Kurds despite being the one of the largest ethnic group in Middle East numbering perhaps 35 million were denied a nation of their own as a result of the deliberate Anglo-French carving up the map of the collapsed Ottoman Empire following the First World War. Kurdish culture predates the birth of Islam and of Christianity, going back some 2,500 years. Ethnically Kurds are not Arab, not Turkic peoples. They are Kurds with their own distinct identity.
Today they are predominantly Sunni Muslim, but ethnically Kurd peoples, divided between four adjoining states. Kurdish homeland, Kurdistan, has been forcibly divided and lies mostly within the present-day borders of Turkey, Iraq Iran and Syria with smaller parts in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Kurdish areas across these countries are usually the poorest, least developed, systematically marginalized by the centres of economic power. The Kurds often fought for other groups that succeeded as regional powers, receiving a reputation for being fierce fighters. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds like many other groups in the region were guaranteed a homeland by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rose to power and Turkey’s borders were formalized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the Kurds were not given a country of their own. Now the Kurds, who after years of oppression and marginalisation have emerged as a key political and military force in the Middle East.
But after the precipitous rise of the Kurds in Syria now Kurdish aspirations are very high. The declaration of federalism in Kurdish control areas in Syria called Rojava is being viewed as a bid to become a tipping point that might help change the artificial borders of the Middle East established after the First World War following the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement. Among all the domestic political forces of Syria, the Kurds are crucial participants in the fight against the radical Islamists and they are being consider as credible ally by both West and Russia. The Kurds, unlike many groups active in Syria, have an identity that is based on ethnicity, not on religion. They contain a powerful secular charge. Moreover the Kurds can become one of the keystones for the rebirth of statehood after the end of the civil war, especially as a part of Syria’s future armed forces. It’s not only Syria which is seeing rise of Kurds in national arena but the neighbouring countries like Turkey and Iraq are also feeling the Kurdish pulse on greater magnitude. Iraqi Kurds are now directly selling their oil to Turkey bypassing the Iraqi government. The Baghdad government seems also to have accepted though unwillingly that the Kurds can sell their oil on the open market via the Turkish terminal at Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean. For years its oil ministry had refused to let them do so.
Recently Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani announced that “the time has come for world leaders to rethink the boundaries of the Middle East and for the Kurds to have a state of their own in the region.” He said that time was ripe to hold a referendum on an independent Kurdistan. Kurdish separatist insurgency in Turkey has posed the U.S.’s NATO ally a huge strategic conundrum, and sowed deeper unrest in the country. Now Turkey has been negotiating directly with the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Now, Kurds are at the heart of the Middle East’s most pressing crises and at the outset of the twenty-first century they have achieved their greatest international prominence. In Iraq and in Syria where the state’s authority is collapsing, the Kurds are grabbing their opportunities. The Kurds expect to consolidate their gains over the territory they control and that means acceptance of Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq, and if the peace process is put back on track in Turkey, the Kurds want the establishment of Kurdish autonomy inside Turkey as well. The Kurds realise that this may be the best time for them to push their agenda in the region.
The two super powers United States and Russia realise that. If played right, the Kurdish card represents a counterbalance to dictators like Bashar-Al-Assad and Islamic radicals like ISIS. They could help negotiate the entire Middle East out of the current dangerous bend in its history with the promise of a new regional order that reflects its immense ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. It is too soon to visualize what shape the Middle East will take once the dust of the current conflicts settles. What seems increasingly evident is that the new regional reality will include an emergent Kurdistan may be as an autonomous region within a state or totally independent state. It’s a hard reality that at this point in time the Kurds in each country are closer than ever to achieving self-determination.