Kurds show their support for the upcoming independence referendum at a rally in Erbil, Iraq, on September 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Azad Lashkari

In 2005, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the then-Prime Minister of Turkey, visited Diyarbakir, a city in the country’s south-east and the scene of an ongoing conflict between Turkish authorities and Kurdish separatists, who consider it the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan.

Trying to cajole the Kurds, who make up somewhere between 18 and 20% of the Turkish population, Erdogan boomed: “The Kurdish problem is everybody’s problem, but above all, mine.” Since then he has been trying to talk them into abandoning their guns and ending a 33-year old insurgency against the Turkish Government. Among other policies, he has lifted a long-standing ban on the use of Kurdish in Turkish media.

Last March, he visited Diyarbakir once again, saying: “We are ready to talk and walk with anyone who has something to say and a project to implement. Our only condition is that they shall not carry guns or seek to divide the country.”

He was, of course, referring to Kurdish nationalists who dream of carving out 50% of “historic Kurdistan” from lands that are currently within Turkey’s borders. They have been carrying arms against Turkish officialdom since 1984. Inspired by the former autonomy of their brethren in Iraq, and a forthcoming vote for full independence for Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, Turkish Kurds now feel galvanized too by the Kurds of Syria, who will hold their own referendum three days earlier (this coming Friday).

Where the Iraqi Kurds are aiming for full independence, the Syrians merely hope to create a semi-autonomous government, in the country’s north, that will respond to their political and economic concerns.

If the vote passes, Syria will be as much a source of inspiration for Kurds regionally as Iraqi Kurdistan was when it was first set up back in 1991. Syrian Kurds see this as their moment of glory and are rallying support both from within Syria and around the globe.

What is very striking about the “Kurdish problem” is how often it has been used to destabilize other regional countries by regimes which suffer from a “Kurdish problem” themselves

If asked about their ambitions seven years ago, before the outbreak of the current conflict in the country, Syrian Kurds would have pointed to language, schools, and citizenship — three rights obstructed by the Damascus government since 1962. Back then, at the height of the Arab Nationalist movement, a controversial census was carried out that stripped thousands of Kurds – those who had come from Turkey or Iraq – of their Syrian IDs. Citizenship rather than autonomy therefore became the issue for Kurds living in the country.

It should be stated that local Kurds were treated like any other Syrian citizens and some even rose to prominent posts in government, including Ahmad Kaftaro, the long-serving mufti of the republic. Two members of the Barazi clan, Husni and Muhsen, had previously served as prime ministers of Syria.

Those affected by the 1962 census felt persecuted, however, and with good cause. They complained that they were given low-paid jobs, denied social security, shunned from government posts and discriminated against in terms of education.

Such anguish is nothing, of course, when compared to the suffering of Iraq’s Kurds, who were collectively uprooted from major cities such as Mosul, gassed in the city of Halabja in 1990, and left to rot in Saddam Hussein’s prisons. Since 1991, with international help, they have steadily rebounded, setting up their own state, with its own booming economy, army, and national flag.

Even in the wider context of Iraq, the Kurds were exonerated after Saddam’s fall in 2003, and both of the country’s presidents since then – Jalal Talbani and Fuad Masum – have been Kurds. Now the Kurds are eyeing the inclusion, in their new state, of Kirkuk province, whose vast reserves of oil would automatically make Iraqi Kurdistan a very wealthy independent state indeed.

The Kurds of Turkey

When the secret World War I agreement – known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement – was signed between Great Britain and France, parts of Turkey were originally earmarked as Kurdish territory. Turkish nationalists aggressively objected. Their relocation of thousands of Turks into Kurdish territories prompted three rebellions against the central government in Ankara, in 1925, 1930, and 1937.

For years, Ankara banned the use of Kurdish in schools and on television, and prevented Kurds from giving Kurdish names to their children. Former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller tried to allow the use of Kurdish in schools but the idea was thwarted by the Turkish Parliament.

Kurdish political parties remain outlawed, specifically Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is accused of being a “terrorist organization.” Only 10% of Turkey’s annual budget is spent on the development of Kurdish towns and cities, which also receive no more than 2% of commercial investment.

Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party wave party flags during a rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on September 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Sertac Kayar

Turkey spends approximately US$10 billion annually on “counter-terrorism,” a term that long referred only to “Kurdish separatism” but has more recently been applied to Islamic State as well. The ongoing war with the PKK has led to the deaths of more than 50,000 people (from both sides). Entire villages have been bulldozed, and Kurdish populations uprooted completely and displaced.

What is very striking about the “Kurdish problem” is how often it has been used to destabilize other regional countries by regimes which suffer from a “Kurdish problem” themselves.

Damascus milked the Kurdish crisis in Iraq and Turkey for years, even as it muzzled its own Kurdish population and had all of its Kurdish leaders arrested or exiled. Throughout the 1990s, Syria played host to a colorful array of exiled Kurdish leaders, including Iraq’s Jalal Talbani and Maasoud Barazani, and Turkey’s Abdullah Ocelan, who was given a home in the Mezzeh neighbourhood of Damascus and military bases in the Iranian villages of Boneh Rezan and Ziveh. After 1991, he would slip into Iraqi Kurdistan whenever cornered, prompting the Turks to raid the terrirory twice, once in 1992 and again in 1995, when 35,000 Turkish soldiers were mobilized. When Turkey threatened to go to war against Syria, in 1999, Ocalan was expelled from Damascus.

Iranian and Iraqi Kurds

For over 20 years, Saddam Hussein cosied up to the Kurds of Iran, where they constitute 10% of the population. He supported their demands for limited autonomy, the right to use their own language and to teach it in schools.

After the Khomeini regime came to power in Tehran, the Kurds revolted, with Saddam – who was then Iraq’s vice-President – giving strong backing to the hardline Iranian Kurdish leader Abdul-Rahman Qasemlu and granting asylum to the leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Khomeini refused to bend to any of their demands, waging two wars from September 1979: one against the Kurds at home and another against the Iraqi Army, which lasted until the late 1980s. Tehran subsequently embraced a Kurdish revolt against Saddam after the Gulf War of 1991.

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