Kurdish developments in the Middle East

Regardless of its ups and downs through the history of the past century, during recent years, the issue of Kurds in the Middle East has been characterized with independence-seeking struggles of Kurds against central governments, especially in Iraq, Turkey and quite recently in Syria; increased political and cultural convergence among Kurds in the region; and internationalization of Kurdish issues and increased attention of the global community and big powers to them. At present, in addition to such non-state actors as Daesh, global and regional powers including the United States, the European Union, Russia, Israel and Saudi Arabia affect developments related to the Kurds in the Middle East.

Despite the increasing number of such actors and increased attention to this issue from the international community and also in spite of the important role that the Kurdish issue is expected to play in shaping new security arrangements in the Middle East, the basic logic of the Kurdish developments is still function of an old rule which is known as omnibalancing. According to this theory, which was presented by Steven R. David and further developed by Robert Olson, S. Enders Wimbush, and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, the Kurdish issue has been a prominent example of the efforts made by governments to manage domestic, ethnic and religious challenges through preemptive intervention in the affairs of other rival powers, which have Kurdish populations of their own. By doing this, they would not only maintain their social solidarity and head off domestic threats, but also provide the ground for achievement of another goal, which is to create balance with regional rivals and take part in shaping desirable security arrangements in the region while ending undesirable situations.

If in the past, only Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran applied the policy of broad-based balance making to the issue of Kurds, that policy is currently pursued by Saudi Arabia, Israel and Qatar as well. The ongoing military intervention by Turkey in northern Syria and its past military operations in northern Iraq constitute another salient example of the pursuit of broad-based balance making and foreign intervention to cover the failed projects of the war of attrition against the PKK inside Turkey.

In order to counterbalance Iran and deal a blow to the axis of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel interfere in the Kurdish issue in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Israel was the sole regime, which openly supported the idea of the disintegration of Iraq and establishment of a Kurdish entity in 2014. Saudi Arabia also recognized the Iraqi Kurdistan Region for the first time in 2015 by opening a consulate in the region’s capital city of Erbil and, in addition, started to support inefficient and marginal Kurdish armed opposition groups in Iran.

Among transregional powers, while the European Union has been following a low-effect constructivist approach to Kurds, the United States and Russia are still taking instrumental advantage of Kurdish groups through a realist logic. During 2015, Russia supported the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (PYD) in Syria. However, that support has greatly waned following recent agreements between Russian President, Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although the United States considers the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist group, it supports the group’s affiliates in Syria, that is, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) by providing them with both logistic and military aid. This double standard policy has continued by the United States since Turkey started its military intervention in Syria. The White House warns Turkey to avoid escalation of war with Kurds and weakening of the anti-Daesh front, while at the same time, asking the People’s Protection Units to get out of the Syrian town of Manbij, which was recently taken back from the Daesh terrorist group.

Of course, it will be difficult for the United States to go on with this dual policy and maintain cooperation with two rival forces, that is, the Kurdish fighters and the Turkish government, at the same time. Of course, the United States lacks the background of a proclaimed strategy in the Middle East, but policies it has adopted with regard to Kurds and those governments that are involved in this issue, show that the White House follows an approach of containment and balance in this regard.

Under conditions when no government has absolute power to control strategic developments related to Kurds and no government has been willing or able to pay high costs attached to those developments, it seems that as it was the case in past years, the Kurdish issue is still a dependent, not an independent, variable in international system as well as in transitional security system of the region. Most stakeholder governments use this dependent variable as a card to create balance in the region, set the rules of the game and determine the sphere of influence of Kurdish political and military groups. Of course, the positive point for Kurds is that numerous actors, which are active in this field, have conventional interests and Kurdish groups and elites have appeared totally professional in taking advantage of short-term opportunities offered by this rivalry.

Under these circumstances, any escalation of disputes between Turks and Kurds in Syria will only make the situation more complicated and add a new uncertainty to such destabilizing drivers as unpredictable behavior of Daesh and the situation of the country’s fragile government. Turkey can expect Russia and Iran to understand its legitimate security concerns in Syria only if it shows more cooperation for the elimination of the threat posed by the one factor which is the most important concern of both Turkey and other countries in the region, which is fighting against Daesh and other forms of sectarian terrorism. In this way, Ankara would also provide necessary ground for the formulation of regional initiatives pivoted around the axis of Tehran, Ankara and Moscow.

As for Iran’s approach to the Kurdish issue in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, one may say that according to the principle of national sovereignty and inviolability of borders, Iran is opposed to division of Iraq and Syria or establishment of a federal system and independent cantons in those countries before a really democratic political structure comes into being and a new constitution is formulated for Syria. While fighting terrorist activities of some foreign-backed Kurdish groups – such as the PJAK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party – on its own soil, Iran continues to consider the PKK as a terrorist group and condemns its acts of violence on Turkish soil while stressing the need to interact with legal Kurdish parties in Turkey. By taking for granted the necessity of paying attention to natural rights of Kurds, Iran supported establishment of a federal system and official recognition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq in 2001 and offered the greatest amount of support for Kurds in their fight against Daesh in 2015. This right is also reserved for Syrian Kurds, of course, within framework of democratic processes, not on the basis of foreign interference and imposition.

Iran’s policy toward developments related to Kurds in the Middle East takes advantage of soft power factors and turns them into smart power. Iranians enjoy the strongest historical, civilizational and cultural links with Kurds. Relations between Iranians and Kurds have been devoid of bloody borders and bitter memories, and they are currently fighting common enemies and are in the same front in the war against terrorism and sectarianism. Therefore, the prospect for cooperation between Iran and Kurds for fighting off common threats as well as protecting the basic rights of Kurds in Syria can be considered as bright as it is in Iraq, and this cooperation can be considered as a factor to regulate anti-Kurdish behavior of other governments.


This article was written by Ja’far Haghpanah for Iran Review on Sep 03, 2016. Ja’far Haghpanah is Assistant Professor of Regional Studies at the University of Tehran, Iran.