31/10/2014 05:57 GMT | Updated 30/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Arming the Kurds and the Law of Unintended Consequences

'Why didn't we hear about the battle for Baghdad, when we have heard so much about the battle for Kobane, a relatively insignificant small town in Syria on the border with Turkey?' wrote my former boss, John Simpson, in The New Statesman last week.

Regardless of the relative safety of reporting the Kobane story from the Turkish side of the border, which according to John has something to do with the prominence given to it on the airwaves, the battle for Kobane will have a far-reaching effect on the region. Whatever the short-term events on the battlefront, what's unfolding around Kobane will eventually result in significant redrawing of the boundaries in the Middle East - the first such thing since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which defined the spheres of influence between Britain and France in the region with the tacit agreement of Russia.

Contrary to the desires and interests of regional governments, arming and helping the Kurds to fight ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) in Kobane may be the trigger for the birth of a new nation - Kurdistan. No country in the region wants that but this will be one of the unintended consequences of the break up of Syria and the emergence of ISIL.

In the 19th century Europe, the notion of the 'nation state' in the wake of the crumbling of the old empires created a doctrine advocating the unification of geographic entities based on common linguistic, cultural, historical and ethnic ties. It was called IRREDENTISM from Italian irredento, 'unredeemed'.

The Kurdish people, an Iranian ethnic group of about 30 million, now live on the territory of four states - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, not to mention the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe, America and in the Middle East. Most of them belong to the Sunni denomination of Islam.


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Turkey is the biggest opponent of Kurdish self-determination. About 14 million Kurds live in Turkey - 18 per cent of the population. However, the Turkish constitution does not allow the existence of ethnic and language minorities by proclaiming the 'indivisibility' of the Turkish nation. That's why it now prefers to stand by and watch ISIL fight its archenemy the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist outfit, which has been waging war against the Turkish government since 1984. The PKK, which has its main bases in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, is still designated as a terrorist organisation by NATO, the US and the EU. After heavy pressure from its NATO allies and to the delight of its own Kurdish population, Turkey has just allowed Kurdish militias from northern Iraq, the so-called Peshmerga, to cross its territory in an effort to help their brothers in Kobane. This unprecedented supply route may hold the key to defeating ISIL in the area but it is also a path to unify the Kurds.



It's a bitter pill for Turkey to swallow because it knows the consequences far too well. Such is the explosive nature of the 'Kurdish Question' in Turkey that the Turkish government chose not to execute PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, after capturing him while on the run in Kenya in 1999. He is still leading the organisation from his jail cell on a small island in the Sea of Marmara.

In Syria, since the beginning of the civil war in 2011 the Kurds have been left to administer the majority of their territory in the north. PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG), described as the national army of Syrian Kurdistan, took the city of Kobane from President Assad's forces in July 2012. The Syrian Kurds have been self-governing in the enclaves of Jazeera, Afrin and Kobane along the borders of Turkey and Iraq, where 10 per cent of the Syrian population lives. The Assad regime is prepared to cede this part of its territory to the Kurds if this would mean weakening its enemy, Turkey, and defeating ISIL in the area.

In Iran, an offshoot of the PKK known under the acronym of PJAK (Party of Free Life in Kurdistan) has been fighting intermittently since 2004 for self-determination of the Kurdish population, which totals about 6 million people. It has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the West, Iran and Turkey. Another party, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) led an insurgency against the Iranian regime for seven years (1989-1996) but was eventually disabled by targeted assassinations of its leaders. Most famously, three of the party's most senior leaders were shot dead in a Berlin restaurant in September 1992. A subsequent investigation by the German authorities found that the killings were ordered by the then Iranian Intelligence Minister, Ali Fallahian.

And finally, there's the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, which has been de facto a self-governing territory since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. In the mid-nineties (1994-1997) a destructive civil war was waged between the two main factions there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, who eventually became President of Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion. In its most ignominious moment, KDP's Barzani asked Saddam Hussein for help against its rival, the PUK, and Saddam duly obliged. However, in 1997 Turkey intervened militarily and inflicted heavy casualties on amongst others, the PKK, which had been launching cross border attacks on its territory. An uneasy truce ensued.

Having suffered attempted genocide with the notorious chemical attack on the Kurds in Halabja by Saddam Husain in 1988, and having survived a vicious civil war, the Kurds of Iraq now enjoy unprecedented economic prosperity and political independence.

In its chequered history of alliances, counter-alliances and betrayal, the Kurds have now come of age. The battle for Kobane provides a unique opportunity for all Kurds in the region to unite. As it happens, it suits the West to use them in the fight against ISIL. If they manage to defeat ISIL in this unremarkable town on the Syrian-Turkish border the Kurds will emerge with a strong case for greater Kurdistan. The unintended consequence of our battle with ISIL will be an independent Kurdish state, which no one in the region wants.