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Three reasons why Kurdish statehood remains a distant dream

The Kurdish state project in Syria - not to mention Iraq, Turkey and Iran - may look promising, but true independence is a long way off

In late June, after the approval of a long debated constitution for their future federal system in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds and their allies declared the northeastern town of Qamishli as their capital.

Even though, semantically at least, federalism is different to the idea of statehood, the fact that the constitution includes the notion of a flag, diplomatic relations with foreign countries and compulsory military service should leave no doubt of the extent of independence envisioned for the system.

However, despite the de facto autonomy that Kurds have established in northern Syria in recent years, true independence remains a utopian dream.

And this is true not only for Rojava - the term Kurds use for the Syrian cantons under their control - but also for Iraqi Kurdistan, not to mention the Kurdish settlements in Turkey and Iran. Here's why:

1. Ideological clashes

The dominant Kurdish political organisations follow the ideologies of Marxism, nationalism and Islamism. The Kurdistan Worker Party’s (PKK) revolutionary model neglects nationalism and follows the idea of establishing democratic confederalism to reconcile all Kurds within the "Group of Communities in Kurdistan" - an organisation founded by the PKK in the early 2000s.

In contrast, the Kurdish nationalists who are the strongest power in northern Iraq pursue their aim of nation-building. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has tried to expand its independence from Baghdad, although the recent economic crisis — caused by diminishing revenues from oil sales in particular - limits those efforts.

Last but not least, there is also a Kurdish Islamic Movement which is not as influential as the PKK, KDP and their affiliates, but regularly held seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament.

This clash between the ideologies of various Kurdish groups has manifested itself politically and has so far hindered necessary unity. 

2. Political obstacles

With settlement areas spread over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Kurdish politics are deeply influenced by their respective nation states. Kurdish politics have subsequently developed into a permanent state of struggle not only between Kurds themselves, but also with regard to regional power plays.

The Iraqi Kurdish civil war from 1994-1997 between the KDP and PUK is a perfect example: while the KDP allied with Saddam Hussein, the PUK established an alliance with Iran. To further complicate matters, Turkey, seeing the potential to crush the PUK-allied PKK, engaged in the war on the KDP's side. 

As a result, political influence in Kurdish settlement areas is directly connected to the control over armed groups. 

Recently, the emerging challenges can be seen in northern Syria: the de facto autonomous region, also called Rojava, is completely dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the PKK. Based on the power of its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD sets the tone and oppresses its opponents.

Ultimately, even though various countries have developed working relations with Kurdish parties - the PYD even opened a representative office in Moscow - no one appears to support the idea of true Kurdish autonomy or even independence in the form of a state. 

3. Regional power squeeze

In the face of the raging wars in Syria and Iraq, Kurds find themselves between the fronts once again.

Beginning in late 2014, the US began to shift its support from the Sunni opposition in Syria to the Kurds, namely the YPG. As a result of the military and political support, the YPG - and likewise the PYD, the political group of which the YPG is an armed wing - was able to increase its power and achieved an international reputation as the most reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

With the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Syrian Arab rebel groups supported by US-led coalition air strikes, the PYD and YPG finally tried to remove the "Kurdish label“ and establish itself as a multi-ethnic movement.

However, the Turkish government is highly alarmed by Kurdish power and will likely thwart any move towards independence. For Turkey, the Rojava project cannot be detached from the war it wages with the PKK. This is not only because the PYD is directly affiliated with the PKK politically, but also because there is a flow of fighters between the groups and the PKK can rely on a Kurdish-controlled northern Syria as a safe haven.

At the same time, Iraq is not going to disintegrate soon as a nation state, which is why Iraqi Kurdistan likely will remain in its semi-autonomous position with continued dependence on Baghdad’s purse. 

- Lars Hauch studied International Development in Vienna and worked as head of editorial at the German media outlet Commentarist. With a focus on the MENA region, he published a commented roundup, in addition to writing for EAWorldview and the German CARTA.

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

Photo: Kurdish women hold flags of YPG (People's Protection Units) and Rojava as they demonstrate in front of the Greek parliament in Athens last July in support of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.