Kurds Between a Rock and a Hard Place

BY STEWART KATO

The Kurds are an ethnically distinct people in the Middle East playing a prominent role in pushing back the influence of the Islamic State (IS), but while their growing prominence is welcomed by the West, others see their strength as a threat. An estimated  25 to 35 million Kurds inhabit a region including parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia, making up the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East without any permanent nation-state. Denied a state by the Western allies following WWI in 1919, the Kurds were instead left as minority populations, forced to struggle for rights, recognition, or autonomy in their national states.

Most recently, the Kurds were in the center of the Western media attention when IS forces began to attack Kurdish regions in northern Syria in 2013 as well as northern Iraq in 2014, pushing back regional Kurdish and Iraqi forces. The US led coalition hoped that regional powers would fight the Islamic State, but the reluctance of regional powers to focus on the advance of IS forces at the time frustrated the West as the latter viewed IS as a significant threat. This frustration led the US to look for other regional allies, eventually choosing the Kurds who were not only holding their own against the IS, but advertised themselves as a stable alternative in the chaos, willing to work with the Iraqi government. Supported by American air strikes, a Kurdish-Iraqi coalition made substantial progress against the IS in 2016, leading to the assault on IS positions in Mosul, one of its last remaining bastions in northern Iraq. Western support for the Kurds and their growing strength in the region unnerve regional powers like Turkey which has traditionally repressed and even fought against Kurdish independence movements.

Turkey, with a Kurdish populations that makes up to 20% of its population, has struggled since the 1920s and 30s with both Kurdish political groups requesting rights or autonomy as well as Kurdish radical organizations that violently fight for an independent state within Turkey. The Turkish government is especially hostile to Kurdish forces in Syria as it worries that the success of Syrian Kurds will encourage Turkish Kurds that border Syria to begin demanding autonomy, or worse, independence. The Turkish government also dislikes US support for Kurdish military groups since it associates Western backed Kurdish military groups in Syria and Iraq, like the Western trusted YPG, with Turkish-Kurdish radical organizations, like the PKK that have violently fought for years with Turkish forces. This hostility has led to Turkish forces shelling Kurdish forces in Syria as well as the issuing of arrest warrants for the leaders of Syrian-Kurdish leaders in an attempt to discourage Kurdish leaders. The American government has thus been forced to walk a thin line between supporting the Kurds, who are successfully pushing back the IS, and Turkey, their traditional regional NATO ally.

Turkey’s fear of a resurgence in Kurdish strength has led it to alter its foreign policy including normalizing relations with regional rivals, including Syria. Turkey was once a major supporter of anti-Assad groups as it hoped that by weakening its regional rival, Turkey could increase its influence in the region with the rise of a pro-Turkish Syrian government, but these hopes collapsed when Russian-backed Syrian government forces began pushing back rebel forces. Instead Turkey witnessed a surge of Kurdish forces on its southern border, which pushed Turkey to normalize relations with Syria and begin supporting Assad government forces that Turkey hopes will counter growing Kurdish influence. The growth of Kurdish forces on Turkey’s southern border following the at first dreamed of destabilization of Assad’s Syrian government has turned into a nightmare the government tries to reverse.

Similarly, Turkey made recent inroads towards rectifying broken relations with its traditional rival, Russia, to avoid diplomatic isolation. Turkey historically was a roadblock against Russian attempts to spread into the Caucasus and the Middle East from Turkey’s days as the Ottoman Empire to membership in NATO, but the two maintained polite relations.  Turkey’s relations with Russia recently froze in late 2015 when a Russian jet was shot down by Turkish soldiers leading to trade bans and the freezing of assets as the two nations faced off and froze their relations.  Growing American ties to the Kurds as well as recent Western anger at the Turkish government due to recent crackdowns following the military coup attempt has left Turkey diplomatically isolated as it feels betrayed by the West. Russian leaders were quick to seize upon the opportunity to fix Russo-Turkish relations, as they see the Middle East as a stepping stone to Russia’s reemergence of its superpower status, by accepting Turkish apologies and beginning work on strengthening economic ties. The alignment of Russian and Turkish goals in the Syrian conflict, as Russia looks to support its old ally Assad while Turkey sees Assad as a better alternative to a Kurdish state, has further built relations between the two as they collaborate in Syria. Turkish fears of a resurgence of Kurdish nationalism pushed its government to reevaluate its rivalry with Russia as it found itself diplomatically isolated by a Kurdish friendly West and in need of allies in weakening Kurds.

While the actualization of a Kurdish state is still in discussion, the emergence of Kurdish strength and importance in the fight against IS in Syria and Iraq catalyzed an international upset as regional states reacted. American backing of Kurdish military groups pushed Turkey to reassess its regional politics and repair relations with traditional rivals like Syria and Russia to combat growing Kurdish influence. Russia skillfully used Turkish fears to increase its influence in the area and the US needs to assure its allies that support of the Kurds will not negatively affect the region’s stability in the future as many fear fighting will never end in the region.

Image source: flickr.com

About the Author

Stewart Kato is an EAEU Monitor Project intern at the ERA Institute. He holds a B.A. in History with a focus on 20th century Europe & East Asia from UC Berkeley. His research interests include Eurasian history as well as how international politics, economics, and history affect foreign relations.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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