“Kurds Have No Friends But The Mountains”

By Muhammad Salah Balaky:

Kurds with an estimated population of 35 to 40 million who have been living for centuries in the historical region of Mesepotamia, are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, inhabiting a mountainous region dividing into Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, stretching roughly from the northwestren Zagros in Iran to the eastern Taurus mountain ranges in Turkey. Today, they make up about 20% of total population in both Turkey and Iraq and 10% of the total population in Iran and Syria, but they have never obtained a nation state.

The long history of the Kurdish question and nationalism can be traced back to the Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri rebellion of the late 19th century. The rise of modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar dynasties in the early 20th century turned the Kurds into oppressed minorities in these four newly-created modern Middle Eastern states dominated by Turks, Persians and Arabs.

A series of failed attempts for a better status and broken promises have given rise to a widely quoted expression that ”Kurds have no friends but the mountains” in reference to the Kurdish rugged homeland that has historically served as a refuge against foreign invasion and persecution. A partial list of Kurdish uprisings, all of which were brutally repressed, such as Kocgiri revolt of the late 1920s, the Shaik Said rebellion of 1925, the revolt of Agri Dagh in the 1930s, and the Dersim uprising of 1937-38 in Turkey; the Simko rebellion of the 1920s , the 1946 Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan in Iran; the Barzani-led revolts of the 1960s and 70s in Iraq; and the short, albeit significant, 2004 uprising, Serhildan, in Syria bears witness to this bloody and repressive history.

Today, having survived a ”lost” century of denial and subjugation, Kurds are enjoying a political resurgence due in part to the monumental changes taking place in the Middle East in general and in countries in which they make up sizable minorities in particular. The Kurds in Iraq, who gained official recognition in Iraq’s 2005 constitution, have not only solidified their gains of the 1990s but have also emerged as a key player in the new Iraq and an invaluable partner of the United States (US) in stabilizing and democratizing the country.

The onset of civil war in Syria in 2011, and the ensuing state collapse brought a hitherto largely unknown group, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to the the forefront of regional and global politics. The Syrian civil war has effectively turned the Kurdish PYD into the US’ most effective and reliable on-the-ground partner in the fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and potentially a useful force in bringing an end to the ongoing civil war in Syria.

In Turkey, while the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP), despite the repression,  commands great presence in local governance in Kurdish-dominated east, its sister party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been successful in receiving support from millions of Kurds including a minority who previously backed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Thus, the Kurds have moved from being ”non-entities”, a ”side-show” or “expendables” in the power politics of the Middle East to the “most effective on the ground ally of the US” in the campaign against ISIS. Furthermore, their relative success in building democratic institutions, offering shelter and protection to non-Muslim minorities, and their stance toward women has set them apart in the war-torn Syria, Iraq, and beyond. The Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq has been described as an island of stability, a trusted ally of the US, and a fledgling democracy in a region marred by violence, instability, and gross human rights violations. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) the largest and most influential Kurdish group in northern Syria that has been credited for destroying IS’s aura of invincibility, calls for a secular and democratic coexistence between different ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

In sum, despite some questions and concern over the role Kurds could play in bringing about peace, stability and democracy to war-torn Syria and Iraq, and their potential contribution to democratizing Turkey and Iran, the gears of change are grinding. A number of factors, such as millions of mobilized Kurds, Kurdish groups’ organizational strength and fighting prowess, a geography rich in oil, natural gas, as well as fresh water, and the failing Middle Eastern state system are likely to increase the role Kurds will play in the new Middle East. in other words, as Wadie Jwaideh (2006) put it in the late 1950s, “the Kurdish behavior is one of the most important factors in the future stability and security not only of the Kurdish-inhabited countries, but of the entire Middle East.”

 Muhammad Salah Balaky is an Erbil based freelance-journalist and English translator working for various media organizations.

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