Kurds At the Crossroads: Regional Unrest Raises The Stakes For Sovereignty

 @JaceyFortin on September 18 2012 6:07 AM
Kurds attend a gathering to celebrate Newroz in southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir
Kurds attend a gathering to celebrate Newroz in southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir Reuters

Turkish security forces killed more than 500 Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey during the past 30 days, according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"In operations held during the past month, some 500 terrorists were rendered ineffective in the region," said Erdogan during a televised interview on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse. He added that 123 rebel fighters were killed in the past 10 days alone, in a single offensive near the Iraq border.

The clashes are part of an ongoing conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has long fought for autonomy and continues to protest Turkey's detention of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was jailed in 1999.

Violence has increased markedly this summer. The turnaround has been blamed variously on the Syrian uprising next door, Erdogan's nationalist policies, the August anniversary marking the beginning of the PKK's militant campaign for sovereignty, and the Arab Spring revolutions that have swept across the Middle East.

For Kurds, the increased violence in Turkey is just one symptom of recent shakeups in the region. Various Kurdish groups, in Turkey and elsewhere, are scrambling to adjust to changing realities amid major political upheavals. The Arab Spring is complicating what was already a fractured pursuit of autonomy for Kurds in various countries.

In Turkey, Kurds are not entirely marginalized. They are present throughout the country, and have even won representation in parliament.

But the PKK in particular is considered a terrorist group. It has been engaged in a simmering conflict with the government for nearly three decades; sporadic clashes between its separatist militants and the Turkish military have claimed a total of 45,000 lives over the years.

Lines Crossed

Though the Kurds do not have an internationally recognized state of their own, the land where most of them reside is referred to as Kurdistan. About 20 million Kurds live in this mountainous area, which sprawls into western Iran, northern Iraq, eastern Syria and southeastern Turkey.

Kurds have long been a disadvantaged minority in all of these countries, and their efforts to establish an independent state have failed repeatedly.

The Kurds speak a common language that is most closely related to Iran's Persian. But there are various dialects, and most also speak the official language of their country of residence.

The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, which sets them apart from surrounding populations; the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria are run by Shias. Although Turkey is a majority Sunni country, its secular government weakens the potential for religious ties.

But the conflict between the Kurdish people and regional governments has much more to do with territorial ambitions than cultural differences. Although Kurds are divided into several factions that are often at odds with each other, Kurdish sovereignty is a common goal -- one that remains quite distant.

In Iran, for instance, Kurdish provinces are kept under close watch by the Iranian government. Those who agitate for sovereignty risk detention, or even execution.

Iraqi Kurds have seen the most success so far. Though once a target for persecution, they now inhabit a region that is effectively autonomous from Iraq's central government.

In Syria, Kurds were marginalized under President Bashar al-Assad. But the bloody 18-month popular rebellion against the regime has engendered instability in Damascus, allowing Kurdish groups to seize control of several eastern towns.

Unfortunately for Ankara, these havens have become outposts for the PKK, strengthening its offensives against Turkish forces.

A Region Unraveling

As the Syrian conflict continues to unfold, the Kurds find themselves in a unique position; they could be kingmakers, or pawns, or both.

The governments of Turkey and Syria have opposing interests regarding Kurdish loyalties, and even Syrian Kurds themselves are divided. They are no friends of the Assad regime -- on the other hand, they little incentive to side with a revolution that is supported by Ankara and might result in the installation of an Arab nationalist government.

Some small Kurdish groups have joined the Syrian rebellion, but the strongest Kurdish group in Syria has refused to support a movement favored by Turkey -- a move that could pay off if Assad somehow maintains his post.

But Erdogan has already promised not to allow a Kurdish rebel base to exist in Syria, no matter what the circumstances. And with 500 PKK fighters apparently dead in the short span of 30 days, it seems the prime minister is prepared to make good on his word.

This increase in hostilities has dashed hopes of reconciliation between the PKK and the Turkish government. Those hopes blossomed during recent years of tentative negotiations between the two parties, but have since become a casualty of ongoing upheavals in the region.

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