Will Kurdish nationalism survive amid closed borders?

Article Summary
Borders, economic interests and sensitivities among Kurdish political parties have always been at the origin of dissent among Kurds who, today, seem to have forgotten about their nationalist dream and are instead chasing after narrower goals.

The Simalka border crossing — between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish regions and under democratic self-rule in Syria— is probably one of the last Kurdish entities dating back to the period of Kurdish-Ottoman emirates. But ironically, the only centuries-old border crossing was closed years ago, with only a few people allowed to pass under complicated administrative, political and organizational procedures between the two sides. To add to the tragedy, since this crossing is the only one linking the Kurdish self-governed regions in Syria with the outside world, hundreds of thousands of a predominantly Kurdish population rely on this crossing as the only source to access their most urgent needs, especially medical supplies. Now this crossing has become equally important for Iraqi Kurdistan after the Islamic State (IS) took control of all the southern borders of this region and Turkey closed the border crossing of Fishkhabur with the region.

Apparent political/party considerations have priority over any imagined higher nationalistic interest. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which politically and administratively control the Iraqi-Kurdish side of the crossing, seeks to make this crossing an economic and political asset for its affiliate in Syria, the KDP of Syria, thus requiring that revenues be somehow divided among all Kurdish political parties in Syria as a condition for opening the crossing. The KDP also wants the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to comply with the standards of political partnership with the rest of the Kurdish parties, mainly the military and bureaucratic institutional partnership, in order to wield further influence in Syria through the KDP of Syria. This goes to show that nationalist, humanitarian and economic sensitivities are of no importance to the KDP since the closure of the crossing is often considered a primary factor leading to Syrian-Kurdish civilian casualties due to the acute inadequacy of medical and environmental hygiene supplies. The closure may also be blamed for the displacement of tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds in the region and neighboring countries, although the vast majority of those have always been loyal to the KDP. However, the KDP’s narrow party considerations have always prevailed upon any imagined “nationalist” view.

Similarly, the PYD is determined to exclusively control the crossing as well as the economic, political and military life in the self-governed regions, preferring the series of economic and political losses resulting from the closure of the only border crossing over any partnership in managing the crossing. The PYD even prefers many forms of “submission” to extortion from non-Kurdish political powers, such as opening the Tall Kojar/al-Yaarabiya border crossing with Iraq before IS’ takeover of Mosul, or complying with the trading conditions with the areas controlled by IS in Syria, or even those with the regime-controlled areas through Qamishli Airport.

What goes for the Kurdish/Kurdish borders between Syria and Iraq also goes for the rest of geographic demarcation areas between Kurdish communities in the four regional countries. Just as Turkey shut tight the official border crossings with Syria — which later became part of the Kurdish self-governed regions — and in order not to give legitimacy to this system of self-rule and block revenues from its Kurdish opponents, the self-ruling political parties do not accept any kind of partnership in managing these crossings with other Kurdish parties who are members in the National Syrian Coalition, as Turkey imposes their participation in managing these crossings as a condition for opening them. Like the first case, the PYD sees no difference between its interests and special political considerations and the general interest of putting an end the Kurds’ dispersion on both sides of the borders.

This is also the case for what is happening on the Iraqi-Iranian borders and on the Turkish-Iraqi ones. There has always been a Kurdish general interest in the demarcation areas between those countries. Meanwhile, party interests and sensitivities, and the interest in having a political balance, have always arisen to block any attempt to achieve the claimed “nationalist” public interest.

These facts allow us to discern the illusions of the latest nationalist trends in the region, persisting because of the tough circumstances millions of Kurds had to endure in the 20th century. Kurdish nationalism has constantly been gaining momentum, but the issue of borders, economic stakes and sensitivities between parties has revealed that the Kurds are not an impervious social and political group sharing a collective and clear purpose and behavior, and that interests and directions may diverge among the components of this large group.

More important is to admit the priority given to entities and their role in shaping the political actions of the political powers in control, away from any ideological trend or discourse adopted by these powers. Indeed, this is the case for Arab regimes throughout the latter half of the 20th century: Although the majority has been waving nationalist slogans and adopting an all-inclusive approach, these regimes remained loyal to the interests and conditions set by ruling entities. Borders between many Arab countries/regimes have for decades been closed, though the ruling parties have mostly shared the same nationalist view, or even belonged to the same party, as it was the case in Syria and Iraq in the '80s. Nationalism has always been an effective tool to garner legitimacy for a discourse or an ideology at the local scale, but it has never been able to become a political factor in determining the public relations and interests of the people whose support was earned through it.

The last point relates to destroying the illusion of a higher “nationalist public interest," through which one can assess the political actions of the majority of political movements active in this community. It’s merely a product of the imagination of nationalist literatures and views. Parties are always keen to claim that they represent this interest, despite their constant contradictions, transformations and changes, but they never fail to find legitimacy under the banner of the higher nationalist interest. Those should clearly be called “the custodians of the nationalist illusion.”

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Found in: turkish-kurdish relations, syrian kurds, pyd, kurds in turkey, kurds in syria, kurdistan democratic party of syria, kurdistan democratic party, border crossing
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