The convolution of the Kurdish national political dilemma with the division of Kurdistan amongst Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan had convinced many a reunited independent Kurdistan to be an epic dream. This pessimism was running high during the Cold War era. The States sharing major parts of Kurdish land were divided along the bipolar structure with each receiving sufficient military, political and economic support from their respective polar super powers to crush any Kurdish struggle infused to change the status quo of Kurdistan.
The collapse of the bipolar structure varied the political equation fundamentally. Kurdistan is placed with a unique status in the new world order. The prospect of an independent Kurdistan Crescent in light of the current changing political dynamic in the Middle East is becoming an imminent reality.
This presentation will look at the unfavourable political, economic and security circumstances that resulted in maintaining the status quo of a divided Kurdistan throughout the Cold War era. The presentation will then look at the political, economic and security changes underway in the post-cold war Middle East and highlight how these changes facilitate the rise of Kurdish political power in the region. For this purpose, the presentation will specifically look at each part of Kurdistan and highlight how an emerging independent Kurdistan Crescent stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf could contribute to peace and stability in the region.
A. Kurdistan in the Cold War Era
After the division of Kurdistan in 1923, the western powers’ pursuit of vital economic and geo-strategic political interests maintained a divided Kurdistan. The economic interests were primarily in the context of exploiting petroleum and mineral resources in the newly made artificial States in which Kurdistan was parcelled out.
With the commencement of the Cold War between the capitalist and communist blocks after the Second World War (WWII) in 1945, the unfavourable political circumstances in relation to Kurdistan deepened further. The bipolar security implications consolidated the newly made international boundaries that divided Kurdistan into several parts.
In the case of Turkey – Turkey bordered the former Soviet Union and was a corridor for the Soviet Union to enter into the Middle East and consequently the Persian Gulf. This would give Soviet Union a strong security and economic superiority in the region. Turkey’s geopolitical location from the US perspective was therefore strategic to contain communist expansion into the Middle East. For this purpose, Turkey secured military and economic aid from the US government under the Truman Doctrine instituted in 1947 to repel the communist threat. This was part of the new containment policy that the US deployed in the States that were amenable to the communist expansion.
In this way, Turkey bolstered its security by serving the US geopolitical interests in the region. Turkey’s security was further consolidated and guaranteed by its admittance into the NATO in 1953. Thus ensuring Turkey’s security and territorial integrity from a matter of geopolitical interest was translated into a treaty arrangement under the NATO membership. The US went even further by establishing several military bases inside Turkey.
Iran with the Eastern and second biggest part of Kurdistan under its control attained a similar geopolitical importance within the context of the US containment foreign policy. Iran’s vast petroleum resources were also vital for the Western States’ strategic security and economic interests.
In case of Iran, the Soviet Union had already a significant military presence in Iran. The Soviet Union had laid their foothold in Iran in 1941 along with the British and had established permanent military bases. The West perceived the Soviet presence in Iran as a significant threat to its security and economic interest in the region.
Therefore, when World War II was over, the US pushed for the removal of all foreign forces from Iran by January 1946. This was in the context of supporting Iran’s integrity and independence. However, the move was primarily aimed at removing Soviet military presence and influence in Iran.
The establishment of the independent Republic of Kurdistan (also known as Mahabad) in parts of the Eastern Kurdistan region in 1946 therefore did not coincide with the US strategic interest in the region as the move was within the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviet withdrew its forces from Iran after extensive US pressure and striking oil deals with Iran. The US further supported Iran’s monarchic regime to overcome the Republic of Kurdistan and reoccupy the Kurdish region in late 1946.
Iran’s geopolitical importance continued until Iran’s monarchic regime was replaced by the Islamic regime in 1979. From then onwards, the US fear of Soviet communist expansion into Iran reduced so long as Iran’s newly established Islamic regime remained intact.
However, the Islamic regime itself became a new security dilemma for the West and required a new containment policy. This security concern was mainly in the context of Islamic regime’s power posture and its security threats to the Western interests including to that of Israel.
The British invaded much of the areas what is currently called Iraq by 1918. After the First World War at the time of the partition of the region, British attached Southern Kurdistan to Iraq to take advantage of its large oil deposits. The British were first able to drill oil out the Kurdish land from the town of Kerkuk on 14 October 1927. This was the commencement of the oil curse that would cap Kurdish aspirations for self-rule in the southern region of Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan) for a long time to come.
Britain administered Iraq directly or indirectly for eighteen years until 1932 after which it moved out of Iraq, as it could no longer rule Iraq at the expense of its domestic problems. However, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) set up by the British continued its operation and therefore the British had no interest in separating the Kurdish region from Iraq because of the lucrative oil interests.
Britain presented Iraq as a modern sovereign State and recommended Iraq to become a full member of the League of Nations in 1932.
The Kurds strongly resisted their inclusion into the new artificial State of Iraq and even proclaimed independence in 1925 under the then Kurdish leader Sheik Mahmood. The British took the Kurdish independence as a risk to its oil interests in Iraq and therefore supressed the movement ruthlessly.
The British oil interests through the operation of the IPC was maintained until the Ba’athist seized power in a military coup in 1968 and nationalised the Iraqi oil industry by June 1972. The Ba’athist regime removed Iraq out the British sphere of influence and established closer ties with the Soviet Union.
With Saddam’s assertive animosity against Israel and the Western interests intensified in 1980s and 1990s. The US undertook a similar containment policy that resulted in two full scale wars against Iraq and removal of Saddam’s dictatorship in 2003.
After the partition of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in 1918, France received Syria under the secret Sykes-Picot agreement signed between France and Britain that also included a relatively small part, which is considered Kurdistan [Rojava], in northern Syria, a region currently considered to be under the direct administration of PKK offshoot Democratic Union Party (Kurdish: Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) (PYD). Later France was formally given the mandate of Syria by the League of Nations in 1923. France continued to administer Syria until 1943 after which Syria and Lebanon became two independent States.
In contrast to Turkey and Iran, Syria joined the Soviet bloc in 1955. The Soviet provided Syria with significant military aid to counter balance the US influence in the region.
Therefore, Kurdish politics did not attain much attention due to strong bipolar division and rivalries between the Western and Eastern blocks.
B. Kurdistan: Post Cold War Era
In the post-Cold War era, the balance of power increasingly shifted in favour of Kurdistan as a result of significant strategic, geo-political, economic, and demographic developments in the region.
Obliteration of the cold war dynamic to an extent unleashed the Kurdish political power to grow significantly in the region. Kurdistan’s growing importance is mainly due to its geographical location and its role in the security and stability of the region.
Kurdistan lies in the most strategically important part of the region. It not only bounds the major States of the region together, it links the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, Kurdistan is a bridge as well as a barrier between Europe and the Middle East. The current political and security developments in the Middle East including the growth of Islamic radicalism give Kurdistan a prominent security role. In particular, Kurdistan can serve as a barrier against the security threats and instability that emanates from the region. For these reasons, Kurdistan is increasingly attracting strategic and geo-political importance in the region.
Below are a number of geo-strategic, political, economic and security factors that give Kurdish politics a more prominent role in the region:
1. Rivalry between Western and Eastern blocks:
Although the Cold War has officially ended, the traces of rivalry between the Western and Eastern blocs can still be felt in the new security dynamic of the region. Iran, Iraq and Syria for a long time were or have been in the former Soviet Union or Eastern bloc’s sphere of influence. The three countries continued defiance of the West posed a significant threat to the Western countries long-term security, economic and political interests in the region including that of Israel. For the West, these countries were a ‘triangle of threat’ that had to be neutralised to protect their interest in the region.
With Iraq being removed from the triangle, the next turn was Syria followed by Iran. In this greater Middle Eastern plan or political reshuffle, Kurds inevitably became an important actor for their geostrategic location in the region.
2. New Political Dynamic in the Middle East
The new political dynamic in the Middle East commencing with the ‘Arab Spring’ is destined to open the Middle East to democratic and popular governments. The Western States are backing such changes in the framework of opening up the region for economic liberalisation and establishing Western friendly democratic governments.
Kurds with a population of over 40 million, lying at the heart of the Middle East are an integral part of this changing political dynamic in the region. Kurdish politics have proven to be driven by secular orientation and pro-Western tendencies. In addition, many Kurdish political groups share mutual political, economic and security interests with the Western States in the region. In particular, Kurds have played an important role in the region to curb terrorism and religious fundamentalism.
These factors make the Kurds natural allies of the Western countries. For these reasons, Kurdistan will not only gain political importance but also play an important role in establishing security and stability in the region.
3. Turkey and Iran’s historic struggle for superiority
Historically, Turkey and Iran have been competing for superiority in the region and as a result stayed each other’s arch-enemies for the most part of their history. In the wake of changing political dynamic of the region, both countries have realised that in the near future Kurds will gain sufficient power to tilt the balance of power in favour of one or the other depending on which country can forge an alliance with the Kurds.
Their predecessors, the Ottomans and Safavids, went through the same political calculation in the sixteen century AD that resulted in the battle of Chalderan in 1514. They finally divided Kurdistan territory between themselves through the treaty of Zuhab in 1639 to avoid the balance of power being tilted towards one or the other.
Turkey’s radical policy change towards South Kurdistan is partly because of Turkey’s perception of this future threat or development. Turkey has now officially recognised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and has developed strong economic ties. Many believe the purpose is to make KRG depend on Turkey for its economic development. Once this dependent relation is established, Turkey will have sufficient leverage over the KRG to prevent forging any future alliance with Iran. In this context, Turkey commenced reconciliation process with its own Kurdish citizens in the framework of peace negotiation with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader.
Iran has also tried to become closer to the Kurdish political parties. Iran has strong political relations with PUK and according to several reports it is also supporting PKK against Turkey. However, the growing Turkish-Kurdish political and economic relations indicate that Iran may have been left behind if it does not adopt radical policy change and rapprochement with the Kurds.
4. Shi’a Crescent
The West and in particular Israel have perceived a growing threat from what was first highlighted by King Hussein of Jordan as the ‘Shi’a Crescent’. Iran’s is the heart of this Shi’a political influence which stretches to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran has pursued an assertive role in influencing the political conflicts of these regions. It has long assisted and financed groups such as Hamas from Palestine and Hezbollah from Lebanon against Israel. It has also intervened heavily in Iraq and Syria to change the course of the conflict in its favour. This growing power posture has alarmed the Western and Sunni States in the region, especially Israel and Gulf Arab Sunni States. These concerned States are directing the political change to deal with the security threats emanating from the Shi’a Crescent.
These strategic security concerns can primarily be dealt with by making geopolitical changes in the region. In this context, reshuffling the political map of the region is an important part of the new political dynamic.
If a strong independent state of Kurdistan, stretching for the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf would be an important security development that would divide the geographic continuity of the Shi’a Crescent. It would also counterbalance the threats that may originate from the Shi’a Crescent. Therefore Kurdistan would play an important role in the region’s new security dimension and stability.
5. Economic Potentials
Iraqi Kurdistan’s huge oil and gas reserves and rapid economic development is also an important factor in altering the political equation of the region in favour of the Kurds. It is not only increasing the political power of South Kurdistan but also contributing to the Kurdish cause of other parts of Kurdistan.
Iraqi Kurdistan has attracted the major oil and gas companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Total and Gazprom. Kurdistan has successfully built its first oil pipeline under its direct control. Western Kurdistan’s interim administration has also controlled the major oil region promising for future energy developments.
6. Rising Kurdish Political Struggle
In addition to the above mentioned factors, Kurdish political awareness and their struggle for nationhood has also grown significantly.
We will now analyse each part of Kurdistan within the respective occupying countries individually:
a) South Kurdistan – Iraq
The self-governing Kurdistan Region is becoming an important power house within Greater Kurdistan. With Saddam’s removal in Iraq, the region has gained significant political and economic power. It is increasingly consolidating its political and diplomatic status on the regional and international levels. The region has been transformed into the world capital for oil and gas exploration. Many countries and conglomerates have invested billions of dollars in the region.
The Kurdistan region has also established a well-equipped strong military force. It has the capacity to counter balance any Iraqi Shia or Sunni security threat to its territorial integrity. The Kurdistan region is therefore on the path of full independence and Iraq cannot stop it save for the regional intervention. Iraq has already lost its unitary statehood status in the international system and has two identities which are Arab Iraq and Kurdish Kurdistan.
The growing political and economic power of South Kurdistan is also positively affecting other parts of Kurdistan and the wider region. Kurdistan Region is playing an important role in the Kurdish political conflict in West and North Kurdistan. It is also playing an important role in regional and international cooperation against terrorism.
These strategic political, economic and security compliments of South Kurdistan will raise its political profile and increasingly make Kurds as one of the main actors in the Middle Eastern politics.
b) Western Kurdistan – Syria
Syria was frontline State within the former Soviet Union or Russian sphere of influence in the Mediterranean region. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea is in Syria. Syria therefore has geostrategic importance for Russia. Syria also borders Israel and has championed the Palestinian cause. It is against Israeli policies in Palestine. It also shelters more than half a million registered Palestinians refugees1 and has not nationalised them as Jordan did to its millions of Palestinian refugees.
These competing regional and international politics explains the current unsettling internal conflict in Syria. The West expects a new Syrian government that is outside the Russian and Iranian sphere of influence. A government that is friendly to Israel and Western interests and perhaps nationalises the Palestinians refugees.
The Kurdish issue therefore does not seem to influence the future Syrian State provided that Kurdish role does not become a necessity in these political manoeuvrings. However, as the last two years political developments in the West Kurdistan indicate, Kurds cannot be ignored. The consolidation of the Kurdish political entity with the declaration of an interim administration indicates that Kurds are inevitably an important part of the political developments in Syria and the wider region.
Therefore, one way or another, the West, Russia, regional States and even Syria itself have to deal and live with the new political reality of Kurdish self-rule in the Western Kurdistan. Iran and Syria appear to be supportive of the Kurdish political gain in the Western Kurdistan so long as the conflict continues.
Turkey has rejected the Kurdish interim administration. This, however, may not have any significant impact for three main reasons. Firstly, Turkey cannot interfere militarily because of the Syrian, Russian and Iranian opposition. Secondly, Turkey is entangled in its own severe internal conflict with the PKK and has to do deal with these matters more urgently. Thirdly, the growing strategic economic relations with the South Kurdistan require Turkey to maintain peace and stability in the region rather than making further political complications with the Kurds.
Therefore, the balance of power in the region is conducive for the Western Kurdistan to consolidate its power in line with the political gains of South Kurdistan. However, the complexity of Syrian conflict involving many regional and international powers puts any Kurdish gain at constant risk. Kurds are required to take this new political development very seriously.
c) North Kurdistan – Turkey
Turkey is still a member of NATO and has the second biggest military amongst the member States. However, with the end of the communist expansionist threat, Turkey’s strategic importance for the US and the West has reduced considerably. On the other hand, the rising Kurdish nationalism and population is laying irretrievable impacts on the Turkey’s internal political dynamic.
Turkey has reached the stage where it can no longer deny the Kurdish political reality or deal with the Kurdish issue militarily. PKK’s three decades old freedom movement has resulted in the deaths of thousands of its soldiers. It has cost Turkey billions of dollars and depleted its national budget. The conflict has further hindered investments and Turkish access to energy resources from the Middle Eastern countries.
In the last two years, PKK has also gained significant military ground inside North Kurdistan. Encouraged by its political power gain in the Western Kurdistan, PKK also announced for the first time that it is altering its long practised hit and run guerrilla tactics with establishing permanent bases inside the border regions of North Kurdistan.
At the same time, the Kurdish unbalanced population growth in Turkey has created further underlying problems for Turkey. According to several academic researches, if the current Kurdish population growth rate continues in Turkey, Kurdish population will surpass the Turkish population and will become the majority by 2038. This has created a major concern for the Turkish government forcing the Turkish Prime Minister to publicly appeal to the Turks to increase their birth rate. This is an important part of soft politics for Kurds in Kurdistan that will have significant impact on Turkish politics in decades to come.
These political and demographic developments require Turkey to implement urgent plans to reconcile its restive Kurdish population. Erdogan’s recent peace process with the PKK is very much the result of these impelling significant factors. Therefore, Turkey has no choice but to unleash the rising Kurdish political power in Turkey.
d) Eastern Kurdistan – Iran
Iran’s growing political power is problematic for the Kurdish national cause in the Eastern Kurdistan. The US and other Western States in essence do not seem to be against a Shi’a Iran for strategic political and economic reasons in the region as long as Iran does not threaten their political and economic interests. The US and other Western States’ red line for Iran is restricting Iran from becoming a nuclear power that could change the balance of power and threaten their underlying interests in the region. The Obama administration appears to be more dovish in dealing with Iran’s nuclear problem at least at this point of time.
Nevertheless, similar to Turkey, Iran’s geo-political importance has reduced in the post-Cold War era. In addition, the threats that emanates from the so called Shi’a Crescent as well as the nuclear program, puts Iran in a weaker status within the international relations as compared to the Cold War era. Therefore, Kurdish political movement within Iran will not face similar Cold War consequences.
Although the grassroot Kurdish population stay dormant politically compared to the activism of their brethren in other parts of Kurdistan, their political awareness is growing and it is inevitable that the Kurdish political power in other parts of Kurdistan will also effect Eastern Kurdistan.
C. Kurdistan Crescent is on the Make
Therefore these rapid geo-strategic, political and economic developments within the Greater Kurdistan signal the emergence of a Kurdistan Crescent.
First of all the rising Kurdish political power in South, West and North Kurdistan has enabled Kurds to be one of the main actors in Middle East politics. The vice-chairman of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Hüseyin Çelik, has “ranked Kurds among the main actors in Middle Eastern politics”.2
Secondly, the international borders diving Greater Kurdistan are increasingly becoming less defined. Kurdistan Regional Government and Rojawa (Syrian Kurdistan) interim administration are controlling the international border that divides the Western and Southern Kurdistan. Kurds can now freely move between these two parts of Kurdistan; not mentioning some recent political tension between PDK and PYD that resulted in closing the border for some time.
The PKK has also controlled the border region between Qandil Mountain and North Kurdistan. The border between Eastern Kurdistan and Southern Kurdistan is also loosely controlled allowing Kurds from the Eastern Kurdistan to enter South Kurdistan without any impediment.
Secondly, as the borders are disappearing, the Kurdish identity is consolidating. Kurds are claiming their political status stronger in the vast majority of Kurdistan.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a growing feeling of Kurdish unification throughout Kurdistan, which is uniting members of the Kurdish community. The current efforts in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to hold Kurdistan national congress that includes Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan and the relations developing between the different parties of Greater Kurdistan are unprecedented.
Fourthly, the changing political dynamic in the Middle East unlike the Cold War era is in line with the Kurdish national interests. Kurds are set to gain a lion’s share in this new political reshuffle.
Fifthly, the growing Kurdish political power in the region is making the Kurds an important part of the political equation for peace and stability in the Middle East. In particular, the revival of Kurdistan Crescent will underpin geographical containment of religious power posture and radicalism in the region. The Kurdistan Crescent will weaken the so called Shi’a Crescent.
Therefore, the changing political dynamic within the Middle East and the growing Kurdish political power in the Kurdish triangle of South, West and North Kurdistan is heading towards the revival of the Kurdistan Crescent. With Syria and Iraq appearing to be out the equation to restrain any such a development, it is only Turkey and Iran than can stand in the way of Kurdistan’s full independence. However, with the changing internal political dynamic in Turkey leading to the rise of Kurdish political power, it may only be a matter time that the Kurdish political power will sweep through North and Eastern Kurdistan. Therefore, Kurdistan Crescent may well be on the horizon.