The new role of the Kurds in the Middle Eastern chessboard
Federica Araco - 06/12/2014
Since June, hundreds of Yazidis were killed in northern Iraq and thousands of women and girls have been abducted or sold as sex slaves in gruesome markets in Raqqa. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in the last two months there were 1200 deaths in the besieged city of Kobanê and more than 200 thousand people have fled to refugee camps set up in the southeast of Turkey.
The Iraqi Kurdish journalist Adib Fateh Ali (Askanews), in Italy since the ‘70s, in visited Erbil, Lalhish and other cities of the country in September and October. He decried the suffering of a people torn by the fury of the militia of the self-proclaimed Islamic state (IS) in his report “Io ho visto” (I saw). “We are facing an exodus of biblical proportions involving Shiites, Yazidis, Christians, Sunni Arabs, Kurds of Syria”, he tells Babelmed. “It's as if all the inhabitants of Liguria, in a few days, moved to Lombardy. When I visited those places, there was no school, no building under construction, no square or mall that was not harboring dozens of refugees. The volunteers who came from all parts of Kurdistan have set up an extensive organization to ensure at least a roof and hot food to thousands of people. Hundreds of kids are ready to go and fight against the IS. They are mostly young people inspired by strong ideals and a deep sense of belonging to a land that has always been attacked and battered, and a culture that has managed to withstand the deep processes of eradication.”
The Kurds of northern Iraq amount to about 4 million, and according to some estimates to 6 million. Within a couple of months, 1 million and 800 thousand of them fled to the Turkish-Syrian borders. "Many have told me they don’t want to return to their villages because it was their neighbors, Sunni Arabs, to deliver them into the hands of the enemy indicating their homes to the jihadists. The situation is dramatic.”
Towards a “Kurdish spring”?
To put an end to the massacre and stem the expansion of the IS, the international coalition led by the United States decided to support the Iraqi peshmerga fighters, YPG and YPJ, deployed in the front line in the anti-jihadist fight.
The support of the Western powers has a big influence on the new role that the largest stateless people in the world (40 million) is beginning to take on the complex and unstable chessboard of the Middle East.
“Today, Europe and the US find it difficult to intervene with their own troops, because of the the economic crisis and also because the public opinion would never support a new war”, says Fateh Ali. “For this reason, the West needs to ally with credible forces on site. The Syrian resistance is undoubtedly an unreliable interlocutor and even the Iraqi army is not up to the task. The latter, in particular, could not withstand the advance of the jihadists and it is now clear that, in a country divided again by ancient tribal and sectarian logics much of the consent to the IS comes from the former soldiers of Saddam Hussein’s army. But Islamists also count on a massive presence of Sudanese, Chechens, Moroccans, Tunisians, Saudis and many young Europeans. In such an unstable and ever-evolving context, the only allies that they can rely on are the Kurds.”
But their growing international legitimacy scares Erdoğan, reminds the journalist. Although formally collaborating to fight to the IS, Ankara fears that the autonomy of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) can awaken the independence ambitions of about 18 million Kurds living in the country. “Turkey has difficulty entering the EU and because of this it has consolidated its political and commercial role to the East”, he explains. “In the past Erdoğan has signed important agreements with Assad but then supported the Syrian resistance to overthrow him, supporting even the most extreme Sunni fringes.”
Another fact that has made Erdoğan lose credibility in the eyes of the international community is the way he handles the Kurdish question. “Today, the PKK is fighting against terrorists and it is very difficult for Ankara to continue to demonstrate that it is a criminal organization. In addition, the reluctance of Turkey about opening a corridor to allow direct passage for the Iraqi Peshmerga to go to Syria has sparked strong reactions among the public, especially among the Kurds, feeding and partly confirming suspicions about his complicity in the expansion of the Islamic State.”
Tension remains high in the country and the peace talks started in 2013 with the PKK leader Öcalan, still locked up in a maximum security prison in the island of Imrali, are likely to blow up triggering a new spiral of violence in an internal conflict that since the 70s claimed the lives of more than 40 thousand people.
According Fateh Ali, the Middle East is experiencing a sort of “Kurdish spring”. “Kobanê is in danger and Erbil rushes in, but also Diyarbakır and Mahabad are at the front line. The Iraqi peshmerga fight alongside the Turkish PKK and the men and women of the Syrian resistance. Important fences are breaking, as never before: for the first time in their history, all Kurds defend Kurdistan, regardless of national boundaries.”
Their leading role in the regional context is positively influencing even the Arab public opinion, historically rather hard against minorities. “A new form of respect towards the Kurds is emerging in the Arab media, for their great courage in fighting extremist tendencies that many moderate Muslims condemn openly”, explains the journalist. “A few weeks ago I was reminding some colleagues that in the past Selahaddin Eyyubi, better known as Saladin, of Kurdish origin, had defended the honor of Islam, just as today the peshmerga fight the executioners that stain the image of Arabs in the eyes of world. Then comes the question: Why doesn’t this people still have the right to have its own state to live in peace?”.
Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar