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Unlike Iran and Turkiye, Iraq and Syria are vulnerable to Kurdish separatism

September 14, 2023 at 11:30 am

People gather to protest against the preparations to evacuate the main headquarters building of the Kirkuk Joint Operations Command of the army and transfer it to the KDP in Kirkuk, Iraq on August 31, 2023 [Ali Makram Ghareeb/Anadolu Agency]

Among the myriad of the Middle East’s post-colonial, post-independence issues, the Kurdish question stands as a perennial one. This is closer to home for the four states which straddle the historic geographic region of Kurdistan, in particular fragile states, Iraq and Syria (ranked 27th and 5th place, respectively on the Fragile States Index), in addition to Iran and Turkiye.

Kurdistan’s geographical overlap with modern nation-states has fuelled Kurdish aspirations for self-determination, as they find themselves divided by borders, often facing varying degrees of discrimination and marginalisation. The Kurds have long sought to establish an independent Kurdish state, transcending the borders that divide their homeland. Naturally, this is at odds with the national interests of the “occupying” states.

Unlike regional powers, Turkiye and Iran, who routinely take proactive measures in safeguarding their territorial integrity against the spectre of Kurdish separatism, the two neighbouring Arab states find themselves grappling with this threat. In both countries, there have been recent ethnic clashes reigniting long-standing security concerns.

Late last month, in the northern flashpoint Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Arab and Turkmen tribal members staged a sit-in protest against Prime Minister, Muhammad Shia Al-Sudani’s order late last month to hand over the Joint Operations Command building to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This demonstration was met by a counter-protest from the Kurdish community, resulting in violent clashes involving the security forces, leaving three protestors dead and several wounded.

Prior to the Iraqi army take-over of the oil-rich city from Peshmerga forces in 2017, it had served as the party’s headquarters after the Kurdish militia seized the multi-ethnic city when Iraqi forced withdrew in the face of the Daesh threat.

READ: Syria: Kurdish-led forces clash with pro-Turkiye militants 

The Kurds, who suffered under the past Arabization policies under Saddam Hussein, want the strategically important city to be part of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, with long-term aspirations for full independence.

The Kirkuk crisis has also caught the attention of Turkiye, which has its own history of counter-insurgency against Kurdish separatists. On 3 September, Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan expressed Ankara’s concerns over the development during a joint presser with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Tehran.

Fidan also called on the Iraqi authorities to put an end to the increasing presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group in Kirkuk. The PKK is a designated terrorist organisation by Turkiye, the US and EU. In August, during his first visit to Iraq since taking office, the Turkish diplomat also called on Baghdad to label the PKK as such.

In Syria, ethnic tensions in the eastern part of the country have also been escalating as of late, with reports that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an affiliate of the PKK, has been stepping up attacks on the outskirts of Deir Ez-Zor against Arab residents, forcing hundreds of them to flee their villages. Earlier this week, clashes between the SDF and local Arab tribes erupted, with the latter resisting against offensives by the Kurdish militia aimed at taking control of several towns in the governorate.

Speaking earlier this month on the two issues of the ethnic-related unrest in Iraq and Syria, Turkish President, Recept Tayyip Erdogan, said regarding the latter: “we have repeatedly warned the US that it should not cooperate with the separatist terrorist organisation, and if it continues to act this way, both its own interests and the region will suffer in the future.”

Both the US and its ally, Israel, have, at various times, seen value in aligning with Kurdish groups to advance their interests in the Middle East. This strategic manipulation has led to heightened suspicions in both Iran and Turkiye.

The US, in particular, has a history of supporting Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria. In recent years, as part of efforts to combat Daesh, this partnership was instrumental in leading to the entity’s territorial defeat, yet it also led to friction with Arab tribes and communities who claimed discrimination and theft of natural resources under Kurdish rule.

READ: Turkiye: foreign minister calls on Iraq to end PKK presence in Kirkuk

Iran, as a natural regional hegemon in the region, has its own set of concerns regarding Kurdish separatism. The Iranian Kurds primarily reside in the country’s western provinces, where they have faced periods of unrest and calls for greater autonomy. Iran’s fear of Kurdish separatism is not unfounded, given the historical precedent of Kurdish uprisings, the latest of which was sparked by the death in police custody last year of Kurdish-Iranian woman Maha Amini.

Notably, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) has given the Iraqi government an ultimatum by 19 September to disarm “terror groups” in the Kurdistan region, under the threat of a resumption of targeted strikes.

Last September, the IRGC carried out over 70 ballistic missile strikes against hostile targets. Earlier that year in March, IRGC also allegedly carried out missile attacks against a covert Israeli Mossad compound in Erbil.

Baghdad appears to take the threat from Tehran seriously as, on Tuesday, Iraqi Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, announced that steps had been taken to remove Iranian-Kurdish militants away from the border.

Given their shared concerns over Kurdish separatism, Iran and Turkiye have, on occasion, engaged in joint operations against Kurdish groups in Iraq.

Previous Turkish-Iranian operations have targeted the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an Iranian offshoot of the PKK based in the border region of Iraq and Iran.

These actions stem from the fact that neither Ankara nor Tehran want “to see Syria and Iraq once again become powerful countries, but they also have no interest in seeing the Kurds take advantage of this fragility to build autonomous local governments, or even independent ones in the long term.”

Complicating matters, both regional rivals have sought to undermine one another’s influence, vis-à-vis the Kurds in Iraq, as Turkiye supports the KDP while Iran supports the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Both countries are also competing for influence in Kirkuk, with Iran said to be gaining the upper hand, “thanks to factors such as the fight against the Islamic State and Tehran’s ties with the PMU and the Shiite section of the Turkmen community.”

The historical intersection of Kurdistan with the aforementioned states, combined with the Kurds’ position as the largest ethnic group lacking a nation-state, fosters a volatile situation that external actors will look to manipulate. Turkiye and Iran maintain a strict stance against Kurdish separatism within their own territories, often resorting to actions that may compromise the sovereignty of their neighbours. In contrast, Iraq and Syria, as relatively weak states, lack the capacity to adopt such an approach and, consequently, bear the ongoing consequences of unchecked Kurdish separatism within their borders.

READ: Turkiye following clashes between Arab tribes, Kurds in Syria with ‘concern’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.