MISSOURI: Another difficult year for the Kurds is now coming to a close. Although the Kurds of Iraq saw their position improve somewhat after the disappointments of late 2017 and 2018, the same cannot be said for those in Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Even in Iraq, the December resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi foreshadows looming dangers.
Abdul-Mahdi was the first Iraqi prime minister the Kurds felt that they could work well with to resolve long-standing problems.
His resignation in the face of protests sweeping Arab parts of Iraq, along with calls to amend the Iraqi constitution, bodes ill for Iraqi Kurds and the autonomy they currently enjoy.
Many fear that anti-Kurdish parties in Iraq will use demonstrators’ calls for constitutional reform to renege on Iraqi federalism and undermine Kurdish autonomy, rather than dealing with the corruption and poor governance at the heart of protesters’ grievances.
In neighboring Iran, widespread protests through most of November saw the regime in Tehran focus its most deadly repression on the Kurdish and Arab parts of the country (the provinces of Kurdistan and Khuzestan in particular).
Some claim that the regime killed more than 1,000 protesters during two to three weeks of unrest sparked by a precipitous rise in fuel prices.
The protests were the latest of several such flare-ups of the past several years, but in this case their scale and intensity made them the most significant unrest in Iran since 1979.
Iranian Kurds hoping the unrest might spark reform or regime change only face more disappointment, however. Unlike in many of the Arab states rocked by the Arab Spring or subsequent unrest, Tehran’s security forces do not appear inclined to break with the regime.
It is their regime, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps owning about 30 percent of Iran’s economy already. Largely leaderless protesters thus came face to face with well-armed IRGC troops, police and Basij militia.
As in every other such instance since 2009, the regime beat, arrested or shot as many people as necessary.
Even in the extremely unlikely event of Iranian moderates and allied protesters managing to elicit regime change or reform, little for the Kurds would likely come of this.
Persian-dominated reformists and opposition groups show no inclination to satisfy the demands of ethnic minorities in Iran such as the Kurds. Their reflex remains akin to the regime’s, viewing these groups as likely separatists who must not be indulged.
Meanwhile, Kurds in Iran continue to make up a disproportionate share of political prisoners and executions in the country, with their media, culture and language severely restricted or, when it comes to education, completely banned.
In Turkey, the authoritarian direction of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues. Still using a failed military coup attempt in the summer of 2016 as an excuse to go after any and all dissidents, Kurds and their allies have been arrested in the tens of thousands.
Elected representatives of the pro-minority People’s Democracy Party (HDP) have been removed by Erdogan’s government and jailed. The HDP’s original co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas (who is ethnic Kurdish) and Figen Yuksedag (an ethnic Turk) have remain imprisoned since 2016 on spurious terrorism charges — even though they had opposed the attempted coup.
Although today’s Turkish state claims to be fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rather than Kurds, this does not seem to be the case to most observers.
Erdogan’s AKP, in coalition with its extreme-right National Movement Party (MHP) allies, has moved against almost any public manifestations of Kurdish group identity.
Even the Saturday Mothers group, which staged weekly peaceful and silent demonstrations about sons and daughters who have gone missing in the state’s “dirty war” against the PKK, saw their gatherings forcibly broken up this year.
When Turkey invaded majority-Kurdish Syrian Afrin in 2018, its forces immediately removed Kurdish language signs, took down statues of historical Kurdish figures such as Kawa the Blacksmith, and replaced Kurdish-language schools with Turkish ones.
October 2019 saw what initially looked like a replay of the Afrin invasion, with Turkey this time sending its military into the remaining de facto autonomous Kurdish-led cantons of northeast Syria.
This happened after Erdogan convinced President Donald Trump, in an Oct. 6 phone call, to pull US forces back from the Turkish-Syrian border.
The American betrayal came not long after the US had convinced Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to destroy their fortifications near the Turkish border, claiming this was necessary to assuage Turkey.
The Turkish invasion of October 2019 saw Turkish-backed Syrian groups, many of which included jihadist extremists, going house-to-house killing Kurdish and Christian civilians and looting their properties.
Turkish air power, drones and artillery proved too much for the lightly armed SDF fighters, forcing them to quickly relinquish control of a 100km-long swathe of territory along the border. About 200,000 people were ethnically cleansed from the area as a result of the Turkish incursion.
The sudden withdrawal of American protection against NATO’s second largest army likewise forced the SDF to turn to Russia and the Assad regime for protection.
Moscow quickly replaced Washington in bases along the border that the Americans hastily vacated, brokering a deal with Turkey that seems to make Ankara’s new additional presence in the area permanent.
Even now, fighting continues, with sporadic drone, mortar and air strikes against the SDF and civilians in its areas.
Every difficult moment has its silver lining, however. In the US, the reaction against Trump’s betrayal came with widespread and unprecedented bipartisan condemnation of Trump’s decision. Several European states likewise condemned Ankara’s move and even stopped arms exports to Turkey.
Turkey emerged from the episode more diplomatically isolated than at any time since 1974. Trump also backtracked on the troop withdrawal, stating that US soldiers will remain in northeast Syria to “protect the oil” and prevent the proceeds from the oil wells near the Iraqi border from falling into the hands of Daesh or the Assad regime.
Kurdish de facto autonomy in Syria thus seems set to live on for a while longer, although in a somewhat more territorially circumscribed form.
Turkey, meanwhile, remains at risk of American sanctions stemming from the invasion and its purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia.
Such sanctions could prove devastating to an economy already on the brink, endangering Erdogan’s hold on power. In Iran, US sanctions and the population’s growing ire against their own government means the regime there will likely weaken further.
Any weakening of the regime in Tehran offers opportunities for Iranian Kurds profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo there.
Iraq likewise offers some glimmers of hope. The Kurdistan Regional Government just negotiated a new budget and oil-sharing agreement with Baghdad for the 2020 year, in what looks like significant progress on one of the most intractable issues bedeviling Irbil-Baghdad relations.
If government elites in Baghdad remain busy with instability in Shiite parts of the country and simmering tensions in Sunni Arab areas, they may just prove willing to make good with Iraqi Kurdistan.
If the new Masrour Barzani-led government in Iraqi Kurdistan also takes the opportunity to engage in necessary internal reforms, as it seems determined to do, 2020 may prove to be a year of progress there.