It is certainly hard to believe, but there is still one thing uniting the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian governments: Their fear of the formation of an independent Kurdish state.
The unfolding developments in Iraq and Syria are most alarming for this quartet. Syria is on the brink of dissolution. The formation of an autonomous Kurdish entity under a federal Syria would freak out not only Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also his neighbors. The success of Syrian Kurds in winning autonomy would encourage the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and also Kurds in Turkey and Iran. This picture is, however, much more complicated.
Turkey, on the one hand, is scared of the formation of an independent Kurdish state along its southern borders as it would fuel domestic Kurdish separatism. An independent Kurdistan, on the other hand, would serve as a source of oil and trade, a stable ally against Maliki and other rivals in the region and a collaborator in containing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Hence it looks like Ankara would give its consent, however grudgingly, to such a development.
Massoud Barzani, the KRG president, also has his own challenges before him. The emergence of a Syrian Kurdish enclave is putting pressure on him vis-à-vis his policy toward Turkey. Barzani has developed a harmonious relationship with Ankara by supporting Turkey not only in its struggle against the PKK, but also in its agenda vis-à-vis Syrian Kurds.
Syria Kurds divided
On the other hand, Syrian Kurds are divided not only by geography, but also by political stance. There is rivalry between the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) which is the political alliance of 12 Kurdish political parties and the PYD, the largest and most powerful Kurdish organization in Syria, affiliated with the PKK. The PYD is also accused by the KNC of siding with the al-Assad regime although its leader, Salih Muslim, rejects this charge.
Kurds of the region are also not united. There is tension between Barzani and some Syrian Kurds. On the one hand, the KRG has invested in the political future of Syrian Kurds by training Kurdish Syrian militia who deserted the Syrian army. Barzani also reconciled different Kurdish groups in Syria, convincing the PYD to join the unified Kurdish coalition with the KNC. However, the PYD remains at odds with Barzani. The problem is not only the PYD’s affiliation with the PKK but that the PYD argues that the KRG privileges its own interests above everything else.
Syria Kurds will unite
However, just as old rivals Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani managed to put their differences aside and become pragmatically allies, Kurdish groups will probably do the same and unite around their common goal: Self-determination. In addition, Barzani’s political, economic and strategic assets would make Syrian Kurds gravitate toward the KRG in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising.
The human brain is holistic. The human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts. This is also true when looking at the Kurds in the region. Mind the parts.
*The article first appeared in The Hurriyet Daily News
VERDA ÖZER is a senior Program Manager at Columbia Global Center Turkey, Marshall Memorial Fellow at German Marshall Fund. She used to be Research Analyst & PhD Candidate at Defense Academy of the UK.