Despite the daily horror stories emerging from the Syrian conflict, one constant silver lining has been the steady growth of the autonomous Kurds. The largest stateless population in the world, some twenty-eight million Kurds inhabit the region of Greater Kurdistan, a geo-cultural area stretching across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Traditionally oppressed in all four countries, Kurdish separatists now see the war against the Islamic State as a unique chance to carve out the beginnings of an independent republic.
Whilst none can boast of full independence, the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the Kurds varies across the four states. In Iraq, once the scene of Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks on Kurdish civilians, they now experience a reasonable amount of freedom. Iraqi Kurdistan is the only one of the four to have been officially declared autonomous by central government, and is likely to strengthen its hand following a referendum this September.
The Syrian Kurds have never received such recognition, but have seized a degree of autonomy by taking advantage of the mayhem in northern Syria. In Turkey, home to by far the largest minority, the Kurds have only recently been able to reverse decades of oppression and have now formed mainstream political parties.
Lastly, there are the six million Iranian Kurds, whose support for the 1979 revolution evaporated once the Ayatollah’s government turned against them. Things have only worsened since then.
Suffice to say the situation of the Kurdish people is far from ideal. However, the chaos caused by the civil war and the rise (and fall) of IS has shaken up the positions held by each regional player. Wherever the war has hit hardest, the Kurds have found themselves in ascendance.
In Iraq, where their autonomy is constitutionally guaranteed, they have only increased their bargaining position by assisting the Iraqi Army’s campaign against IS. Despite calls for national unity from both the US and UK, the Iraqi Kurds seem more than willing to boost their power in September’s referendum. Considering that a referendum in 2005 resulted in 98.8% of voters backing Kurdish independence, it seems likely that the recent successes of Peshmerga forces will only increase that support.
The situation in Syria is less assured. The Kurds have long populated the northern region known as Rojava, but it was only once Bashar al-Assad’s forces lost control that they were able to declare de-facto autonomy. Despite drawing up a constitution based on gender equality, religious freedom and direct democracy, the self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is yet to receive international recognition. However, their success against IS in the key battles of Kobane and Manbij has resulted in greater US military assistance. With American backing and a strong fighting ethic, the Kurds have been able to hold off attacks from IS, the Assad government and even Turkey, which invaded northern Syria last year in an attempt to push both jihadist and Kurdish forces back from its border. However, a complex alliance system means that US assistance is limited, and without it the Syrian Kurds may struggle to hold out once IS has been defeated.
Iran and Turkey are, due to their relative stability, less likely to shift in favour of Kurdish self-determination. Tehran has never been particularly interested in its Kurdish minority, tending to swing between ignorance and active repression depending on the circumstances.
Turkey’s approach is far more brutal. The Turks have fought an on-off war against the Kurds for decades, only seeking to reintegrate the ‘mountain Turks’ into mainstream society in the early 2000s. Despite some EU-driven reforms, Ankara continues to attack the Kurdish HDP party, and used last year’s coup as an excuse to renew its efforts (despite Kurdish opposition to the coup). If that wasn’t enough, Turkey’s NATO membership and Mr Erdogan’s newfound love for Russia mean repression is likely to go unpunished by the major powers.
It would seem that the best chance the Kurds have of forging an independent future lies in Iraq. Iraq remains the only regional power committed to Kurdish autonomy, and its relative instability means the Kurds can actively gain ground from IS without feeling threatened by central government.
Syria may offer a bloodier path to self-determination, as the chaos of war gives the Kurds a shot at autonomy, if not virtual independence. However, the Turks have made their views clear, and it is not hard to imagine the Turkish and Syrian armies turning on the Kurdish militias once IS are defeated. Then, unless they could retain US support, the Kurds would most likely be overrun.
Herein lies the crux of the matter: the possibility of Kurdish autonomy, let alone independence, is too heavily reliant on Western military backing. There is a danger that, once they have fulfilled their use against IS, the Kurds may find their Western allies all too happy to leave them at the mercy of regional autocrats, thereby burying another generation of Kurdish separatism.