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INSIGHT, Incek Debates- The age-old aspiration of the West for a ‘Kurdistan’: how feasible, how rational, how likely?

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

The Incek Debates, on 1 November 2016, discussed what the future actually held for ‘Kurds’ in the Middle East with participation, as speakers, by former MP Amb Osman T. Koruturk, Prof Dr Hasan Unal of Atilim University and Dr Oktay Bingol of Baskent University. The session was chaired by Dr Haldun Solmazturk, Director of the 21st Century Turkey Institute, and was participated by a select group of experts as well as an international representation from the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is a Rapporteur’s Summary of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the panelists, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. The debate was off-the-record.



About one hundred years after Sykes-Picot, in September 2014, Western media mobilized to attract the attention of the world to a small town in Northern Syria, Kobanî(officially, Ayn al-Arab, in Arabic) under Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) siege. It was made the Alamo of American history—and Hollywood—or Plevne (Pleven/Bulgaria) of Turkish history. The resulting media effect was so strong that even the Turkish government had to bow to Western pressure to allow Peshmerga soldiers (of the Kurdistan Regional Government/KRG of Iraq) to enter from Turkey into Kobane to help besieged YPG (People’s Protection Units) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). While the whole country of Syria was totally devastated and millions of its citizens were scattered all over the world—many vanishing in the Aegean Sea—this town was spared (!). Since then, ISIS has proven more of a gift from God than a curse for ‘Kurds’. Both in Iraq and Syria large territories have changed hands from ISIS to ‘Kurdish’ control and this course of events is just advancing.

The late President Shimon Peres, as early as June 2014, in a meeting with President Obama had said that “The Kurds have established a de facto independent democracy of their own, backed by Turkey” (emphasis added). Soon PM Benjamin Netanyahu joined him and announced that “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”. To many, an independent ‘Kurdistan’ is “a done deal”.U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in a recent Senate hearing confirmed that “U.S. would continue to work with the Kurds (of Syria, i.e. PYD/YPG), to support them and provide them with equipment and arms” and would do “whatever is required to help them move in the direction of Raqqa (ISIS capital and the only remaining stronghold in Syria)”. For General Joseph Dunford, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ‘Kurds’ were “the most effective force (U.S.) had … against ISIS”. Currently Kirkuk, conceivably ‘Jerusalem’ of ‘Kurds’, is already under their control, Peshmerga is advancing towards Mosul—arguably, along with the Iraqi Army—and YPG is on the outskirts of Raqqa. Both strategic operations are synchronized and supported by the anti-ISIS coalition (for all practical purposes, composed mainly of Western states).

As the borders of the Middle East are tryingly redrawn, delusive Arab Spring is giving way to a seductive ‘Kurdish’ spring. Meanwhile, after the Western-moderated political negotiations with the PKK collapsed in mid-2015, Turkey continues to fight PKK’s long-standing terror campaign for autonomy within its own borders. However, while the government in Turkey has been a staunch supporter of ‘aspirations’ of Kurds of Iraq—even at the expense of severing relations with Baghdad—it has used its air power and artillery to stop Kurds of Syria from connecting so-called ‘Kurdish’ cantons in north Syria, only hours before Secretary Carter landed in Ankara for a scheduled visit. Since the government in Ankara—the principal supporter of the ‘Syrian’ opposition—has been adamantly refusing any contact with Damascus, this final action on 20 October prompted an unprecedented threat from the Syrian government, to shoot down any Turkish warplane violating the Syrian airspace.

Against this background, Incek Debates discussed the prospect of an independent ‘Kurdistan’ in the Middle East and probed the feasibility, rationality and likelihood of this ambitious design.

Executive Summary

Since the prospect of an independent ‘Kurdistan’ would threaten territorial integrity of regional countries, they would certainly—and strongly—resist its foundation. Not only Iraq and Syria—let alone Turkey and Iran—but the whole Arab world would oppose ceding ‘Arab soil’ to Kurds. 

Turkey does have red-lines which no Turkish government can possibly cross. Particularly Turkey’s opposition to PYD which is gaining a de facto, perhaps even legal autonomy in Syria is important. The projected ‘Kurdish corridor’ in northern Syria extending towards the Mediterranean will remain a Turkish red-line.

The long-circulated idea of ‘confederalism’ with a Kurdish political entity in Iraq is currently being reheated to make it palatable. This may be the easiest and clever way of drawing the critical ‘line’ on map of Turkey, delineating an area within which ‘Kurds’ of Turkey would enjoy some concessions. Such ‘regional’ arrangements or anything that would lead to similar outcomes in the future will remain anotherTurkish red-line as well as maintaining Turkey’s territorial integrity as a unitary state.

Turkey appears not to have a comprehensive, clear-cut regional policy or policy framework. Its erratic foreign policy behavior is based on sporadic policy statements mostly in opposition or reaction to certain developments as they occur. This does not bode well for Turkish national interests and Turkey’s international credibility. ‘Opposing’ to regional governments as well as allies and friends in the West, potential partners in the ‘East’, virtually everybody else but KRG, is puzzling. Ankara, in the short to mid-term, will have to bear the consequences of its self-isolating foreign policy.

Due to domestication of foreign policy and deep polarisation within the Turkish society, political decisions related to ‘Kurds’ in general are dictated by demands of domestic politics. In the absence of a consistent, coherent and viable ‘Kurdish’ policy Turkey’s regional policy stays in limbo.

An independent ‘Kurdistan’, if it is formed in the short-to-mid term, which is unlikely, would drastically change the political, military and economic balance of power in the region. For the West, this may sound rational. A democratic and secular ‘Kurdistan’, respective of women’s rights and full gender equality would be an easy sell in the West, not only as rational, but also as feasible.

However, given the circumstances, although from Western perspective such an eventuality is rational, probably feasible, bearing in mind the  potential resistance of the most concerned parties, it is highly unlikely.

Panacea for the chaos, conflict and misery is not a new map for the Middle East, it is a new modus vivendi.

A roadmap—or a game plan—for ‘managing change’

The chair shared excerpts from a recently published book by a prominent foreign affairs advisor, representative of an influential—arguably the dominant—school of thought in the West on the subject of Kurds:

“The West has sympathy for Kurds… But sympathy is no longer sufficient. Kurds increasingly resist subordinating their national aspirations to the will of the international community. The twentieth century was a graveyard for Kurdish aspirations. The 1923 Lausanne Treaty betrayed US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and denied the Kurds a homeland. …As the eastern flank of NATO, Turkey is a critical security partner and a valuable bridge between the West and Central Asia. …Caught between foreign policy pragmatists and pro-democracy ideologues, Kurds were collateral damage to important Western interests. (Phillips 2015: xxii)”

The book offers explicit policy lines, trajectories and courses of action to American policymakers—and rationalizes them:

“In today’s Middle East, America has no better friend than the Kurds. (N. 23. Israel is an exception.) Instead of trying to placate its adversaries, the United States should stand with its friends. America’s strategic, commercial and security interests are advanced through solidarity with the Kurds. … the map of the Middle East is changing. Rather than be passive or reactive, the United States should get in front of events and proactively manage change. (Emphasis added) … Washington must initiate reality-based contingency planning, and get ahead of events. … In Iraq and Syria today, the United States has no friend but the Kurds. (Phillips 2015: xxiii, 235)”

The author also suggests a road map—or a game plan—to be followed by the Kurds in the interim:

“The PYD and KRG have already demonstrated the capacity to overcome their differences and develop cross-border cooperation to enhance mutual security, humanitarian assistance and local administration. Unity is critical, especially during times of crisis. … The ISIS succeeded in bringing Kurds together to fight terrorism. The Kurdish neighborhood would be a space for expanding cross-border trade and cultural affinities as the base of a greater, virtual Kurdistan. Like letting steam out of the kettle, practical cooperation in the Kurdish neighborhood would diminish threats to territorial integrity rather exacerbate differences between states where Kurds reside. Democratic development of Iraqi Kurdistan would serve as an inspiration to Kurds in the region, as well as a model for states. (Phillips 2015: xxiii, 234)”

Since both the reality on the ground and policy statements made, military actions taken by ‘the West’—and by their “best and only friends”—overlap with both the road map and the political courses of action elaborated above, pundits in this school of thought deserve to be taken seriously.

Reality on the ground

KRG, already having taken Kirkuk under Kurdish control, doubling the area they had effective control over, is now vying for control of Mosul—at least part of it. KRG enjoys not only support of the West but also of Turkey, in spite of objections from Baghdad to Turkish military presence in northern Iraq. …


The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.

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