Redrawing the map: is self-determination for the Kurdish people on the horizon?

by Silvia Fornaroli   Getty Images  


It has been more than a hundred years since the Sykes-Picot agreement, but the world is still dealing with its consequences.

In May 1916, France and Great Britain, with the assent of Russia, divided up the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire and secretly agreed on their respective spheres of influence. Within their areas of control, the colonial powers were free to determine fictitious boundaries at the expense of local communities.

Those borders, in fact, were drawn with very little consideration for religious, tribal, cultural and linguistic diversity, so much so that numerous Middle East observers consider the present-day tensions to be a result of those decisions. Certainly, the deal proved a turning point in Arab-Western relations and some of its effects contributed to the establishment of nationalist movements and militarist regimes.

The rise of radical ideologies—which can never be justified—is therefore not a surprise.

In 2014, Al-Hayat Media Center—the ISIS foreign language media outlet—addressed western audiences with a short film. It was most likely shot between 2009 and 2011 and depicted a mujahed bulldozing a segment of the Iraqi-Syrian border. The video was concluded with a close-up shot of a poster plastered on the wall with a threat: the “End of Sykes-Picot.”

Whatever disguist one may show towards the vicious, cruel, and patriarchal IS regime – it is hard not to notice that they’re anger in this specific point is one shared by many inhabitants of the region. The agreement—and the treaties concluded over the nine-year period that shaped today’s Middle East—have been called into question, and continue to be challenged by those populations who suffered the most from the colonial carve up of West Asia.

Kurdish people, in particular, were strongly affected by some of those decisions and—across four countries—their political and social identity has been repressed ever since. In Iraq, for instance, the Kurdish minority makes up about 20 percent of the population and the Constitution approved in 2005 has recognized an autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country. But this has not achieved Kurdish self-determination in the region.

After decades of wars and uprisings, the Iraqi Kurdistan is now a semi-independent parliamentary democracy and it is officially governed by the KRG—the Kurdistan Regional Government.

However, its economy still depends on the central administration in Baghdad and, for this reason, a long-awaited referendum will be held on September 25. The voting will take place in all of the Kurdish areas of Iraq—including the disputed territories liberated from the Islamic State—and although a positive outcome would not automatically lead to independence, it will give the Kurds more political leverage.

And then there is the case of Iran. Even though Iranian Kurds have suffered a long history of discrimination as well, Teheran was able to manage separatism impulses, maintain generally good ties with Kurdish leaders and keep the level of violence relatively low.

The situation in Turkey however is surely worse due to massive repression, forced inclusion and recurring massacres. During the 1980s, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict progressively worsened, resulting in the deaths of many civilians on both sides.
Multiple human rights violations occurred during the Turkish military campaign against alleged PKK militants and large, inhabitated areas have been almost completely destroyed ever since.

In March 2015, for instance, the city of Åžirnak was turned into a war zone as daily clashes erupted on the streets. In March 2017 the UN Human Rights Office reported on the extreme conditions endured over the last few years by the population of Nusaybin, a 3,000-year-old city in southeast Turkey. And at the time of writing Kurdish villages are being attacked by the armed forces of the Turkish State.

This violence has spilled over outside of the territorial boundaries of Turkey as well. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has periodically reported on heavy clashes between Turkish forces and the YPG—the People’s Protection Units, in Syria. Last June, tensions flared up again on the Turkish border with the Afrin Canton, which is one of the four self-governed cantons of the Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava, along with the Kobanê Canton, the Cizîrê Canton and the de-facto autonomous Shahba region, and according to the UK-based war monitor, Turkey would be deploying troops in the area, where a military operation could take place soon.

Why is Turkey attacking Kurds in Syria?

After the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, the Syrian states monopoly over violence in Northern Syria was beginning to weaken over time. A year later, his forces withdrew leaving open a power vaccum that would later be seized by the Kurdish movement.  Kurdish people in Syria took advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war and, in January 2014, they managed to carve out a self-controlled area also known as the Syrian Kurdistan and ruled by the PYD—the Democratic Union Party.

The innovative political system in Rojava (West Kurdistan, Northern Syria) established by the so-called Charter of the Social Contract,  promotes self-determination, ecology, secularism, cooperative economy, gender equality and multi-ethnic coexistence. 

The Constitution also stresses the importance of direct democracy. Based on the ideas of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, it is inspired by the beliefs of American anarchist Murray Bookchin and  characterized by the implementation of democratic confederalism. Rojava—which literally means “the land where the sun sets”—, however, still lacks any formal international recognition just as the self-declared Islamic State.

Rojava’s territorial expansion has alarmed Turkey, which firmly opposes the PYD and regards it as an alleged extension of the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, currently listed as an illegal insurgent group. During the Rojava conflict, several clashes broke out between the YPG and Syrian government militias as well. In the Cizîrê Canton, the long-disputed city of Al-Hasakah was eventually captured by Rojavan forces, who agreed to halt fighting against the Syrian army in August 2016.

As can be seen, the struggle for autonomy has followed different paths and, unfortunately, lack of unity is still one of the greatest obstacle.

However, the Kurdish forces have proved among the most effective in fighting ISIS and Kurds’ endless dedication to stand against religious extremism and racial discrimination must not go unnoticed.Their efforts have already turned the Kurdish question into an international issue and the present circumstances—their essential contribution to defeat ISIS, the inevitable post-war vacuum and the incoming referendum in Iraq—may finally enhance their chances of independence.

The situation in the Middle East provides realistic insight into the future of global stability and it reflects dangerous lack of understanding. Any further short-sighted policy would lead to long-term catastrophic consequences.