Shukriya Bradost, political analyst and Virginia Tech PhD candidate, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman in a two-part interview on June 17 and 24 about the status of the Kurds.
Bradost described how circumstances affecting Kurdish minorities in four Middle East countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria – have varied, while sharing certain commonalities. Historically, the governments of all four countries attempted to dissolve Kurdish identity by banning or restricting their language and cultural expression. In addition, non-Kurdish opposition groups in all four have generally been unsympathetic, if not hostile, to Kurdish rights. Although most Kurds are adherents of Sunni Islam, they have "learned a lesson" from their historical experience – "that for your enemy, it doesn't matter that you are a Muslim." At various times, Kurdish groups in all four countries have resorted to armed resistance to central authority.
And yet Kurds have long been divided. In each of these four countries, Bradost explained, Kurdish groups have had to rely on support from outsiders, usually from governments that oppress their own Kurdish minorities, which inhibits cross-border solidarity among Kurdish groups. In fact, it even inhibits solidarity among Kurds within particular countries. In Iraq, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have been fierce rivals for decades.
Only in Iraq have Kurds achieved recognized autonomy, in the form of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But this autonomy has its limitations. In September 2017, KRG President Masoud Barzani conducted a referendum in which "more than 97% of people voted ... for [an] independent Kurdistan."
This sparked a conflict with Iraq's Iranian-backed central government, during which Talebani loyalists within the PUK abandoned KRG positions after cutting a deal with the late Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Despite its alliance with Barzani, "when Turkey found that none of the Western countries support[ed] this independence, ... [it too] side[ed] with Iran." The KRG lost 40 percent of its territory and the Kirkuk oil fields, its leading source of revenue.
Bradost argued that the "only way" Kurds can unite is if a power "outside the region" champions their cause, namely the United States. She urged Washington to promote a federal system allowing for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and to more fully support the KRG in Iraq.
Unfortunately, Washington has other priorities, particularly with regard to Turkey. U.S. officials "believe supporting Turkey [is] helping them ... against Iran," but in reality appeasement of Erdoğan is encouraging Turkey to "become another rogue state in the region."
Winning autonomy for Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria won't be easy, as the autocratic rulers of these countries find hardline anti-Kurdish positions politically advantageous. For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aggression against Kurds appeals to his "radical nationalist" coalition partners and offers a distraction from the country's economic woes. In the case of Iran's regime, which is facing an American "maximum pressure" campaign through sanctions and pushback from regional rivals, "attacking the ... weak[est] group, ... [the] Kurds" shows it still has muscle.
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.