November 23, 2014

Kobane: The Battle for Kurdish Legitimacy - By Ofra Bengio and Sherko Kirmanj

For two months now the world has been mesmerized by the fate of Kobane, a Kurdish town in Syrian Kurdistan, orRojava, thathas been leading a life-or-death struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Indeed, alongside this war is another one no less criticaland it deals with the legitimacy, identity, and role of the Kurds on the international stage. Who are the Kurds? Are they freedom fighters or terrorists? Do they deserve universal support? Does any segment of them deserve support? Should the world differentiate between “good” and “bad” Kurds?

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered answers to some of these questions during a recent interview on October 19. Erdogan suggested that like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Kurdish party in Syrian Kurdistan, is a terrorist organization. The PKK, of course, is a designated terrorist groupin Turkey as well as in the European Union and the United States. Turkey depicted the PYD this way in order to delegitimize the Kurds and to justify its opposition to granting any support to Kobane, either by the Kurds of Turkey or the United States and its allies.

The ironies of the matter are many. While characterizing the PKK as terrorists, Erdogan’s government is conducting open negotiations with  Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s imprisoned leader. Turkey regularly welcomes the head of the PYD, Salih Muslim, for talks in Ankara about the situation of the Kurds in Syria. Also, in the last decade Turkey has become the strongest ally of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq,while it continues to regard the Kurdish  leadershipof Turkey—and even more so of Syria—as deadly enemies. This complex stance creates numerous paradoxes for Ankara, including its decision to allowthe KRG’s peshmerga fighters to cross the border and support the Syrian Kurds.

The struggle for Kurdish legitimacy has also reached the international stage. To Turkey’s dismay, the international community no longer feels beholden to Ankara’s agenda and its portrayal of the Kurds. Faced with the Islamic State, many countries, goaded by the media, have begun to perceive the Kurdish fighters in Kobane not as terrorists but a main bulwark against the jihadists. Accordingly, after a long delay, the United States and other countries have begun providing air support to the encircled Kobane and are sending military supplies to the women and men who are fighting heroically against ISIS.What is no less important is that immediately after Erdogan’s declaration regarding the PYD, State Department spokesperson Jen Psakiannounced that in contrast to Turkey, Washington does not consider the PYD a terrorist organization, implying that it recognizes the Kurds of Kobane as freedom fighters.

Meanwhile, the Kurds are leveraging their success in the war against ISIS to reshape their image. Instead of being portrayed as victims, weak, tribal, and isolated, they are beginning to portray themselves as an assertive, democratic, liberal, secular, tolerant, and pro-Western people. To what extent are they succeeding in this endeavor? 

The Kurds certainly appear quite democratic in comparison to their neighbors. In the last decade, the KRG has held several elections in which diverse political parties have taken part and participation was high. After the Kurds took control of the Kurdish regions of Syria in the summer of 2012, they established three cantons, all of which are now co-headed by females. In contrast to all of the Arab countries, these three cantons drafted a constitution which refrains from stating that Islam is a source of legislation. In fact, this constitution does not mention Islam at all. In this aspect it also differs from the constitution of the KRG, which does reference Islam. Interestingly, while Islamists are allowed to participate in the elections of the KRG, they have won a mere 15% of the vote.

With each passing daythe liberal and secular positions of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq are becoming more obvious. Take, for example, the role of women in Kurdish societies. In addition to social and political activities, Kurdish women play substantial roles on the military field as well. The female fighters in Syrian Kurdistandemonstrated their mettle and drew worldwide attention and support for the Kurdish cause.Kurdish tolerance also extends to non-Kurdish societies: The KRG has become a safe haven for Christians, Yezidis, Shiites, and Sunnis fleeing civil waror persecution. As a result, the KRG is now home tomore than one million Iraqi internally displaced refugees. The same attitude of tolerance and respect for minority rights may also be attested to in the Kurdish cantons in Rojava.

The Kurds’ pro-Western position needs no defense. In what one may call the clash of civilizational values between the Islamic State and the West, the Kurds unhesitatingly line up with the latter. They are the West’s best ally in its war against terror in the Middle East for several reasons. First, since ISIS has turned against the Kurds as their main target, it is in Kurdishinterests to take up arms against the group. Second, Baghdad, Damascus, and Ankara have proven unwilling or unable to fight and win the battle against ISIS, thus an alliance with them is shaky at best. Third, as non-state actors, the Kurds are totally committed to the cause because the end result might serve their ambition of independence.

There is no doubt that there is a policy shift on the part of the United States and its allies toward the Kurds, and that it is triggered by the war against ISIS. The continuous supply of weapons, ammunition and training by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada to the Kurds in Iraq since last summer as well as the strikesin support of Kurdish fighters in Kobane, shows a significant shift in the way the Kurds in the Middle East are perceived. Whether the reason behind this shift is the Kurds’ progressive disposition or amarriage of convenience, the outcome is unmistakable. The Kurds’ battle for legitimacy is gaining momentum and the line between “good”and “bad” Kurds is becoming increasingly blurred. The Kurds have put themselves on the world map, a map that they are helping to redraw to promote their cause of self-determination.

The article is previously published on Fikra website

Ofra Bengio is a professor/lecturer at Tel Aviv University.
Sherko Kirmanj is a visiting senior lecturer at the University of Utara Malaysia.


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