Kurdish Victories Resonate Across Borders After Turkey Vote

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Syrian Kurds
Syrian Kurds wait near fighters upon their arrival to Kobani, March 30. Photographer: Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images

The Kurdish breakthrough in Turkey’s election resonated in the devastation of Kobani.

“This is a victory and an honor for us Kurds,” said Ibrahim Kurdo, head of the foreign relations committee in the Syrian town. It was all but destroyed in months of attritional fighting last year as Kurds first held up and then drove back an Islamic State advance.

It’s been a momentous time for the Kurds, a stateless nation of about 30 million people, roughly equal to the population of Canada, spread across a volatile corner of the Middle East.

In Turkey, the region’s biggest economy, an unexpected surge made the Kurdish party the third-biggest in parliament. As Iraq descended into chaos after Islamic State’s advance a year ago, the Kurds entrenched in the north, adding the oilfields of Kirkuk to an autonomous region with a $20 billion economy and its own army.

Kurds won kudos worldwide for resisting the jihadists, and exercise effective self-rule in swaths of the war-torn country. In recent days, they’ve grabbed several villages in Raqqah province, whose main city is Islamic State’s capital.

There’s also a Kurdish minority in Iran, whose demands for wider rights have sometimes led to tensions with the Islamic Republic’s authorities.

‘Historic Opportunity’

“It’s a historic opportunity, it’s a great achievement and it’s a milestone in the Kurdish cause,” Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Erbil-based Middle East Research Institute, said by phone from Ankara. “Any milestone inside Turkey will have positive implications in Iraq, in Syria, in Iran.”

While there’s little prospect of welding those areas into a single Kurdish state, the gains have empowered a group that has proved a key ally for the U.S. Kurds helped topple Saddam Hussein and are now fighting Islamic State extremists trying to widen their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey’s southeast is largely Kurdish. Its people have complained of discrimination for decades, and separatists have fought with the army since the 1980s.

In Sunday’s election the Peoples’ Democracy Party or HDP, which has ties with the armed rebels, became the first group with roots in the region to pass the nationwide threshold for winning seats in parliament. It grabbed a bigger-than-expected 13 percent of the vote, enough to strip the ruling AK Party of its 13-year majority in the legislature.

‘Political Tsunami’

The success may strengthen the Kurdish position in talks with the Turkish government over demands including local autonomy and cultural rights, such as education in Kurdish.

In Kobani, residents fired shots into the air, honked car horns and thumped their feet in the traditional dabke dance as the election results came in, said Kurdo.

The euphoria reflects an election result that’s a “political tsunami” for Kurds worldwide, one that will bring them more international attention and recognition of their role fighting Islamic State, Kawa Hassan, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center, said by phone from The Hague.

“It remains to be seen how the Kurdish leaders and groups will capitalize on this and try to form one united front,” added Hassan, who specializes in the Middle East at Hivos, a Dutch development organization.

There are still obstacles in front of Turkey’s Kurds. A nationalist party that opposes their demands also made gains in the election, while peace talks have stalled in recent months, and the rebels have threatened to resume their armed conflict.

Separate Agendas

More broadly, Kurdish movements in each country have separate agendas that don’t always overlap.

Tensions were visible between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds during the battle for Kobani. The Kurds who run northern Iraq have developed close business ties with Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while in Syria many Kurds accuse his government of siding with Islamists and failing to come to Kobani’s aid.

The election will help the Kurds integrate better within Turkish democracy, said Ala’Aldeen. It will also create better business opportunities for Kurds inside Iraq and access to global energy market and trade through Turkey, he said.

For Turkey, the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq is now increasingly becoming a hub for business and also a gateway for the rest of Iraq. Oil from Iraqi Kurdistan inflated the local economy from just millions before the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam in 2003.

“Turkey can benefit from this channel to further its cause, its economic advancement,” said Ala’Aldeen.

In Kobani, Kurdo said his people should build on their successes on the battlefield and now at the ballot box.

“Arabs have turned their spring into fall,” he said. “But the Kurds have gained from it.”

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