Kurds Should Not Fear Renewed Per­se­cu­tion in Syria, Expert Says

By: Adib Abdulmajid

AMS­TER­DAM, Nether­lands – Dr. Niko­laos van Dam is the for­mer Ambas­sador of the Nether­lands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Ger­many and Indone­sia, and author of The Strug­gle for Power in Syria (2011). With a pro­found diplo­matic expe­ri­ence in dif­fer­ent areas across the world and a broad knowl­edge on var­i­ous out­stand­ing causes in the Middle-​East, includ­ing the Kur­dish issue, Dr. Niko­laos van Dam observes the cur­rent devel­op­ments in Iraq and Syria with a spe­cial inter­est in the poten­tial out­come of the ongo­ing crises on the future of the Kurds. Dr. van Dam illus­trates his views in this regard through this exclu­sive interview.


On the basis of your pro­found expe­ri­ence as a for­mer Ambas­sador to Iraq and your broad knowl­edge regard­ing the Kur­dish issue there, how do you read the sit­u­a­tion of the Iraqi Kur­dis­tan today with respect to the cur­rent devel­op­ments, espe­cially the strained rela­tions and grow­ing cri­sis between Erbil and Baghdad?

Dr. Niko­laos van Dam:In August 1971, still a stu­dent being highly inter­ested in Iraq, I had the oppor­tu­nity to for the first time meet with the leg­endary Kur­dish leader Mustafa Barzani in Hajj ‘Umran, high in the bar­ren moun­tains, close to the Iraqi-​Iranian bor­der. On that same occa­sion I enjoyed the kind hos­pi­tal­ity of the Kur­dish Demo­c­ra­tic Party close by in Naw Pur­dan, where it cel­e­brated its 25th anniver­sary in the pres­ence of Mustafa Barzani’s two sons Mas’ud and Idris. I had the oppor­tu­nity to hear the views of var­i­ous eru­dite Kur­dish national lead­ers at the time, like Dr Mah­moud Othman,which was very instruc­tive, and helped me a lot in fur­ther under­stand­ing the Kur­dish cause in Iraq. Much later on, when ambas­sador to Turkey in 1998, I had the hon­our to receive the Kur­dish leader Jalal Tal­a­bani to a meet­ing with Euro­pean Union ambas­sadors, where he pro­vided us with in-​depth views on Kur­dish and Iraqi matters.

In his sober moun­tain quar­ters, Mustafa Barzani in 1971clearly explained his posi­tion on Kur­dis­tan. Iraqi Kur­dis­tan was his one and only pri­or­ity. More thana year ear­lier, on 11 March 1970, an agree­ment had been reached with the cen­tral Iraqi gov­ern­ment, grant­ing the Kurds in the Iraqi north some auton­omy, thereby sup­pos­edly end­ing the long mil­i­tary con­flict between Bagh­dad and the Kurds. The agree­ment was known as “The Eleventh of March Dec­la­ra­tion [1970]” (Bayan 11 Adhar). From the very begin­ning Mustafa Barzani took issue with what exactly was to become the region of Kur­dis­tan in which this auton­omy was to be real­ized, and, by impli­ca­tion, how the nat­ural wealth of this region was to be under his con­trol. Barzani wanted the oil rich area of Kirkuk to be included. A key ele­ment in his rea­son­ing was that the Iraqi Kurds had a jus­ti­fi­able claim to its oil wealth, because it came from an area that he claimed to be Kur­dish by major­ity. Accord­ing to the Kur­dish auton­omy law that later on was effec­tu­ated in March 1974 by deci­sion of the Bagh­dad Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mand Coun­cil, the Kur­dish autonomous region was des­ig­nated for those areas “hav­ing a Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion major­ity”, tak­ing the national pop­u­la­tion cen­sus of 1957 as a point of depar­ture. Accord­ing to this 1957 cen­sus, Kurds were the plu­ral­ity out­side Kirkuk city, whereas the Turko­mans were the plu­ral­ity inside the city (with the Kurds as the sec­ond largest group). Another cen­sus was, how­ever, still to be held, but did not take place. Turko­mans, Kurds and Arabs all claimed that it was they who had a major­ity in Kirkuk. The eth­nic com­po­si­tion of a city like Khanaqin con­sti­tuted a dis­puted area between Arabs and Kurds as well. In the mean­time, the Arab Baath régime in Bagh­dad was pro­mot­ing the Ara­biza­tion of these areas, so as to strengthen its Arab nation­al­ist cause. Dur­ing my period as Ambas­sador to Iraq (19881991) the Kurds were declared to be free in choos­ing either the Arab or Kur­dish national iden­tity. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for mak­ing such choices were par­tic­u­larly in favour of the Arab iden­tity: once the Arab iden­tity was cho­sen, it could not be reversed into Kur­dish. A Kurd could choose to be Arab at any time, but, the other way around, an Arab could not choose to offi­cially become Kur­dish, not even if he would have fam­ily rea­sons to do so.

Kur­dish claims to a larger area than was intended by the Bagh­dad régime have con­tin­ued to play a role dur­ing the past decen­nia until today, just as have the claims to the local energy sources. The main dif­fer­ence today is that de Kur­dish region is not only offi­cially autonomous, but also has become semi-​independent, par­tic­u­larly in the period after the fall of the régime of pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003. This has cre­ated the de facto pos­si­bil­ity for the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment to inde­pen­dently deal with the oil and gas pro­duc­tion on its own ter­ri­tory and to nego­ti­ate con­tracts with for­eign oil com­pa­nies for activ­i­ties within the Kur­dish dom­i­nated area, fully against the wish of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. At the same time the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment does not per­mit the Iraqi armed forces of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment to enter its autonomous Kur­dish region.

The main issue at stake here is that as long as the Kur­dish area is part of the sov­er­eign Repub­lic of Iraq, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment forces should offi­cially have the pos­si­bil­ity to deploy their units all over the coun­try, includ­ing in Kur­dis­tan. Sec­ondly, income derived from oil and gas explo­ration within the national ter­ri­tory of Iraq should be chan­nelled through the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and be redis­trib­uted to the ben­e­fit of the whole coun­try, and not only to the ben­e­fit of those dis­tricts where the oil and gas has been found. If the lat­ter were the case, regions within Iraq with­out any oil or gas reserves would remain very poor, whereas other regions with sub­stan­tial oil and gas reserves would become rel­a­tively rich. Con­cern­ing the energy resources, the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment is in fact oper­at­ing as if it were an inde­pen­dent national entity. It is only nat­ural that Bagh­dad rejects such a Kur­dish pol­icy. It would have been dif­fer­ent if an agree­ment had been reached before­hand on a cer­tain divi­sion of oil and gas explo­ration income between Bagh­dad and the Kur­dish autonomous region. A prece­dent for such a model exists in Indone­sia, where agree­ment was reached on this point between the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Jakarta and the north­ern province of Aceh.

When, on the other hand, look­ing at the decen­nia old con­flicts between Bagh­dad and the Kurds, and the great mutual dis­trust this had cre­ated, it is quite under­stand­able that the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment does not want to allow Bagh­dad mil­i­tary forces to enter its ter­ri­tory once again. Nev­er­the­less it should offi­cially be con­sid­ered as a Kur­dish infringe­ment on the sov­er­eign author­ity of the cen­tral state. If Kur­dis­tan is to be part of a sov­er­eign Iraq, the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment should take this into account. The de facto sit­u­a­tion is, how­ever, that Kur­dis­tan is offi­cially part of Iraq but in prac­tice inde­pen­dent or semi-​independent. The Kurds clearly do not want to repeat the bad expe­ri­ences they had with the Bagh­dad cen­tral author­i­ties in the past.

Some­thing sim­i­lar is reflected in the edu­ca­tion pro­vided in the Kur­dish area. Orig­i­nally both Kur­dish and Ara­bic were to be taught side by side, in vary­ing ways depend­ing on the eth­nic com­po­si­tion of the classes, but now edu­ca­tion is mainly given in Kur­dish only, lead­ing to a sit­u­a­tion in which many younger Kur­dish inhab­i­tants of the Kur­dish region are not even famil­iar any longer with the Ara­bic lan­guage, being the first offi­cial lan­guage of the Repub­lic of Iraq. This also gives an indi­ca­tion con­cern­ing the trend of de facto Kur­dish independence.

It is only nat­ural that such devel­op­ments can­not but lead to strained rela­tions between Erbil and Baghdad.

How should the Kur­dis­tan Regional Gov­ern­ment (KRG) deal with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s appar­ent attempt to monop­o­lize power in Iraq, in your opin­ion? Would inde­pen­dence for the Kur­dis­tan Region be a con­ve­nient solu­tion to the mount­ing rifts between Erbil and Baghdad?

Dr. Niko­laos van Dam:It is up to the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment itself, of course, to decide which path to take. Full inde­pen­dence is, how­ever, very dif­fi­cult to real­ize with­out war and end­less con­flict, as hap­pened in the past. National bound­aries drawn up in the past by colo­nial forces may seem unpop­u­lar to many, but in the end they turn out to be much more durable than imag­ined or wanted. Con­struc­tive dia­logue between Bagh­dad and Erbil, tak­ing into account both the actual sit­u­a­tion on the ground as well as his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties, seems to be the bet­ter option. What com­pli­cates the sit­u­a­tion even more is the effect that an even­tual inde­pen­dent Iraqi Kur­dis­tan would have on the adja­cent states and their Kur­dish regions. It seems bet­ter for the Kurds to be de facto inde­pen­dent or semi-​independent than to offi­cially claim it.

An his­toric les­son for Bagh­dad could be that cen­tral dic­ta­to­r­ial rule has over the decen­nia only con­tributed to fur­ther estrang­ing the Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion. If Bagh­dad could con­tribute to a sub­stan­tial improve­ment of the sit­u­a­tion in Kur­dis­tan, things could be much dif­fer­ent. But at the moment this looks more like a utopia.

One thing seems to be sure: the Kurds will not read­ily be pre­pared to give up their improved sit­u­a­tion and their achieve­ments, only to be part again of a uni­fied cen­tral­ist Iraq, thereby falling back under Baghdad’s author­i­tar­ian rule. The sit­u­a­tion in Kur­dish Iraq has improved sub­stan­tially, also in the field of eco­nomic devel­op­ment and secu­rity. There seems to be no way of sim­ply going back to the past. If the sit­u­a­tion of the Kurds could really be improved by posi­tion­ing them­selves under the cen­tral rule of Bagh­dad again, things might be dif­fer­ent. Under the present sit­u­a­tion doing so would, how­ever, most prob­a­bly help achieve the oppo­site, with all its dis­ad­van­tages for the Kurds. In var­i­ous ways the present sit­u­a­tion in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan looks bet­ter than in the rest of Iraq.

In regard to the Kur­dish issue in Syria, and after twenty months of pop­u­lar upris­ing against the Assad dic­ta­to­r­ial rule, do you believe that free­dom for Syria will nec­es­sar­ily mean free­dom for the Kurds? Or should the Kurds be pre­pared for a new era of per­se­cu­tion in the post-​Assad Syria?

Dr. Niko­laos van Dam:In the first place I am not quite opti­mistic that free­dom, by which I mean polit­i­cal free­dom with a sub­stan­tial degree of democ­racy, will be achieved in Syria in the shorter term. In case the régime of pres­i­dent Bashar al-​Asad were to fall, I expect the mil­i­tary who dethrone him to take over them­selves. And it depends on these mil­i­tary whether or not they are pre­pared to hand over power, which they would have achieved through many bloody bat­tles with numer­ous vic­tims, to those who would then return from abroad with­out actu­ally hav­ing been involved in the bloody mil­i­tary strug­gle. This implies that if a régime change does not lead to free­dom for the Syr­ian peo­ple in gen­eral, it will not either lead to free­dom for the Kurds in Syria. It does, how­ever, not mean that Kurds would be per­se­cuted on eth­nic grounds under a new kind of dic­ta­tor­ship, as was the case before. If there would be really free­dom in a post-​Assad Syria, it would only be log­i­cal that this free­dom would also include the Kurds, on an equal basis with other pop­u­la­tion groups.

Since the start of the ongo­ing upris­ing in Syria, there is a cri­sis of mis­trust between the Kur­dish polit­i­cal forces and the Arab oppo­si­tion. The Kurds are con­stantly look­ing for guar­an­tees about the Kur­dish future in Syria, while the Arab oppo­si­tion –includ­ing the recently founded coali­tion –refuses to openly nego­ti­ate the Kur­dish demands and says that the Kur­dish rights will be dis­cussed only after the down­fall of the cur­rent régime. Do you think that the Kur­dish wor­ries are jus­ti­fi­able? What is required from the Arab oppo­si­tion to do in order to reas­sure the Kurds on their future in Syria, in your opinion?

Dr. Niko­laos van Dam:In Dutch we have a proverb that says: “you should not sell the skin of the bear before he has been shot”. As long as there is not any uni­fied opin­ion amongst the oppo­si­tion in gen­eral, I think it would be unre­al­is­tic to expect any reli­able deal between the so-​called Arab oppo­si­tion and the Kur­dish oppo­si­tion (which does not seem to be uni­fied either). On the other hand it should not be that dif­fi­cult for the oppo­si­tion in gen­eral to com­mit itself to demo­c­ra­tic rule all over Syria, includ­ing the areas with a Kur­dish major­ity. A suc­ces­sor régime will prob­a­bly not be an Arab nation­al­ist régime as much as the Baath régime has been dur­ing its years in power. Sim­i­lar dis­crim­i­na­tory poli­cies against the Syr­ian Kurds should there­fore not be feared. A key future ques­tion could be how­ever: should Syria become a democ­racy with equal­ity for all (which in itself would already be an enor­mous improve­ment, also for the Syr­ian Kurds), or should spe­cial arrange­ments be made for eth­nic minori­ties? It can be imag­ined that suc­ces­sor regimes may be hes­i­tant when it comes to dis­cussing Syr­ian Kur­dish auton­omy, tak­ing into account what hap­pened and hap­pens in Iraq.

The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment has con­stantly revealed its wor­ries regard­ing a poten­tial role of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) in the Kur­dish areas in Syria after the down­fall of the Assad régime. In a case that Syria’s Kurds obtain their rights and estab­lish a form of autonomous region in north­ern Syria with­out a PKK’s influ­ence, what would be Turkey’s atti­tude and how would it deal with a new Kur­dish power in the region, accord­ing to your point of view?

Dr. Niko­laos van Dam:This depends also on the com­po­si­tion of the Syr­ian suc­ces­sor régime. The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment will prob­a­bly not pre­fer to pro­mote any Kur­dish auton­omy trends in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, except if it were in its strate­gic inter­est and helps its fight against the PKK in Turkey. If a Syr­ian autonomous region would con­sti­tute a safety guard against, for instance, the PKK, and Turkey’s inter­nal sit­u­a­tion and sta­bil­ity would not be neg­a­tively influ­enced by the devel­op­ments in Syria, one could expect Turkey to con­done the new sit­u­a­tion and have noth­ing against it. But this is just the­o­ret­i­cal speculation.

In your per­spec­tive, should the Kur­dish peo­ple in all of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran stay hope­ful and opti­mistic about the aspi­ra­tion of the estab­lish­ment of a united Kur­dish state (Kur­dis­tan) some­day, or is that merely a utopian dream which will never come true with respect to the last century’s devel­op­ments in the Middle-​East?

Dr. Niko­laos van Dam:One should never say “never”. Tak­ing a look at the devel­op­ments in the region over the last cen­tury, how­ever, I expect a united Kur­dish state Kur­dis­tan to remain a utopian dream for a very long time to come, if not for­ever. In prac­tice it would mean carv­ing out parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, all hav­ing a Kur­dish minor­ity. And then there should be the will­ing­ness among all those Kur­dish parts to unite them­selves into one state with a uni­fied leadership.

The Arab states that in the past fer­vently wanted to unite under the ban­ner of Arab nation­al­ism did not suc­ceed to do so. And they did not even have to sep­a­rate from other states in order to be able to unite, as would have to the case in order to be able to achieve a united Kurdistan.

Sev­eral decades ago, the Kur­dish nation­al­ist move­ments in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria were mainly con­fined to each indi­vid­ual coun­try. Mustafa Barzani did not men­tion any ambi­tions out­side Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. A transna­tional Kur­dish nation­al­ist move­ment con­nect­ing Kurds with one another across inter­na­tional bound­aries did not really man­i­fest itself at the time. The Kurds were more pre­oc­cu­pied with their sit­u­a­tion in each coun­try sep­a­rately. The sit­u­a­tion in Iraq after the fall of pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein, and the devel­op­ment of a semi-​independent Kur­dish region in its north, may well have inspired Kurds in Syria to come out more explic­itly for their own rights, just as it may have had its effects on the Kurds in Turkey. Dif­fer­ent from Iraq, Iran or Turkey, how­ever, the Syr­ian Kurds do not have one sin­gle geo­graph­i­cally con­nected area in which they are a major­ity. This aspect does not make their aim of an autonomous Syr­ian Kur­dis­tan eas­ier. Many Syr­ian bor­der areas in the north, which were for­merly inhab­ited mainly by Kurds, have since the 1960s become more heav­ily pop­u­lated by Arabs who have set­tled there as part of a Ba’thist pol­icy to Ara­bize the north­ern Syr­ian bor­der region and cre­ate a so-​called “Arab Belt.” It goes with­out say­ing that undo­ing these Ara­biza­tion schemes will not be pos­si­ble with­out seri­ous con­flict. The Syr­ian Kurds’ demands for a region­ally defined area with self-​determination will not be eas­ily accepted by Arab Syr­i­ans in gen­eral, as it might be inter­preted as a pre­lude to fur­ther and more ambi­tious demands, whether jus­ti­fied or not. In Iraq, it took decades of war with var­i­ous Bagh­dad regimes before an autonomous Iraqi Kur­dish region was real­ized. The Kurds in Iraq may con­tinue to inspire the Kurds in Turkey and Syria in their quest for more auton­omy or even inde­pen­dence. For Turkey such a devel­op­ment may have seri­ous con­se­quences, as the Kur­dish nation­al­ist move­ment there may be fur­ther reac­ti­vated with sup­port from the Kurds in neigh­bour­ing countries.

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