Opnening Remarks: The Kurdish Issue(s)

17/05/2016 17:26

The International Institute for Peace (IIP) in cooperation with the Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management of the National Defence Academy Vienna and the Austrian-Orient Society organised a two day conference on the topic “The Kurdish Issue(s)” on Monday 9th and Tuesday 10th of May 2016 at the National Defence Academy in Vienna.


The conference was held under the Chatham House Rules which allows speakers from different backgrounds, nationalities, religions, ideologies and political affiliations to discuss in a free environment. The speakers have been professors, journalists, analysts, policy advisors, researchers and people from the Civil Society.

The speakers came from the different countries concerned, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria as well as international scientists and journalists so that there was the ability to analyse and elaborate the different perspectives, understand the complexity of the issues, build a network and to support awareness for the situations the Kurds in their respective countries are facing. The Kurdish-Iraqi perspective has also been included; so has the Kurdish-Turkey, Kurdish-Syrian and Kurdish-Iran perspective.

The president of the IIP, Hannes Swoboda, lectured some initial remarks, which you can find below.



The Kurdish issues in the Middle East

Hannes Swoboda


To deal with "the" Kurdish question or the Kurds in general is very difficult and also basically wrong. In reality there are several Kurdish questions. There are national, regional, political, language and religious differences between different Kurdish groups. And different Kurdish groups and political forces have been used by different countries in the region to steer unrest in neighbouring and competing countries. As with nearly all people there is no pure, unequivocal - Kurdish - identity. And no Kurdish organization speaks for "the" Kurds.


Several tribes have been loyal to the respective state; others have been traditionally revolting against the state. Even if the core has been the Sunni Muslim tribes, there are many different periphery tribes with different orientations. We have to apply such a differentiation also for the Kurdish revolutionary groups, even for the PKK. It -for example- has franchised and outsourced some terrorist activities to semi - autonomous groups. And as such it achieved to prevent the rise of any rival revolutionary organization.


Nevertheless, beyond these differences you can find some overlapping issues and common interests. But we should not forget the different dividing lines, if we look to the bigger picture of the present and the future possible political structure of the Middle East. And that means we will have to be very patient and innovative to find a path towards peace or at least to a modus vivendi. We cannot go back to the status quo before. Even if the borders fixed by the Sykes - Picot agreement 100 years ago would not be changed, new political structures will arise.


On the 16th of May we could celebrate the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of the Sykes - Picot agreement dividing the Middle East area between France and the United Kingdom. This agreement is the basis of present day division between many countries in the Middle East. But it is questionable if we should celebrate that dividing line. Or should we rather forget about Sykes - Picot and should we look for new political structures especially for what today is still legally Syria and Iraq? That, of course, is particularly relevant for the political future of the Kurdish population - especially in these two countries.


Already with the Treaty of Sevre there was an ambiguous and timid attempt to create a Kurdish state. But the Treaty of Lausanne changed the political landscape design and this promise was withdrawn. It is not up to me and not of prime importance to evaluate and compare the morality or political wisdom of these two treaties. We have to take stock of today's situation and prepare the future.


What we have today is a Turkey, whose supreme leader is no longer following his previous attempt to find a solution for the Kurdish question inside Turkey. He is on good terms with the Kurdish Regional Government but mixes the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish groups PYD and YPG into one big enemy. Unfortunately, until now, there is no sign of restarting the peace process. And regrettably the development of a civil and broader political "Kurdish" force like the HDP has been stopped and somehow discredited by Erdogan but also by Öcalan. Both of them do not want to have an alternative to deal with the Kurdish question - at the moment their respective way seems to be pursued rather by force than by negotiations.


But learning from the long and terrible European history I am very sceptical about force and violence - from which side ever it is used - unless it is not used for mere defence, but for achieving specific political purposes. One should always try to find a peaceful path, even if it would take longer to reach one's aim, which by the way is rarely the case. History shows, the more violence is used to establish a new state or autonomous region, the more that violence will have long term effects on the society.


How to restructure the Middle East with respect to the Kurds?


Iraq had and has to accept the existence of the KRG but has not yet found a stable equilibrium. However, Iraq has not found equilibrium for the whole country, independently from the Kurdish region. The KRG is certainly a success story, but the role of the dominant clans and corruption is endangering this success. Concerning Syria we are still in an even more uncertain and fragile situation, as no realistic sketch of a future Syrian constitution is appearing on the horizon.


A new federal structure is discussed over and over again. Already years ago, Vice President Biden, when he was still Senator, pleaded for a Sunni, a Shia and a Kurdish Regional State inside Iraq. And the same could be thought for the new Syria.


Even if we could find a solution for a new federal structure for Iraq and Syria there are two questions remaining on the table: 1) what kind of settlement of the Kurdish question is feasible and realistic for Turkey (and Iran) and 2) how should the relation between the Kurds in the different countries be organized? Irrespective of finding a solution for the Kurdish question inside the country, it would be wise for Turkey not to try to fight against a Kurdish Regional Government in Syria, but to try to influence it and to ask it to convince PKK to change their politics of violence. A similar political development like that to the KRG is not unthinkable.


Theoretically the new peace structure with regionalization at least in some countries (Syria and Iraq) and special recognition for a political role of Kurds in other countries could be a peaceful laboratory how to organize trans- border cooperation without destroying or even changing national borders. For Turkey there is still the possibility to go for a general federalization and decentralization even as a counterbalance to a strong directly elected president. But the question remains: who would be ready to think about such a new political innovation and who would have the courage to take that risk? The Kurds themselves should discuss a common realistic strategy, which the majority of the different political forces of the region could accept.


The role of external forces:


Beyond the different countries of the region, the US, Russia but also Europe have a special interest in the Kurdish issue. The USA needs the Kurds to fight ISIS or Daesh. Russia is at the moment interested in supporting groups who are against Turkey's present leadership and it seeks allies for a settlement which allows Assad or his followers staying in power. And Europe knows that without a "solution" for the different Kurdish populations there will never be a sustainable peace in its neighbourhood. And the refugee flow towards Europe will not stop. Finally, it is also possible, that some Kurds inside European countries may radicalize themselves and bring unrest towards Europe if the Kurds in Turkey and the Middle East do not see respect and understanding for their political aspirations.


So in general it is a tactical support for the Kurds and not a principal one, but one should use that support irrespective of its motivation. This present geo-political situation could ease and prepare the way to find a long - term political structure for the different Kurdish people. But one must be realistic, it will be not easy to find a sustainable solution for all Kurdish people at one time, maybe we have to arrange a step by step process.


The political representatives of the different Kurdish groups and parties have to think in strategic terms to find a long-term path towards peace and self-determination via recognition of cultural, economic and political rights, whatever constitutional form that may take. And let us not forget that we should have to respect the international human rights for everybody – even for those in the centre of political aspirations. If we start from there a solution for the specific community rights will be easier.