made usable and exportable, Kurds are struggling to find a way to export this vital resource to refineries in Turkey and northern Iraq, where a transitional constitution was signed in January of 2005 to create an autonomous Kurdish democracy.

July of 2012 saw the signing of an agreement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan that would moderate the exchange of crude oil pumped around Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq for refined petroleum products delivered back to northern Iraq via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs along the border north of Syria. The pipeline also serves to supply Mediterranean countries with oil. Recent attacks on the pipeline—54 explosions during 2013, averaging over one a week—by anti-Assad groups have threatened the Syrian Kurds’ oil export routes through Iraqi Kurdistan and back to northwest Turkey, severely jeopardizing the Syrian Kurds' ability to establish economic autonomy. The only other option would be to sell the crude oil to Assad for a highly devalued price, an act that would provoke the ire of the jihadist groups in the area.

Khoshman Qado, a Kurdish journalist and poet living in Qamshili, perfectly summed up this historic opportunity with his statement to Reuters: “We have an opportunity to develop our ideas on social issues, religion, politics. This could become a kind of renaissance for Kurds.” Kurds have endured unspeakable acts of violence and humanitarian injustices throughout the years, from the Safavid dynasty in the 1500s, to Ottoman centralized rule in the 19th century, to the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Armenians pursued by the Young Turks at the turn of the century and their marginalization and repression by the Turkish state throughout the century, Saddam’s anti-Kurdish genocide in the 1980s, to the more recent repressions in Iran. 

If they hold on a bit longer, the adequate space and time for at least a partial realization of Öcalan's utopia may be established. 

From the Kurdistan Photo-Library

From the Kurdistan Photo-Library