Ocalan, ISIS, and the Future of the Kurds

It has been a busy year for the Kurds, to say the least.

Recently, they have been in the Western spotlight due to their impressive and integral role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). The Kurds have held a 640-mile wide front against an enemy with superior arms and equipment. ISIS, which acquired a significant portion of its arms from the Syrian army, poses an incredible challenge to the Kurds who lack basic equipment like night vision goggles and weapons with armour-piercing capabilities. This has resulted in severe tactical vulnerabilities. For instance, ISIS has adapted to the Kurdish front by using suicide bombers operating lightly armoured vehicles that can drive directly into the defensive line before exploding. The Kurds cannot stop these types of attacks. While they do have coalition air support, Pentagon restrictions mean that aid often arrives too late. Therefore, the Kurds have had to rely on a hesitant, difficult Iraqi government for the majority of their weapons and supplies. But incredibly, despite all these limitations they have made a vital contribution in the fight against ISIS and formed a huge role in turning back the militants in Iraq. Their sacrifices are particularly impressive given the context of their material limitations and history.

Image courtesy of Alan Denney, © 2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Alan Denney, © 2014, some rights reserved.

The Kurds – generally considered an Iranian ethnic group – currently inhabit contiguous elements of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. During the time of the Ottoman Empire, they were integrated and maintained their own collective land known as Kurdistan. However, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and post-WWI negotiations concerning the Middle East resulted in the creation of arbitrary borders that divided and effectively destroyed hopes of a unified Kurdistan. Today, the 40 million Kurds throughout the world are known – somewhat mistakenly – as the world’s largest ethnic group without a state.

Fortunately, the Kurd’s luck appears to be changing due to their role in the fight against ISIS. Their varied sacrifices have caused many in the West to call for greater support and rewards for the Kurds. Understandably, the requests have been varied. For instance, some have called for the radical – and unlikely – creation of an independent Kurdistan in the Middle East. Given the general turmoil in the region, this option is quite unlikely due to the myriad of problems that it could cause. As we know from the festering issue of Israel and Palestine, the creation of a new state can certainly lead to fresh issues. Others have called for more modest initiatives; for example, the removal of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) from lists defining international terrorists or the creation of a federated system in states like Iraq. A federated system in Iraq could provide Kurds with greater political, social, and cultural autonomy without the messiness of redrawing borders in the Middle East. Naturally, this also has the capability to create an influx of new problems. Regardless, the fact that we are discussing these issues is a step in the right direction. Based on the collective sacrifices of their people, it seems like a greater focus and concern for the Kurds has been a long time coming.

Even though an independent Kurdistan is far-fetched considering the issues of the present day, the future looks bright for the Kurds. Last month, the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called for the ending of the conflict between the Turks and Kurdish rebels that has caused approximately 40,000 deaths since the 1980s. Specifically, he called for the disarmament of the PKK and the creation of new “political and social strategies and tactics in accordance with the spirit of the new era” (1). The peace process – based on a 10-point peace framework – has certainly not been free from conflict. Tensions reached their apex this past October when Turkish forces sat by idly while ISIS besieged the Kurdish border town of Kobani. Thankfully, peace talks resumed late last year and Ocalan’s recent call appears to have driven support for the peace process. Given the tumultuous history between the Turks and Kurds, the success of the peace process is integral to the well-being of the Kurds and their autonomy in the region. Rather than continuing their rebel activities against Turkey, the pairing of peace with Turkey and increased recognition from the West could be the perfect combination with which to push for an independent Kurdistan. Or if that is impossible, the Kurds might be able to push for incremental advances for their people within Iraq and Turkey. While there are still multiple issues facing the Kurds, it appears that they are on a promising path that involves directly addressing issues that have plagued the region for decades. Radical change is unlikely in the short term; however, these small steps represent a general trajectory towards collective peace and self-autonomy for the Kurdish people. And that is certainly a step in the right direction.

(1). Yeginsu, C., Renewing Call to End Turkey Conflict, Kurdish Rebel Leader Hails ‘New Era’ in The New York Times (March 21st, 2015).

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