During a day of panels focused on “Kurdistan and the Changing Middle East” on Nov. 6, speakers from around the world provided material for discussions on “State-Society Relations in Northern Iraq,” “Dynamics of the Kurdish movement and governance in Turkey,” and “Regional Dynamics.” The event was sponsored by the UW Jackson School of International Studies.
Chris Rudy, who attended the forum with his wife, Pinar Özhal, said a conference like this would not be possible in Turkey where his wife is from. “I can’t speak Kurdish,” said Özhal, whose family is from Diyarbakir, in the heart of Kurdish territory. “My family didn’t teach it to us because they wanted to keep us safe. The language has only been legal since I was 6.”
Since moving to the United States in 2007, Özhal sees her Kurdish background as a part of her identity. “I always say, ‘I’m from Turkey. I’m Kurdish.’ I feel the need to underline my ethnicity because we are oppressed,” she said. Özhal said she was glad to have the opportunity to hear different viewpoints from around the world.
During a panel on regional dynamics in the Middle East, an alphabet-soup of acronyms, such as KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government), KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), and PUK (Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan), were displayed on the overhead projector as a quick reference for attendees. Aliza Marcus, an author and journalist for Bloomberg News, emphasized that historically these groups have been isolated and not unified. Furthermore, treatment of the different groups has not been uniform. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which started as a militant organization seeking cultural and political rights from Turkey, is listed by many countries as a terrorist organization, whereas the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Party) is not listed as a terrorist organization, despite its close ties with the PKK.
Also, Iraq already has its own Kurdistan regional government, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by President Masoud Barzani.
Despite the disconnect, Barzani does not want to see Kurdistan lost to ISIS – even if it means that his KDP must work with the PKK. There is also a fear that if Kobani falls there will be violent riots from Kurds both in the Middle East and in Europe. A Kurdish National Congress could bring together leaders of the different factions to create a more unified political stance, something that most Kurds would support, Marcus said.
The conference concluded with a keynote speech by Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University who is widely quoted in publications such as Time and the Wall Street Journal about Kurdistan.
Raj Stephens, a senior airman in the U.S. Air National Guard and a UW student taking JSIS 200 and JSIS B311, attended Barkey’s lecture and a reception before the event. In the role of his Guard assignments, he studied what ISIS was doing in the Middle East. He was interested in hearing Barkey’s perspective about the implications of a Kurdish state in the region, which Barkey portrayed as unlikely since the other countries in the region will not support an independent Kurdistan.
With the Syrian border city of Kobani taking on increased symbolic significance in the fight against ISIS forces, Barkey said, the Kurds have never had it better, politically. But he said a desire by Kurds to have an independent nation are not likely to materialize anytime soon. Barkey said Turks do not want to have a separate Kurdish state and that countries in the Middle East have other priorities. In addition, Barkey reasoned, in the 20th century Kurdistan can get most of what it wants without its own country. It doesn’t need to raise taxes or conscripts for an army, he said, and there are other ethnic groups living in Kurdistan that would resist independence.
Barkey criticized U.S. policy in the region as “pragmatic foreign policy with no organizing principle or ambition.” He said the Obama administration didn’t pay enough attention to Iraq because they just wanted to get out. “Under Prime Minister Maliki things were documented, but they didn’t do anything about it. The Iraqi army was not capable of fighting ISIS. These were knowns, but nothing was done,” he said.
By Kristina Bowman