The Kurdish Question

AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed
By Arthur Hayes

Recent events in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have demonstrated the continued prominence of questions about Kurdish autonomy and statehood. The Kurdish people can be found living in an area that stretches from Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and into Syria. They have aspired and struggled for centuries to have their own homeland, but so far they have failed to achieve this. This has led to decades of violence between the Kurds and various governments in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. As with many other nationalist aspirations to achieve independent statehood, for the Kurdish people time has solidified the sentiment passed from generation to generation that they must struggle to achieve what their grandfathers sang to them about as babes. 

Time it seems has not diminished the call to arms and the use of armed violence still resonates to the latest generations as it did to their ancestors. The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) is one Kurdish group that uses military violence in an attempt to achieve their ambitions, predominantly attacking targets within Iran often from its bases inside northern Iraq. This has frequently generated a state sponsored response and the most recent manifestation of this occurred in July 2011 when Iranian military units spearheaded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp launched operations directed against PJAK over the border.   

The Iranian regime is not only using blunt military power against PJAK and militant Kurdish nationalism. Mindful of the axiom that waris the extension of politics by other means, Tehran is also bringing diplomatic pressure to bear against the Iraqi government in Baghdad over what Tehran sees as its lack of action against PJAK. The power players in Tehran seem to be playing a sharp deck of cards. By launching artillery strikes across the Iranian – Iraqi border, the Iranian government is sending a very strong message to Baghdad. Tehran will continue to speak across the table to its neighbours as well as use military means when it decides it is in its national interest to do so. This dual strategy also satisfies the Iranian domestic demand for retribution against those responsible for attacking and killing Iranian citizens.

Iran is in effect saying to Baghdad and anyone who cares to listen that it expects robust and appropriate action to prevent violations of Iranian borders and attacks on Iranian citizens Should such eventualities occur,  Tehran is willing and prepared  to commence cross border military operations at a time and place of its choosing.

Iraqi federal politics is similar to Lebanese politics in that  its constitution and federal political structure reflect the very painful lessons of recent conflict and the sectarian and ethnic make-up of the nation. Effectively, the great offices of state are shared among the four main parties, one of which is the Kurdish Alliance. The current Iraqi President, one Deputy Prime Minister and six Cabinet Ministers are Kurds.

Even during the darkest days of Saddam Hussain’s period in power and the Iraqi insurgency, northern Iraq remained relatively stable due to the influence of the two main Iraqi Kurdish military and political groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The political wings of these two organisations are now key elements within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which has arisen in the new federal Iraqi political environment. The KRG, buoyed  by burgeoning oil revenues, the benefits of geographical proximity to Turkey, and access to the EU, has been able to construct a stable and relatively strong economy.

However the latest round of hostilities is not a simple bilateral dispute. Elements of the Kurdish media have alleged that the recent Turkish military deployment against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was deliberately coordinated with the Iranians in July.

The Turkish deployment may be linked to the return to violence by the PKK in the largely Kurdish area of south eastern Turkey this year. Pressure on the Turkish government to reopen negotiations with the PKK could have been part of the reason why the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan decided to act against what seems to have been an embryonic plot by senior military officers against the government. Erdogan is now free to promote a new generation of military figures to the very highest ranks and perhaps lay the foundations of starting talks again with the Kurds.

Turkey must also balance its internal security policy and operational procedures against its sustained attempts to join the EU. It can no longer avoid intensive media scrutiny and criticism of any human rights violations as it tries to manoeuvre itself into a credible position to facilitate its EU application. Turkey must be careful in its relations with Tehran with whom it seems to share some sympathy and support over the Palestinian question. Ankara will need continued Iranian help in making the border as secure as possible. Ankara has to find a path that fulfils its obligations to protect its people and live peacefully with its neighbours whilst placing itself further on the path to economic success via the EU.

Tehran, with its unique regional and global perspective, has similar responsibilities and pressures. The divergent political tensions within the Iranian establishment usually offer a united front when faced by perceived external threats and attacks. It will most likely continue to use hard military force against PJAK until it determines that this is no longer successful in operational terms, or is generating far too much negative international attention which is counter-productive to its national interest.

As for the Kurds, as both a Diaspora and regional people, many dream of the day when the Kurdish flag flies over a sovereign independent Kurdish state. So far in the KRG of northern Iraq they have  established something  which they may try to expand slowly into a nation. Perhaps the Kurdish people will try to build a democratic, successful, fair and tolerant society for themselves and their children through peaceful negotiation and dialogue.

Sadly, it is almost inevitable that there will be some Kurds who will not reject the use of violence. In communities which have struggled for some degree of freedom, where blood has been spilt and families worship martyrs, it is not surprising that willing recruits still emerge to follow the path of violence. Even if the vast majority of the Kurdish population publicly discarded violence, small numbers of hardened experienced veterans of the armed struggle will not give up their arms until they achieve what they want. Angry and eager younger people, seduced by old stories, add themselves to these numbers with a burning desire to right the wrongs they see afflicting their people. It seems therefore, that the Kurdish question will not be resolved easily or quickly.


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


24 August 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed