The international and regional denial of the Kurdish assertions for their right to statehood, within a specified territory which they claim to have inhabited historically, namely Kurdistan, constitutes the core of the Kurdish Issue. This issue has been further internationalized by Kurdish aspirations for the creation of their own state, and recognition of their distinctive cultural and social traits and political behavior, largely formed by their non-state status as well as the fragmentation of what is seen as Kurdistan among many states (mainly Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). This, in turn, generated problems and questions of various kinds according to the differing historical processes of formation of the state of residence; the different treatment of Kurds by the regimes of these states that has further provoked inter-Kurdish differences regarding the best way to facilitate the Kurdish cause; and the different characteristics of the individual Kurdish movements which also explained the lack of cohesion in the discourse of the Kurdish movement until recently. The perpetuation of the Kurdish issue was aggravated by inter and intra Kurdish differences, reaching its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, and even more by regional and external interference in the Kurdish cause.
The regional states have always feared that any potential Kurdish autonomy could easily be transformed into independence and ultimately lead to territorial disintegration for those states. The keenness thus of regional regimes either to preserve their territorial integrity or to play off the Kurdish issue against their regional rivals determined the status of the Kurds. Kurdish argument for their democratic right to statehood has evolved into the question of whether the Kurds should or would be granted autonomy or independence, thereby reaching its present peak as a problem in need of a radical political solution. We thus understand the complex duality of the Kurdish issue both as an issue and issues.
Along these lines, the role of the Kurdish issue, as the second major issue in the Middle East after the Palestinian problem, appears to be something more than what it stands for. It is the link not only among the Kurds, but between the Kurds and regional and international politics too that renders it important. The dual complexity of the Kurdish issue can be thus explained by the impact its embedded interactions among Kurds, and between Kurds and regional and international powers, has brought to bear upon Kurdish demands for recognition of their socio-political and cultural status on the one hand, and in its continuing repercussions for regional and international politics on the other. The Kurds can be thus seen as a central component of regional and international politics, both acting upon and being acted upon by regional and international states, since inter-state regional relations do often go through the Kurdish issue as has recently been the case with the U.S. and the Kurds of Iraq.
In Turkey, Kurdish demands for rights reaching the level of autonomy within a democratic Turkish Republic under a new constitution, and Turkey’s concern to preserve its territorial and national security – the so-called “unified state” – constitute the core of Turkey’s contemporary Kurdish issue. In the case of the Kurds in Iran, the Kurdish Issue continues to be marginalized by the state’s shared multicultural mosaic of ethnicities seeking rights and the determining of citizenship status on the basis of being Iranians of Persian origin. In Syria, the Kurds have only recently raised the question of autonomy. So far only the Kurdish issue in Iraq has found a way forward vis-a-vis the creation of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north as the only obvious case that has progressed. The Kurds in Iraq, among all Kurdish movements, emerge thus as the only regional equalizer in this example of democratic change in the Middle East. Yet, the consolidation of the KRG’s status given Iraq’s current political situation stands out as prerequisite for the Kurdish issue’s permanent political settlement.
Given the current resurgence of Iran despite the fragile regional status quo, Turkey’s foreign policy objective to expand its regional role in addition to the prolonged “Syrian crisis” and the still pending internal structural reforms proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) justify the perpetuation of the Kurdish issue. In the same context, the impact of the “Sèvres syndrome” on the very foundation of the state system following the devastating experience of the partition of the multinational Ottoman Empire has shaped Turkey’s Kurdish policy by its fears of territorial disintegration. Turkey’s Kurdish policy and Turkey’s insistence until recently in interpreting the Kurdish issue as one of “terrorism” that must be defeated has hitherto deprived the Turkish bureaucracy of the possibility of reaching a modus vivendi with respect to its Kurdish movement by applying political and diplomatic means.
Currently nevertheless, the Kurds in every part of Kurdistan are raising demands for rights mainly by peaceful and democratic means with the exception of the PKK’s and PJAK’s (Parti Jiyani Azadi Kurdistan) ongoing armed struggle. Considering the regional turmoil, the Kurdish issue as a critical dynamic for regional democratization appears dependent on upcoming regional developments. Yet, the fact that it has not so far been properly addressed either by the United States or by regional politics explains its potential in the near future to continue to be a source of regional instability in view of the objectives of the various regional states’ Kurdish policies. Unless the regional states and the international community address all its aspects, political turbulence in the region is unlikely to be resolved, with further political and economic repercussions. International actors seem like the only major powers in a position to potentially support the issue. In that sense, the facilitation of the Kurdish issue may well depend on the U.S. “democratization project,” on the upcoming emergent regional alliances and on the European Union’s policies supportive of minority and human rights.
For the Kurds, the need for a clear vision and the acquisition of the necessary means to pursue their strategic goals emerge as indispensable. If the Kurdish issue is to be resolved, Kurdish pleas for inter and intra-Kurdish cooperation and unity should be therefore made a priority.
*Dr. Marianna Charountaki completed her Ph.D. in Middle East Studies in the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter (UK). She is the author of the book “The Kurds and US foreign policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945,” (Routledge, 2010).