The Arab Spring, Its Effects on the Kurds, and the Approaches of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq on the Kurdish Issue

By Noi, Aylin Ünver | Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Arab Spring, Its Effects on the Kurds, and the Approaches of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq on the Kurdish Issue


Noi, Aylin Ünver, Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)


INTRODUCTION

The Kurds, an Iranian ethno-linguistic group, living in the area where the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria converge, are the largest ethnic group without a state.1 Since the Justice and Development Party (JDP) or Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey has embraced a "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy approach. This has coincided with a shiftfrom confrontation to collaboration among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq on the Kurdish issue. Yet the Arab Spring and the ensuing developments in the region have led to a deterioration in Turkey's relations with Syria and Iran, bringing the validity of Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" policy into question.

Turkey's increasing pressure on the Syrian regime, its decision to host a NATO missile defense system, and Turkey's "rising-star" status in the region have led to competition between Iran and Turkey and an exacerbation of both Turkish-Iranian and Turkish-Syrian relations. In addition, Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq in response to intensified PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) attacks since August to November 2011 have strained Turkish-Iraqi relations, since such attacks could potentially be perceived as a threat to Iraqi territorial integrity. In addition, Turkish-Iraqi relations deteriorated after the bitter exchange between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This article evaluates the Arab Spring and its effects on the Kurds and the approaches of these four countries the Kurdish issue. It also addresses whether in light of these circumstances, continued collaboration among these countries on the Kurdish issue is possible.

TURKEY AND THE KURDISH ISSUE

In 1984, the Kurdish separatist movement resurfaced, with the goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state. The roots of the problem date back to the nineteenth century and the "Eastern Question," which involved competition between the great powers, Russia and Britain, for influence over the Ottoman Empire.2 A series of agreements intended to partition the Ottoman Empire were signed between 1915 and 1917. Accordingly, Kurdish populated areas would come under the control of Britain, France, and Russia. During the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the allies supported the idea of a future Kurdish state. The division of the empire and the final settlement of the "Eastern Question" by promising Kurds their own country were formalized in the Sèvres Treaty, which was signed between the allies and the Ottoman government in 1920.3 The Sèvres Treaty was never ratified by the signatories. A resistance movement, which opposed the terms of Sèvres Treaty, emerged in Anatolia and ended with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.4

Following First World War I, the map of the Middle East was redrawn. Most Kurds found themselves living in Turkey, Iran, and two new Arab states-Syria and Iraq-which were under French and British mandate after WWI.5 The newly established Republic of Turkey designated a single nationality for all Turks in its constitution, which did not recognize ethnic group. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the Kurds did not renounce their goal to establish an independent Kurdish state.

The Shaykh Said Rebellion of 1925 emerged as a Kurdish separatist movement, but was suppressed by the Republic of Turkey. Since the 1930s, the Kurds have resisted government efforts to assimilate them, yet uprisings have repeatedly been suppressed by the Turkish army. During the 1960s and mid- 1970s, Kurdish intellectuals attempted to establish Kurdish-language journals and newspapers. However, the publications were soon shut down.

Kurdish opposition to the government's emphasis on linguistic homogeneity was spurred by agitation in neighboring Iran and Iraq on behalf of an autonomous Kurdistan that some proposed would include all the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. …

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