OFRA BENGIO : “The Upheavals in the Region and their Impact on the Kurds”

9th EUTCC Conference Brussels – Presentation by: Professor Ms. Ofra Bengio – Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East, Israel

 Parallel to the popular revolutions in the Arab states there was a quiet revolution in the Kurdish lands in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In fact the upheavals in the Arab world were a catalyst for things which were brewing in the Kurdish lands for two decades.

There are similarities and differences between the Arab and the Kurdish revolutions borne out by the very fact that in the Arab case we are talking about states while in the Kurdish case we are talking about a 30 m. non-state nation or put differently entities and communities in a state of political flux. In both the Arab and Kurdish cases the breaking of barrier of fear played an important role in the development of the movements, in both cases popular power has had a crucial role in leading it and in both the new media contributed immensely to its success. Likewise as in the Arab world among the Kurds too there is a new generation which may be called the upright generation, namely a generation that has regained the Kurdish voice, attained visibility in the international arena and is devoted to the Kurdish cause. Certainly the Kurdish awakening was inspired in some parts of Kurdistan by the Arab one, however, practically speaking it took completely different directions.

Indeed, the parallel timing helps to disguise deeper differences between the Arab and Kurdish revolutions. While the Arab revolutions have challenged the regimes, those of the Kurds are perceived as a challenge to the territorial integrity of the state and its national identity. This is true especially for the Kurds in Iraq but it is becoming more and more the case for the Kurds in Syria and to a lesser extent for Turkey and Iran as well. The main cause for this development is the bankruptcy of the notion of the nation-state. For the Kurds the nation-state meant the effacing of their identity and their political rights for the greater part of the 20th century, hence the backlash. The weakening of the state versus the society as it had occurred in most of the countries of the region also played into the hands of the Kurds.

Another major difference between the Arab and Kurdish cases is that while in the Arab states the revolutions bolstered the Islamic tendencies in the society and granted legitimacy to political Islam even in secular states such as Tunisia, in the Kurdish case Islamism has not gained the moral and political ground. Instead, the ethnonational tendencies carried the day. This divergence can be explained by the well known fact that among the Kurds political Islam has never cut deep roots. An illustration for this phenomenon are the results of the democratic elections of July 2009 in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq in which the two Islamist parties won together merely 9 out of 111 seats in the parliament, namely 8% of the vote.


On another level, while the Arab revolutions brought to the surface cracks and divisions in the Arab societies in the Kurdish case we see an opposite trend, namely greater tendency for unity. Thus, if the beginning of the 20th century witnessed the division of the Kurds into four states after which ties among the different communities were only randomly maintained, the beginning of the 21st century and especially the latest upheavals brought them closer. Furthermore, it opened the way for certain Pan-Kurdism and mitigated somehow the chronic tendencies for tribalism, internal wars and factionalism. On the whole while the wars and upheavals in the 20th century brought only catastrophes to the Kurds, the 2003 war and the upheavals in 2011-2012 opened for them new horizons. Similarly, the image of backwardness, passiveness and lethargy that stuck to them for generations has given room to a much more assertive and astute one.  


In spite of the fact that the Kurds live in four different countries there is contagious effect, mutual influences and synergy effects between all four.  The transnational movement has gathered momentum thanks to the geopolitical changes in the region, the greater assertiveness of the Kurds, the crucial role of the diaspora, the new media and most importantly the de facto state, the Kurdistan Regional government, which has become the magnet and the model for all the Kurds. Indeed, imagining Kurdistan underwent important transformations. While in the past localism of each part was the order of the day, now Greater Kurdistan becomes part and parcel of the new Kurdish discourse. For the new generation the centre is no longer the state but Greater Kurdistan.  This is illustrated in such terminology which refers to the communities not according to their states but to their parts in a Kurdistani unit. Thus, North refers to Kurdistan in Turkey, South Kurdistan in Iraq, East Kurdistan in Iran and West Kurdistan in Syria.

After this panoramic overview I would like to look briefly at each of the Kurdish region separately. The repercussions on the KRG are immense although there was no revolution there modeled on the Arab ones. The developments in the Middle East catapulted the KRG to the position of the actual leader of the other parts of Kurdistan. The KRG’s pivotal role is evident in the conferences it holds where Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan and the world at large participate; in the bases it provides to political groups and the refuge it grants to fleeing Kurds; and finally in its becoming the Mecca for political parties which come for support, consultation or mediation. The fact that the KRG remained an island of stability and prosperity won it greater legitimacy in the world, especially against the background of the instability in Iraq and the tectonic changes in the region. All this increased its political maneuverability vis-a-vis its neighbors and forced it hand with regards to Baghdad.

The real revolution took place among the Kurds of Syria who were until quite lately a silent minority insulated from the rest of the world. Many analysts doubted that such a community which is fragmented politically and separated from each other geographically and which moreover lacked the natural gift of impregnable mountains, enjoyed by the other parts of Kurdistan, could indeed muster the power to play any important role in the Kurdish scene. And yet the unbelievable had happened. Within a short while the Kurds of Syria turned into a player to be reckoned with.

How did this come about? The fact that the Kurds of Syria reside in the geographical and political periphery, only helped them to take the initiative far away from the watching eyes of the government and the other opposition parties. The Assad regime’s struggle for survival forced him to turn a blind eye to developments in the Kurdish region and even to turn the Kurds into an ally of sorts against the other parts of the opposition. The close ties between the Turkish PKK and the Syrian PYD were further cemented by the souring relations between Damascus and Ankara, pushing Damascus to employ both the PKK and PYD against its short lived ally. However, the main fuel for the Kurdish movement was years of assimilation, Arabization and the effacing of Kurdish identity in the double sense of the word. 

The developments among the Kurds of Syria had immediate impact on the KRG and especially on the Kurds of Turkey. The fact that the Kurds of Syria managed to take control of the Kurdish town and villages in the Syrian north, opened for the KRG a new horizon never before dreamt about, namely the possibility of reaching out to the Mediterranean Sea via Kurdistan in Syria. For a landlocked region this could be an important step further towards independence.  

For the Kurds of Turkey, the contagious effect of the “Arab spring”, especially in Syria, was crucial, as it has impacted the Kurds in Turkey on three different levels. First, the AKP’s vigorous anti-Assad campaign and its support to the Syrian opposition moved Assad to renew his support to the PKK as a quid pro quo. Second, the bolstering of the Syrian Kurds’ position as a result of their takeover of the Kurdish regions in Syria and their demands for a federative system became a source of emulation for the Kurds of Turkey. Third, the border between Turkish and Syrian Kurds became porous, thus strengthening cross- border influences between the two communities.

The most important turn of events among the Kurds in Turkey was the solidification of their movement into two wings: the military and political-popular one. Since the takeover of the Kurdish region in Syria, the PKK escalated significantly its attacks against Turkish targets. Concurrently, popular resistance a la Ghandi style led by the PKK and the BDP were reinforced in various forms. These included sitting demonstrations by mothers whose son disappeared, civic Friday prayers in Kurdish conducted in the streets, boycott of parliament sessions and government mosques and the latest move the hunger strike by hundreds of Kurdish prisoners. All this amounted to a severe challenge to the AKP government which has promised time and again to find a peaceful solution to the problem. Ironically, however, under the AKP governments the Kurdish issue became multi-dimensional, full of paradoxes and much more complicated than at any time in the past.

Concerning the Kurds of Iran, it appears as if the upheavals in the region have bypassed them. In fact since the brutal suppression of their uprising during the early years of the Islamic Republic (1979-1983) the Kurds of Iran continued to oppose the Iranian regimes in various periods and in changing intensity. And even though they appear to be politically dormant in the last few years, they have the potential of becoming the dynamo for deep changes in Iran itself as well as in the entire Kurdish regions. They are only waiting for a trigger.

To sum up the last hundred years were perhaps the worst in Kurdish history including division in different states, campaigns for assimilation and even genocide. But the turn of the 21st century heralds new and better beginnings. The Kurds have regained their voice, identity and visibility in the world. Furthermore, the upheavals in the Arab world catapulted them into an important player in the region capable of reshaping its geostrategic map. If we add to this that in the 21st century the sacred cows of nation-states have lost some of their sacredness, then the Kurds have some hope for optimism and a better future.