Diliman Abdulkader, President of the American Friends of Kurdistan (AFK), an independent advocacy and education organization working to advance U.S.-Kurdish relations, spoke to a December 16th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the latest developments affecting the Kurdistan region bordering Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Abdulkader noted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the mid-November 2022 bombing in Istanbul, which killed six and wounded eighty, on the Kurdish people and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party). The PKK is a Kurdish militant political organization and armed guerilla movement based primarily in the Kurdish-majority region of southeastern Turkey. Abdulkader said the bombing may have been a false flag operation (an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party) to camouflage Erdoğan's actual motive.
Abdulkader's claim is based on Turkey's history of "incit[ing] violence" between Kurds and Turks by blaming the Kurds. In doing so, the Turkish government can scapegoat the Kurds and justify military action against them. In the lead-up to the June 2023 elections, Erdoğan's government is cracking down on his opposition at home by jailing politicians and journalists. By shifting the blame onto the Kurds, Erdoğan hopes to provide the Turkish people with a handy distraction from the country's worsening economic situation.
The Erdoğan regime, which is opposed to the Kurdish-Arab coalition government's control of northeast Syria, unleashed an air campaign in that region following the bombing attack in Istanbul. Northeast Syria, which Abdulkader said constitutes one third of Syria's land mass and is one of the most stable regions in the country, contains 40 percent of Syria's citizens and over 80 percent of Syria's resources. The region is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Christians, and Muslims, and it is also host to 900 U.S. military service members.
Erdoğan previously invaded northeast Syria in 2019 in an operation "greenlighted" by the Trump administration. Although Turkish forces drove thirty kilometers into the area, Erdoğan's military foray failed to capture Kobane, a town bordering Turkey where U.S.-backed Kurds defeated ISIS in 2014. ISIS's defeat led to U.S. support for the Kurds. Kobane is also symbolic for the Kurds because it is the "bridge" preventing the connection between two Syrian territories occupied by Erdoğan. Erdoğan's ultimate aim is to annex and incorporate Kobane into Turkish territory. "He'll just normalize and 'Turkify' the region as he has done in northeast Syria along the border, but also in northwest Syria, in Afrin, which is 95 percent ... Kurdish."
Although Erdoğan claims he is "not against all Kurds, he's only against the PKK," his bombing campaign is "spilling over" into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds in Iraq are not affiliated with the PKK, and the civilian areas being bombed are in an "internationally [recognized] autonomous region." In his zeal to pursue the Kurds, Erdoğan, a NATO ally of the U.S., has caused military operations against ISIS to halt. Launching a military operation against the Kurds destabilizes the international mission to repel ISIS, a violation of NATO principles that undermines the primary reason for the U.S. presence in the region.
Iran, like Turkey, is seeking to shift blame onto the Kurds for the widespread demonstrations against the ayatollahs currently roiling that country. The latest round of these protests was sparked by the murder of Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman who died at the hands of the Tehran's modesty police after she was arrested for not wearing her hijab in accordance with regime requirements. Although northwest Iran contains between twelve and fifteen million Kurds and a number of armed Kurdish factions, Abdulkader said the protests are not due to their influence. Nonetheless, Iran has sought to redirect the anger of its population towards the Kurds.
Iran demonizes its Kurds, characterizing them as separatists who threaten it with their desire to gain autonomy in an independent state, which Abdulkader says "is their right." Although the Iranian protesters and the Kurds have made common cause in protesting against the regime, the Kurds are in an even more precarious position because they are also being targeted by the Iranian protesters. Among the Iranian protestors, "it's still taboo to say that Jina Amini was Kurdish." The Kurds safeguard their identity by preserving their separate language, culture, history, and dress, all of which differ from Persian traditions.
The Iranian regime, which accuses the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of aiding Kurdish opposition groups which fled to the relative safety of the Kurdish region, is threatening a ground invasion into Iraqi Kurdistan, using a similar strategy employed by Erdoğan to justify a military operation against the Kurds. Abdulkader said that the stable autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, host to many foreign consulates, including the U.S. consulate, is now under threat by both Turkey and Iran. He sees the worsening situation as an opportunity for the U.S. to "show where it stands in the region, and if it does really support the people who are being targeted by these authoritarian leaderships."
The Kurds do not have many allies in the region. Although Israel was the only country to recognize the 2017 independence referendum in favor of a Kurdish state, the geographic location of the Kurdish population would make a request for Israel's support from any Kurdish government a difficult one. Iran's hatred of the Jewish State, and Erdoğan's two-faced behavior towards the Jewish people and Israel, irrespective of the flourishing economic partnership between the two nations, make any support from Israel for the stateless Kurds, a "double-edged sword."
The Kurds depend upon the U.S. for support, and even though the U.S. has abandoned the Kurds in the past: "You cannot abandon the Kurds at this moment." This is the time to hold the Turkish regime accountable with sanctions and believes their imposition would change Erdoğan's attitude. Abdulkader maintains that Erdoğan cannot solve the Kurdish question with military operations and insists the solution lies in "peaceful dialogue." Although Erdoğan finds it useful to play "the Kurdish card," the Turkish government finds "it's easy to wage war; it's not very interested in waging peace."
Similarly, the Iranian regime is more interested in waging war than peace, but Abdelkader urges the Biden administration not to repeat the "mistakes" of the Obama administration, which ignored the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is "not a good trade," and even the Iranian protesters themselves are demanding an end to talks between the U.S. and Iran. These talks should not be based on nuclear considerations alone, but should also address the innumerable human rights violations the regime is exacting against all affected groups that are protesting against it — not only Kurds, but Ahwazi Arabs, Balochi, and Azeris. Both Turkey and Iran find the stability the Kurds have created in the KRG autonomous region a threat because they fear it could spread and "lead to another [autonomous] Kurdish region [similar] to Iraqi Kurdistan."
Saying that "the Kurds rely on the United States" to train and "professionalize" the Kurdish army, Abdulkader stated emphatically that the Kurds are not asking the U.S. to fight for them. Rather, the Kurds have proven their reliability by successfully fighting ISIS in military operations conducted side by side with the U.S. military. The intelligence gathering from Iraqi and Syrian Kurds that was so critical in the fight against ISIS continues to be an "investment for the United States in regards to intelligence and security and stability." What the Kurds are asking for is only "the U.S. presence on the ground with the flags waving," which will serve to deter potential assailants. He believes the significance of that symbolism would be enough to restrain Turkey, America's NATO ally, from continuing its military campaign against the Kurds, and sufficient to stop Iran from its continued bombings of the Kurdish region. Both Erdoğan and the Iranian mullahs know that if U.S. personnel in the region are threatened, the U.S. will not hesitate to respond.
Unity Is the Key
The Kurds were promised a state after World War I, but it never materialized, and Abdulkader said the current dilemmas affecting the forty-five to fifty million stateless Kurds are the result. Two conditions need to be met to address the Kurdish predicament. First, the internal state of Kurdish unity failed during the 2017 Kurdish referendum because the Kurds were divided without a central command. "Unity is key." Second, the Kurdish military success against ISIS needs to be translated into "political achievements" that could be secured by pleading the Kurdish cause to members of Congress. Abdelkader said, "That's why I've created AFK ... to put the Kurdish issue on the table." He expressed confidence that if the two prerequisites could be achieved "accurately and precisely ... it's very possible to create [an] independent Kurdistan."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.