The Kurdish New Year, or ‘Newroz’, falls on 21 March every year and thousands in the UK as well as millions across the world celebrated it. The date seems an appropriate occasion to reflect on this passing of yet another dramatic year for Kurds, who continue to find themselves at the centre of regional upheavals. Many Kurds and their allies each year use the opportunity of the attention the celebration brings to call for much-needed peace and democracy in the Kurdish regions, and this year the need is as great as ever.
The bloody conflicts in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria are showing no signs of abating. The latter two in particular are drawing in ever more actors into a violent mess. US troops are now on the ground in Rojava (northern Syria), supporting their Kurdish allies, for which the Kurds are undoubtedly grateful. Yet the fact that we have to come to this point is itself cause for alarm.
In Turkey, thousands have been killed in the recent round of fighting and entire urban areas levelled, while in Iraq Kurds fight against their fellow Kurds, even while the threat of Islamic State still looms large. In Iran, whose conflict probably attracts the least attention of the four, executions of political prisoners, armed clashes and bomb attacks are still regular occurrences.
Through all of these hardships, I think Kurdish movements deserve to be proud of their having maintained relatively (given everything that has happened) high standards of commitments to human rights, gender equality and minority rights. Of course there are areas where we should be critical. We should not let our admiration of the heroism and strong principles of these movements prevent us from giving criticism when it is due. But naturally, first and foremost, we should be supportive of the undeniably impressive positive efforts of Kurdish movements.
Above all, Kurds deserve to be proud of their heroic struggle against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It is this struggle more than anything that has made the Kurdish issue a talking point internationally and won the Kurdish cause many supporters. It has brought the progressive ideologies of groups fighting Islamic State to the attention of many and this has boosted their support.
Moreover, it has shown Kurdish groups that by having progressive policies they can secure support, something which has pushed them towards maintaining and implementing progressive policies on the ground. The support gained in this way has in turn brought closer to reality the ambition shared by many Kurds of securing a free, democratic and peaceful homeland.
In Syria, Kurdish forces of YPG, along with Arab militias, are poised to begin their assault on Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa. When we compare where Kurdish forces were this time last year, the progress made is immediately apparent. Kurdish forces have driven back the scourge that is Islamic State from large swathes of Syria, liberating the populations of countless towns and villages along the way.
In Syria, in particular, the Kurds have been working to diversify their support base amongst non Kurdish locals by empowering communities and encouraging them to get involved in decision making processes.
With the reputation they have developed and the prestige they have gained across the world, Kurds across Mesopotamia have an opportunity to build on the momentum they have generated and establish themselves irrefutably as a key player in the Middle East. With this in mind, the clashes between various Kurdish groups must be seen for the short-sighted unhelpful actions that they are and should be brought to an end immediately. Fighters loyal to the President of the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq have been clashing with Yazidi fighters trained by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in North West Iraq. There can be no ‘winners’ in such a clash. Ultimately, these groups all want something similar in the long term, namely peace and security for Kurds. The Kurds are spread over a vast, strategically-important territory. If they work with each other and with their neighbouring countries, they could be a force for great good regionally.
In Turkey, the senseless conflict between the state and Kurdish groups continues to cost lives on a near daily basis. A recent UN report suggests that as many as 2,000 Kurdish people have been killed in the recent round of fighting, 500,000 Kurds have been displaced, and huge swathes of Kurdish-majority cities have been levelled. The time for a return to peace negotiations is well overdue. A delegation from the EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) recently visited Turkey seeking to visit jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, held on Imrali Island. Efforts like this should be encouraged. Ocalan still enjoys huge support among Kurds across the region and is an influential voice. With the support of groups such as the EUTCC and the Imrali delegation, hopefully, the Turkish state can take responsibility for what is happening in the Kurdish region (South East) of the country and work towards putting an end to violence by going back to the negotiation table
Many actors across the region are embroiled in conflicts that have a direct or indirect link to the Kurdish issue. In the way they frame these conflicts, it may seem as if there is no clear solution. I may appear naïve but I think this is painfully urgent and needs expressing: There is a simple choice that anyone who considers themselves a friend of democracy and human rights can make, and that is to work for peace. Another year has passed and so with it another huge range of issues, hardships and progress for Kurds. There is a lot to be excited about, despite all the horrors we have witnessed, in the way Kurds are navigating the turmoil of the Middle East, and I think this time next year we will have even more to talk about.