Kurdish Issue

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Kurds Face Setbacks Across the Middle East- By Yaroslav Trofimov

After securing greater power and influence in recent years, Kurds have seen reversals of fortune

WSJ: With Islamic State on the wane, the West no longer needs Kurdish help—and the Kurds face a historic calamity once again, in part due to their own leaders’ mistakes.In Turkey and Iraq, Kurdish achievements of recent years have already been rolled back. In Syria, too, Kurdish gains are confronting new perils as the region’s nation-states work together to squelch the possibility of an independent Kurdish homeland in the Middle East.

For a short moment over two years ago, many of the 30 million Kurds, one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state of their own, believed that history was finally on their side after decades of massacres, persecution, and war.

In Iraq, Turkey and Syria—three of the four nations (alongside Iran) that include the main Kurdish-populated territories—they had secured unprecedented power and influence.

The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq took advantage of the Iraqi army’s 2014 rout by Islamic State to seize the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, and essentially operated as an independent entity. Elections in Turkey had deprived the ruling AKP party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of a parliamentary majority and turned the main pro-Kurdish party, HDP, into the country’s third largest—with a real chance to influence national politics.

And in Syria, the dogged defense of the Kurdish town of Kobani against Islamic State attracted international sympathy—and U.S. military assistance—to the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia. Within months, the Syrian Kurds became America’s indispensable partner against Islamic State, seizing a significant part of Syrian territory.

Now, these Kurdish gains in Turkey and Iraq have been lost, possibly for decades, and the fate of Syrian Kurds looks increasingly precarious as the Syrian war—and particularly the campaign against Islamic State—enters its endgame.

Syrian Kurds demonstrated last month in Qamishli, Syria, against the operation by Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, in neighboring Iraq, which had been held by Iraqi Kurds.
Syrian Kurds demonstrated last month in Qamishli, Syria, against the operation by Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, in neighboring Iraq, which had been held by Iraqi Kurds. PHOTO: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

“We are going through a very difficult moment, even though we have seen worse in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Kendal Nezan, head of the Kurdish Institute of Paris, a think tank formed in 1983 to rally Western support for the Kurdish cause. “Kurds fear that their allies will once again abandon them to their own fate, as they are bargaining about the future of the region.”

In Turkey, a July 2015 move by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to resume its armed struggle against the Turkish state after a two-year peace process allowed Mr. Erdogan to win a rerun of elections later that year amid nationalist fervor. Subsequently, the PKK’s disastrous decision to launch an urban guerrilla campaign resulted in the near-destruction of several Kurdish cities and towns in the country’s southeast. Both the U.S. and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

Mr. Erdogan followed up on the military campaign against PKK by imprisoning most of the leadership of HDP, which he accused of being a PKK front, by removing the elected HDP mayors across Kurdish-populated parts of Turkey, and by eliminating many other concessions to the Kurds.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s then-president, Masoud Barzani, called a September independence referendum despite international advice to the contrary and deep-seated internal opposition to his 25-year rule. The move backfired astoundingly: within days, the Kurdistan government lost Kirkukand many of its privileges, with internal conflict threatening its very existence as a self-ruled entity. Mr. Barzani himself had to step down and the U.S., which had warned him against the referendum, remained neutral as Iraqi federal forces swiftly seized vast territories that Kurds had controlled since 2003.

“From the perspective of most Kurds, the present predicament is largely due to incompetence, corruption and nepotism afflicting the Kurdish ruling elite,” said one of Mr. Barzani’s leading political opponents, Barham Salih, a former Kurdistan prime minister and former Iraqi deputy prime minister. “The setback in Iraqi Kurdistan is undeniably painful for most Iraqi Kurds, but it will be foolish to think this is the end of the Kurdish reality.”

The Kurdish minority and the central Iraqi government are now fighting each other in the wake of an independence referendum, raising concerns about the unity of Iraq and the war against Islamic State. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains the consequences. Photo: Getty

Regardless of who is to blame, the dramatic events in Turkey and Iraq have soured the mood across the Kurdish political spectrum. “Among Kurdish intellectuals and elite, you see the signs of frustration and a lot of criticism directed at all parties and groups. This is one of the most unhappy moments of the Kurdish liberation struggle in the last ten years and there is little hope among intellectuals that the situation may recover in the short term,” said Turkish lawmaker Ertugrul Kurkcu, one of the few senior HDP leaders who still remain free.

Across the border in Syria, the momentum—for now—is still with the Kurds. Backed by the U.S., the Kurdish-led forces recently seized Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, and are pushing down the Euphrates Valley.

But there, too, many Kurds fear that once YPG is no longer useful against Islamic State, Washington will end up making a deal with Russia, Turkey and even the Syrian regime at the Kurds’ expense. American support for YPG, after all, has become a major irritant in U.S. relations with NATO ally Turkey, which considers the group an offshoot of PKK. Already, YPG leadership is hedging its bets by reaching out to Moscow and Damascus.

“Any one of these powers can betray the Kurds anytime and Damascus will be very happy if the Kurds lose their ground after having devastated Islamic State’s military positions,” said Mr. Kurkcu, the HDP lawmaker. “The Kurds have fulfilled their duty and can vanish now.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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This entry was posted on 2017-11-08 by in News Articles.
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