The Kurdish Dimension of the “Arab Spring”: American and Turkish Perspectives

 by Liountri Christianna

            The uprisings in the Arab world and particularly the one in Syria, has re-opened an issue that was well-repressed in International Politics: the Kurdish one. The Kurds [1] comprise the largest nation deprived of its own country, while the Kurdish minorities in Syria, Turkey and Iraq lack fundamental political rights and freedoms. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December 2011 alongside the events recorded in Syria and Iraq after the Arab Spring have raised well-founded concerns to the Turkish leadership regarding secessionist movements aiming at the foundation of a new Kurdish state.


Kurdish-inhabited areas,

The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan -the southeastern part of the Iraqi federation– is financially flourishing, thus raising within country inequality [2], along with the territorial proximity of Kurdish parts of Syria and Iran, have led the Turkish government to the implementation of a different strategy in terms of both domestic and foreign policy towards the Kurdish issue. On the one hand, the action of the internationally recognized as a terrorist organization, PKK and the denial of the Turkish state to recognize the Kurds as a minority in Turkey, impedes Turkey’s potential to enter the EU.[3] On the other hand, the economic welfare and autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan makes it an alluring destination for the Kurds of Turkey, who cross the borders on a  daily basis. Meanwhile, a possible fall of the Assad regime – which Turkey hastily condemned the moment after the risings in Syria started, will most likely result to the recognition of a constitutional status of autonomy to the Kurdish minority of Syria. [4]

Within this framework, the Turkish government has decided to alter its strategy: it refuses dialogue with the PKK but she now considers the Party of Peace and Democracy, which represents the Kurds and occupies 34 seats in the Turkish Parliament, as her co-speaker on the issue. [5] Furthermore, the Turkish government carefully deals with the new Constitution, the first civilian one to be created following a popular mandate after the referendum of 2010, which will  attribute much greater role to democratic procedures and political institutions so that the much needed conditions of negotiation be created. Without a doubt, as a sine quo non is considered the condemnation of PKK from PPD. As far as it concerns the Kurdish issue, the Constitution bares a twofold interpretation: firstly, the way that it will treat the Kurdish minority will be a model for the proper management of minorities for the other Arab countries that are on the process of reforming their constitutions; secondly, it will facilitate the country’s accession to the EU.[6]

In the meantime, Turkey has implemented a policy of repeated straight intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq, provoking the furious reactions of the Iraqi government. Her main goals are the prevention of secessionist and sectarian trends. The Turkish leadership communicates with the president of the local government of Iraqi Kurdistan,Barzani, who called on PPD to continue its fight peacefully, democratically and politically. It becomes apparent that Turkey tries to wear out all diplomatic means as the turmoil in its eastern borders remains and escalates, in an effort to secure political exchanges that will reassure her regional role.

USA have welcomed  the abovementioned initiative. The former had long asked Turkey to initiate a (constructive) dialogue with the legitimate Kurdish party(PPD) in order for a consensus to be reached. [7] Turkey has also upgraded the regional role of Barzani, pleasing USA, her much needed ally. The American government uses Barzani as a means to increase the pressure on Syrian Kurds to rise up against Assad. Thus far, the Kurds remain uninvolved in fear of more oppression in case of the Sunnis taking power. (We should at this point note that under the Allawite regime the minorities within Syria are represented in the Parliament in constitutionally-defined percentages, and the sectarians trends have well been avoided)

The policy that USA will follow in regard to the Kurdish issue is crucial for Ankara’s plans. So far, we observe that USA strengthen Iraqi Kurdistan as a counterbalance to Iran, given the instability in Syria, Lebanon and the rest of Iraq.[8] This development is not welcomed from Turkey since it internationalizes the Kurdish issue and makes PKK an international actor.

To complicate things for Turkey’s policies, President Assad unexpectedly removed his troops from the north part and gathered them in the center of the country to fight back the rebels. He also attributed citizenship to the Kurdish population (about 10% of the country’s population- 2 millions). [9] The north of the country is now under the control of the Democratic Union Party which is considered an affiliate of PKK . [10]

Following the well-known aphorism “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, President Assad had tried to ameliorate his relations with PKK, relations that were broken for thirteen years after the dismissal of Ocalan back in 1998. For instance, President Assad allowed the return of PKK’s leader Saleh Muslim, who was exiled in Iraqi mountains. Furthermore, he allowed the Democratic Union Party to operate freely, to recruit fighters for its campaign against Turkey in exchange for its support for the Assad regime and the prevention of its numerous members to participate in the rebellion.

This support of the PKK causes two policy dilemmas: firstly, if the Assad regime remains in power the Kurds and particularly, the PKK will have emerged as a new unpredictable factor in the south of Turkey. One cannot ignore the fact that PKK – a terrorist organization- is being funded by Tehran. This evolution will end up to the formation of another anti-western actor in the Middle East and will destabilize a crucial NATO- ally. It is highly likely that the part of Syria inhabited by Kurds will be used as a base for launching strikes against Turkish targets. [11]

Secondly, if Assad falls, Turkey will have its share on the formation of the post-Assad Syria. After all, she had allowed the Free Syrian Army to have its headquarters in Turkish soil, had accepted and taken care of the flux of immigrants from Syria and had launched several international initiatives for the ousting of Assad. Furthermore, given the financial breakdown generated by the conflict, Syria will be in need of direct foreign investments which only Turkey can provide. It must be considered a given that in return, Turkey will demand the cooperation of the new Syrian regime against PKK. [12]

Another aspect of the post-Assad Syria is the prospect of an autonomous Kurdistan.  The Democratic Union Party already calls for autonomy. Turkey has strongly opposed  to  such an outcome as long as Assad is in power but has declared that she will accepted it, if that’s the provision of a new constitution approved by the Syrian people. So far, she continues to support the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq as well as the Syrian National Council. She has already asked for written assurances from the SNC that Kurdish autonomy will not be allowed, but its president Abdulbaset Sieda,who is of Kurdish origin, has denied signing any such documents.

In order to surpass the influence of the Democratic Union Party, both Turkey and the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani have tried to enforce the moderated parties representing the Kurds in Syria. For instance, the Syrian Kurdish National Council, founded in 2011, is being funded by Barzani, who also supplies them with military equipment. However, if the Syrian National Council doesn’t manage to incorporate the Kurdish demands in the plan for the post-Assad Syria, it is highly likely that the Democratic  Union Party will increase its power. [13] So far, the Syrian National Council is under the influence of Muslim Brotherhood and financed by the Emirate of Qatar. Thus, Turkey is pursuing the ousting of Assad in order to forge closer ties with Qatar, Egypt and a leading role in the Islamic world.

The main question is where do USA stand. Obama has introduced a foreign policy doctrine of soft power, whose failure resembles the failure of Davutoglu’s zero problems doctrine. He seems to prefer using “soft power”, diplomatic means and a policy of non intervention in domestic issues. In the meantime, as a genuine representative of the Democratic Party, he supports the promotion of democracy and human rights,  opposing the doctrine of unilateralism . However, when it comes to the “Arab Spring”, he looks like an irrelevant spectator. Whether he is preoccupied or not with the Asian-Pacific front and the economy, he has downgraded the strategic significance of Middle East. Libya and Tunisia may have gone through a seemingly “smooth” transition, but that’s not the case in Egypt or Syria. President Obama supported the ousting of Ben Ali, Gaddafi, Mubarak and now Assad without having secured that the regime that will succeed them would have a western orientation. By that, I don’t imply the adoption of a western type of democracy but the abidance to the western front. Clearly, in Syria the stakes are too high. Russia and China are directly involved and unwilling to let USA have their way.

The main goal of American foreign policy in the area is the suffocation of Iran, so that China and Russia suffer a blow in the fields of energy and strategic depth. President  Obama and his “soft power” -which would have been successful if he had “softly” managed to make the West look alluring as an ally- clearly ignores the social dynamics of the region. He has underestimated the anti-american sentiment of the people of Middle East. He has underestimated the power of religion that has turned into a link that moves uncontrollably towards radicalization. Instead of learning from the mistakes of his predecessor George W. Bush, President Obama, followed the Cold War tactics when disobedient regimes were easily overthrown and replaced. But, nowadays, this is not the case. There is not a common enemy against which there is a need to form a coalition. USA and their president need to understand that they need to earn the trust of their allies’ societies. But, first and foremost, when they choose to overthrow a regime they first need to secure that its successor will be able to establish those institutions that will allow the formation of cables of communication and mutual understanding.

Regarding the situation in Syria, despite the obstacles posed by Russia and China when it comes to military intervention, and despite the vocal reassurances of Hilary Clinton that USA don’t want an autonomous or independent Kurdistan, it looks as if USA are pulling the strings towards this solution. Such an evolution would ensure them an obedient ally, forever grateful for their support in achieving independence. Furthermore, USA will be able to control the routes of oil: Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have already signed agreements to build a series of pipelines that will allow the Kurds to export oil and gas directly to Turkey. These agreements favor the American policy of reducing energy dependence from Russia and Iran. Moreover, USA consider Maliki- president of Iraq- Teheran’s puppet so they want Barzani to gain more power in the area. Finally, the creation of an autonomous or independent Kurdistan will also act as a counterforce to Turkey, which had for the last two to three years enforced a divergent to the American interests foreign policy.

To sum up, it appears that USA have a hidden agenda when it comes to Kurdistan. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if in the upcoming years a new state emerges in the region.


l  Turkey’s new Kurdish plan: Back to the future, Hurriyet Daily News, 23-03-2012

l  US praises Turkey’s new terror strategy, Hurriyet Daily News, 7-04-2012

l  Turkey’s Kurdish Weltschmerz,The Washington Institute, 16-01-2012

l  US talks beneficial for Kurdish conflict: BDP,Hurriyet Daily News, 25-04-2012

l  America Needs a Kurdish Policy, Defend Democracy – Foreign Policy, 22-03-2012

l  Turkey PM Erdogan apologises for 1930s Kurdish killings,BBC, 23-11-2011

l  Turkey: Kurds And The Constitution, Al – Akhbar, last access: 30-09-2012

l  The Kurdish Dimension to Turkey’s Syria Policy, Middle East Institute, 11-04-2012

l  Kurds take control in Syria’s northeast, Al Jazeera, 12 -08-2012

l  In Syria, role of Kurds divides opposition, The Washington Post, 18-08-2012

l  Syria’s Kurdish Challenge to Turkey, Middle East Institute, 29-08-2012

l  The Arab Spring is Now the Kurdish Spring,Turkey Wakes Up to a Nightmare of its Own Making, Gatestone Institute, 28-07-2012


l  In Iraq, growing gap sets Kurdistan apart, The Washington Post, 05-03-2012

l  Turkey, Kurdistan and the future of Iraq: Time for Washington to tune back in , Foreign Policy, 31-05-2012,

[1]              “The Kurds are a non-Arabic people who speak a language related to Persian. Most adhere to the Sunni Muslim faith. They have been subjugated by neighboring peoples for most of their history. In modern times, Kurds have tried to set up independent states in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, but their efforts have been crushed every time.” , Who are the Kurds?, The Washington Post,

[2]             In Iraq, growing gap sets Kurdistan apart,The Washingtonpost, 5-3-2012,

[3]                Furthermore, there are suspicions that the Turkish government uses the Kurdish issue in order to strike the main opposition party (CHP). For example, when Prime Minister Erdogan apologized for the massacres of Dersim where 13,000 Kurds were killed by the Turkish military back in 1930′s, he did so by mentioning that he takes responsibility for the actions that were ordered by the CHP and its leader Ismet Inonu, a political move that was characterized as an opportunistic one. Turkey PM Erdogan apologises for 1930s Kurdish killings, BBC, 23-11-2011,

[4]              Turkey’s Kurdish Weltschmerz, The Washinghton Institute, 16-01-2012,

[5]             The president of PPD had taken a trip -the first one of Kurdish representative from Turkey-  to USA aiming at presenting the Kurdish stand on the issue, which was previously dealt as a domestic one. This visit has worried the Turkish leadership that fears that the Kurdish leadership is trying to internationalize the issue. US talks beneficial for Kurdish conflict: BDP, Hurriyet Daily News, 25 -04-2012,

[6]              Turkey: The Kurds and the Constitution, last access: 30th September 2012, Al-Akhbar,

[7]              US praises Turkey’s new terror strategy, Hurriyet Daily News, 7-03-2012,

[8]             The Arab Spring is Now the Kurdish Spring, Turkey Wakes Up to a Nightmare of its Own Making, Gatestone Institute, 28-07-2012,

[9]              Kurds take control in Syria’s northeast, Al Jazeera, 12-08-2012,

[10]           Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the most organized, best equipped and numerous Kurdish party within Syria. It is in position of mobilizing notable parts of the population. It was founded in 2003 by former members of the PKK, it has adopted the ideology of Otcalan and it calls for Kurdish autonomy.

[11]          In Syria, role of Kurds divides opposition, The Washington Post, 18-08-2012,

[12]          The Kurdish Dimension to Turkey’s Syria Policy, Middle East Institute, Gonul Tol, 11-04-2012,

[13]          Syria’s Kurdish Challenge to Turkey, Middle East Institute, Gonul Tol, 29-08-2012,

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  • Cypriot

    Nice article.


    A well researched article on Kurdistan’s current standing. Thank you!
    Occupied Kurdistan is one of the most important issues in world affairs because it concerns
    the largest segment (25 million) of homogeneous peoples-nation kept in bondage
    by the armed forces of their neighbors. The Kurds should be given the right to self determination within Kurdistan’s ancient borders so they can speak their own language, exercise their own ancient culture and customs and determine their own future.

    • makos

      I totally agree with you.

      In fact the Kurdish issue is a shame for the world community that does nothing about it.

      It proves that world affairs still rely on balance of power and not on INTERNATIONAL LAW that clearly suggests the concept of self-determination.