by Eldar Mamedov
It is a well-known truism that politics often makes strange bedfellows. One of the latest examples is a budding alliance between the leftist Kurds, or at least organizations claiming to represent them, and the neoconservative hawks in Washington. Increasing tensions around Iran and Turkish aggression against the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria cement this new relationship. The common denominator is the demand for a long-term commitment of the United States to stay as a hegemonic power in the Middle East.
As reported by Muhammad Sahimi in LobeLog, leaders of Komala and Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDPI), two leftist Iranian Kurdish parties, recently traveled to Washington to discuss ways to destabilize the Iranian regime. Already in 2012, the KDPI demanded a no-fly zone over the Iranian Kurdistan, so that the Kurdish fighters could attack the Iranian security forces without fear of retaliation. In 2018, it repeated its call for “regime change” in Iran.
Komala and KDPI’s ideological brethren from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main political/military organization of the Syrian Kurds, demand a no-fly zone to protect against Turkey as a response to the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. They enjoy support of many in the West, especially on the political left in Europe. This is not surprising: harrowing images of atrocities committed by Turkey and the allied Sunni Arab extremist groups naturally spur clamor for action to prevent a bigger massacre. Such impulses also derive from the overall sympathy for the Kurdish “Rojava project”: in a region beset with authoritarianism, conservatism and fundamentalism, the outwardly libertarian, female-friendly socialism of Rojava is seen, at times somewhat uncritically, as an appealing, progressive alternative to the status-quo.
Unfortunately, such feelings, understandable though they are, should be set against the hard realities of the region. No-fly zones resonate with the Kurds because they were very effective in stemming Saddam Hussein’s aggression in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, demanding them against Iran and Turkey makes little sense. No-fly zones were imposed on Saddam after he was defeated in a war. This is not the case of Iran and Turkey. Both are functioning states with capable security forces, and control their territories. The only power militarily capable to establish no-fly zones is the United States. Yet, under the President Donald Trump, the U.S. is relocating from the immediate region. The manner in which this relocation is executed is both disorderly and dishonorable. But demanding a full reversal and military re-commitment of the U.S. to the Middle East ironically puts these leftists, who spent much of their political lives denouncing “American imperialism,” on the same page as Washington war hawks. They should be wary of such bedfellows, because the hawks’ sudden interest in Kurds has more to do with geopolitical than humanitarian concerns.
Turkey and Iran are two middle-sized nationalist powers in the region. Indeed, both seek to challenge an American-led regional order pivoting on Saudi Arabia and Israel. Stymieing these ambitions is, by default, a geopolitical imperative for those who wish to safeguard the American hegemony in the Middle East. In this sense, playing up an ethnic card to weaken geopolitical adversaries makes perfect strategic sense. After all, no one in Washington was interested in the Kurds in the 1990s, when, particularly under the premiership of Tansu Ciller, the Turkish state waged a war against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Mass human rights violations and atrocities were committed against Kurdish civilians. However, Turkey was only criticized mildly then, if at all, as it was considered a key Western ally, a friend of Israel, and a foe of Iran, while PKK was seen as a bunch of Marxist terrorists.
Not only are Kurds seen as mere pawns in the hawks’ geopolitical games, but what’s worse is that their encouragement gives the Kurds false hopes. This repeatedly has led them to over-reach, resulting in backlash from regional states. This happened with the ill-fated independence referendum in 2017 in Iraqi Kurdistan, and again in Syria in October 2019, due to a strategic miscalculation of the SDF leadership. For months, Russians were mulling the prospect of a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government. The Kurds, however, hesitated, because Americans reassured them of their continued backing. In the end, the Turkish invasion pushed SDF to accept a deal with Damascus anyway, but from a dramatically weakened position.
Given these precedents, a real friend of the Kurds, rather than demanding an indefinite U.S. military intervention, would promote a regional cross-state and cross-ethnic reconciliation. The future of the Kurds lies in the Middle East, and it hinges on their ability to co-exist with the Arabs, Turks and Iranians, not an American presence. This realization involves relinquishing any separatist or irredentist claims on the existing states in the region.
The regional states, on the other hand, have a duty to address the legitimate concerns of the Kurds and other minorities—if only to immunize themselves from potential break-up in the future. Iranians seem to have understood that—the government opened negotiations with the Kurdish groups, facilitated by Norway.
In Syria, external players, including the EU, should press the Assad regime to safeguard the rights of the Kurds in any future constitutional settlement currently being negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations. Changing the name of the country from Syrian Arab Republic to a more inclusive Syrian Republic would be a symbolic recognition of its multi-ethnic character.
Turkey, admittedly, presents the toughest challenge. Turks have legitimate concerns about the SDF ties with PKK. The West shares those, as both the U.S. and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist organization. However, the security threat posed by the PKK is exacerbated by Turkey’s own repressive policies against its Kurdish minority. The end of the Kurdish “settlement process“ once championed by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strengthened the hand of hardliners in the PKK. There is no reason, however, to believe that some form of reversal to the Kurdish peace process in the future is impossible. Domestically, Erdogan is weakened. Some in his Islamist base resent his toxic alliance with the far right nationalists and the re-born militarized “deep state.” Despite repression, leftist and liberal elements in Turkish society are still strong, and, together with the political Islamists, will play an indispensable role in any future Kurdish process. It may sound counter-intuitive in the current context, but the EU could play a useful role in this process by re-engaging in Turkey’s accession process when the conditions are right. Historically, Kurds and other minorities benefited from closer relations between the EU and Turkey.
None of this offers immediately satisfactory answers to the current Kurdish predicament in the Middle East. This, however, should not absolve us from a duty of realistic long-term thinking. Perpetuating American military presence is not an answer to the region’s manifold problems, including the Kurdish issue. The only politically sustainable solution could come from the peoples of the region themselves. The role of outsiders is to facilitate it, not to manipulate the region’s patchwork of ethnic and religious identities to pursue their own geopolitical agendas.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.