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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Question of Kurdish Autonomy in the Middle East

The Syrian Civil War has fundamentally altered the dynamics of the Middle East region. The fluctuating territorial boundaries of Syria and Iraq due to the rise of non-state actors such as ISIS have challenged the traditional understanding of how and where borders are drawn. The conflict has not just altered the balance of power between competing states but has also shifted the religious and ethnic makeup of the Middle East. One such group that has benefited from the challenges that have affected the region is the Kurdish population.

Having been denied self-rule after World War I, the Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state and are spread across four different countries in the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish question has been a thorny political issue throughout the governance of many a Middle Eastern state. However, the inadequacy of addressing this issue has led to calls for Kurdish independence. It appears more so in the last few years that this call for independence may become a reality.

The Kurds already have a quasi-independent entity led by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan Region. This semi-autonomous region still answers to the central government in Iraq, but its once burgeoning energy sector and its response to the conflict with ISIS has demonstrated the KRG’s strength and independence. Under the leadership of Massoud Barzani, the KRG has situated itself in a position of growing strength. Barzani has managed to promote the KRG as an example of Kurdish stability in the region, distancing itself from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and its semi-autonomous neighbour in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

This is coupled with ever increasing business ties with the Erdoğan government in Turkey. The KRG and its military forces (the Peshmerga) have taken control of disputed territories away from ISIS (such as the oil rich Kirkuk), giving them greater legitimacy in the region as an independent fighting force, as well as an essential ally. With the fall in oil prices, Erbil’s economy is looking more and more fragile but, in recent weeks, Barzani has made calls to break away from Iraq and to establish an independent Kurdish State. However, the call for independence looks like it might upset the already delicate balance of power in the area and may even incite feuding between other Kurdish groups and power centres.

As well as the KRG, the last four years of the Syrian Civil War has seen the PYD gain significant strength in creating a Syrian Kurdish region along Syria’s northeastern border. The PYD and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) have gained international legitimacy with their fight against ISIS forces in Syria. The United States and Russia have not declared the PYD a terrorist organisation (unlike its sister organisation the PKK in Turkey), and Russia has set up a PYD office in Moscow. Coinciding with the recent round of peace talks between Assad forces and opposition groups in Geneva, the PYD and other groups have announced the formation of the Federal Democratic System of Rojava and Northern Syria on 17 March.

Composed of the YPG, local Kurdish administrations and their Arab and Assyrian allies, this federal structure in Northern Syria has been met with staunch opposition. The United States, the Assad government, other rival Kurdish groups and, most of all, Turkey have shown their disagreement with the PYD’s actions. The Assad regime, while using the Kurds to fight effectively against ISIS forces, has also condemned the move for federation seeing it as a possible move to split the territorial integrity of Syria. However, there remains the possibility that, if its regional neighbours and the Assad government do not recognise this form of federalism, the PYD may call for independence from Syria.

Such a move towards independent sovereignty will present many problems in the region.

Turkey, currently engaged in a bloody conflict with the Kurdish PKK in the country’s southeast, poses the biggest problem. Turkey has shelled PYD-YPG positions along the Jarblus corridor trying to confine the Kurdish proto-state from reaching its other Canton in North West Syria, giving them access to the Mediterranean. Their effort to undermine the YPG’s international legitimacy (by linking them to a spate of bombings in Turkey) has been met with limited success. Ankara sees the possibility of a Kurdish autonomous region along its border as a direct threat due to the PYD-PKK ideological ties. According to Ankara’s thinking, such a state would further embolden the PKK’s operations in the Kurdish-dominated areas of Turkey. Therefore, the recognition of such a state is implausible.

However, Ankara has strong ties to the KRG, who also see the rise of a PYD dominated state as a direct threat to its leadership in the Kurdish community. However, due to Ankara’s frayed relationship with Russia, and growing domestic instability, Turkey does not have much mobility in Syria anymore. The possibility of a ground invasion if Kurdish statehood is declared seems slim.

While there is the impetus to form an independent sovereign Kurdish authority in the Middle East, the region is still too unstable to afford its creation. Such a move by the PYD would gain international traction, but its territorial security and legitimacy in the region will always be questionable. If Ankara decides on a peace deal in its bloody conflict with the PKK, then there may be the possibility of some form of recognition over time. However, in the current climate such a move seems unlikely.

The immediate move to regional federalism by the PYD and the push for independence by the KRG highlights to all players in the Middle East region that they can no longer ignore the Kurdish question. The shape this takes is yet to be seen but, for the moment, the Kurds will continue to be stuck between a rock and a hard place in their search for independence and recognition.

Iain MacGillivray was the January-June 2016 Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image credit: Kurdishstruggle (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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