Almost 20 months into the Syrian crisis, a heady mixture of Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish nationalisms are adding another level of complexity to confusion. Consider the following emerging triangular strategic relations between Turkey and the region’s Kurds. The Turkish government loves the folks in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan province, but hates some of their kin in northern Syria; even while Iraqi and Syrian Kurds draw closer.
One arm of this triangle was formed by Turkey’s emergence as an economic partner of Iraq’s Kurdish region, in hydrocarbons and many other sectors. Iraqi Kurdistan is now the Turks’ eighth-biggest export destination. Meeting people in the public and private sectors on my visits to the regional capital of Erbil this year confirmed the ubiquity of Turkish business there. Of course, all this benefits both Turks and Kurds.
By contrast, Ankara’s relations with Kurds in northern Syria, another side of the triangle, are tense. The presence on the Syrian-Turkish border of the Kurdistan Workers Party (known by its Kurdish-language initials PKK) led to warnings by Turkey in July that it would act in northern Syria against any threatening groups. That was prompted by the pullout of Syrian troops from Kurdish regions, viewed by Ankara as emboldening Kurds in Syria to hit Turkey in retaliation for its anti-Damascus stance. Previously, the Syrian government had kept the PKK quiet, but the Turks now face enclaves in northern Syria under the control of Kurds supporting autonomy inside Turkey.
Then there’s the base of the triangle, linking Syria’s Kurds and Erbil’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In this respect, a major player in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (known by its Kurdish initials PYD) the dominant Kurd faction in the country and a close ally of the PKK. While relations between the KRG and PYD have often been hostile, over the summer the latter put aside its differences with the former and joined the KRG-backed Kurdish National Council coalition, made up of 15 Kurdish Syrian groups seeking Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Meanwhile, the head of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, has admitted that some Syrian Kurds have been receiving basic military training in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turks, for their part, rely on the KRG to send diplomatic messages to the PYD and its friends. (A major example of the use of such channels was Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s visit to Erbil this summer to reiterate threats against Syria’s Kurds.)
The recent de facto Kurdish semi-autonomy in parts of northern Syria shows interesting parallels with the autonomous KRG-led province of Iraq. Yet, the dispersed state of Syria’s Kurds, scattered among Arab and other ethnicities in a band hundreds of kilometers wide, makes creation of a separate, large, and geographically contiguous Kurdish Syrian province problematic; even if it were to emerge from the convulsions of war, any “Syrian Kurdistan” would not likely enjoy common borders with KRG territory as presently constituted.
However, the recent history of the region has shown that the improbable can quickly become likely, and even inevitable. Under an optimistic scenario for Kurdish nationalists — and a nightmare for Ankara or Baghdad — territory in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq could, in a geopolitical upheaval, become fair game for Kurds demanding expansion of their autonomous or semi-autonomous areas in Iraq and Syria, or even calling for a sovereign state.
Talk of an independent Kurdistan has long perturbed Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (not to mention Iran), with Kurdish statehood — or merely expanded autonomy — having immense regional ramifications. Linguistically and culturally distinct from neighbors, there are estimates as high as 36 million Kurds living in the four countries. In many ways, 2012 is turning out to be good for many Kurds, with rich businessmen in Erbil becoming richer, and peasants in northern Syria getting a taste of semi-autonomus freedom. Yet, the Kurds’ future may not be tranquil: as Turkey’s Kurds step up separatist campaigns, and northern Syrian areas face intensified fighting, events in Kurdish zones could heat up and radically alter the region’s geopolitical landscape.
Riad al-Khouri is an economist and a principal at Development Equity Associates