Rise and Fall of the Kurdish Dream

(Damascus, Syria)  Very few minorities in the world, especially in the Middle East, have had their centuries-old dream of an independent homeland go through so many ups and downs, hope and despair, as the Kurds have been through. Kurds themselves bear a good deal of blame and responsibility for their own frustration. Fragmentation, internal conflicts, conflicting loyalties, alliances and affiliations have all served to further complicate the situation. Also local, national, regional and sometimes international factors, as well as personal interests and agendas, however, have hindered or even blocked the formation of an independent Kurdish state.

The Kurdish population ranges in estimates between 26 and 28 million within the historical boundaries of Kurdistan. These estimates include 12 million in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, around 5 to 6 million in Iraq, and less than 2 million in Syria, with another 7 to 9 million living outside these traditional boundaries for a total of 35 million worldwide. Millions have immigrated and settled mainly in Scandinavian and other European countries. The Kurdish dream of an independent Kurdistan lives on, despite recurrent setbacks and disappointments and an increasing feeling, sometimes a paranoia, of abandonment.

The closest they have come so far was the ill-fated referendum for independence from Iraq on 25 September 2017, which called for the creation of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.  The endeavor proved to be unsuccessful, despite Iraqi Kurds voting in favour of the referendum by a margin of 93.25%. Pressure from a number of countries, primarily Turkey and Iran, proved influential in convincing the Iraqi government not to uphold the result.  As a result, Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court invalidated the referendum in November 2017, and ruled the Kurdish movement was unconstitutional, and thus the most ambitious step towards an independent Kurdish province in northern Iraq ended like all before it, in failure.

This sense of abandonment felt by Kurds increased dramatically the Trump administration’s announcement they intended to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. The decisions comes following a series of humiliating defeats suffered against the forces of President Erdogan and FSA militias, occuring in Afrin and points along the Syrian-Turkish border west and north of Aleppo. The mass exodus from the area is indicative of Kurds having put too much faith in American aid, and that they may have chosen the wrong side in this conflict.

With the United States being the main financer, trainer and overall supporter of Kurds in northern Syria, particularly the YPG and SDF militia, the US withdrawal announcement caused Kurdish leaders in northern Syria to panick, and were quickly asking for mediation with Damascus, and asking Hezbollah and Iran to facilitate dialogue with president Bashar Al- Assad’s government.

At least two such Kurdish delegations have visited Damascus recently and held talks with senior officials trying to smooth out differences between the two sides through a compromise regarding Kurdish cultural rights, language teaching and self-rule without any separatist inclinations or endeavours. It is understood that YPG leaders even offered to join forces with the Syrian army and its allies in fending off any Turkish aggression in the north.

This came as no surprise as their blood-stained history with Turkey remains the Kurds’ worst source of threat and insecurity, same as Turkey considers Kurdish militias particularly the PKK and YPG as its nightmarish obsession, and has publicly pledged to wipe them out.

Negotiations have been on and off regarding the handover terms, despite pressure from the US and Gulf countries who have aligned themselves with the Kurds through financial and sometimes military aid to Kurds, encouraging the separatist movements both in Syria and Iraq.  Israel and the United Arab Emirates were the main sponsors and backers of the Kurdish referendum in northern Iraq and the first to acknowledge an independent Kurdistan, separate from Iraq.

Fearing an imminent Turkish onslaught against their semi-autonomous areas in northern Syria, or Rojava in Kurdish terminology, Kurdish leaders even asked the Syrian Army to protect them, expressing their readiness to hand over towns and villages under their control, starting with the city of Manbij, some 80 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, and 30 kilometers west of the strategic Euphrates river, with a population of over 100 thousand inhabitants.

Syrian Kurds should be given credit for joining the fight against ISIS and acknowledged for the fact that they were instrumental in the campaign that defeated ISIS in the northwest of the country.  They fought courageously, men and women alike, against the Jihadi terrorists particularly in the battles for Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab in northern Syria.  But their wars, however, were in defence of their own towns and villages, their own agendas and dreams, not those of Syria, the country that has welcomed them for centuries after they fled Ottoman oppression.  Moreover, Syrian Kurds have risen to the some of the highest echelons of power, including presidential, prime ministerial and ministerial positions.

With president Assad’s determination to reclaim “every inch” of Syrian territory, including the zone controlled by the YPG, and in light of a collective opposition to a Kurdish state by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and of course Syria, the Kurdish dream of an independent entity in the region withers away. Once more, as if history were repeating itself, the new short-lived Kurdish dream might well turn into a chronic nightmare.