Moscow’s Kurdish Question

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu voiced his support for an independent Kurdish state. Israel is certainly in a good position to do this. It has bad relations with Syria, Turkey, and Iran, while Iraq appears to be disintegrating. It also has long had sympathy with the Kurdish cause and it would view an independent Kurdistan as a boon to its “periphery doctrine.”

The Kurds are the largest nation in the world (around 30 million people) who do not have their own country. They are a largely nomadic people who primarily live in the mountainous borderlands of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They speak an Indo-European language closely related to Farsi and that is subdivided into several dialects such as Kurmanji, Sorani, and Gorani. The Kurdish language has been written in three different alphabets: Latin (in Turkey), Perso-Arabic (in Iraq, Iran, and Syria), and Cyrillic (in the former USSR). The majority of Kurds practice Sunni Islam, though a significant minority also practice the Yazidi faith, a religion associated with Zoroastrianism. The Kurds who follow the latter usually identify themselves as a distinct ethno-religious group altogether (the Yazidis), even though they speak Kurdish and follow Kurdish traditions. For the most part, the Yazidis live in Iraq and Syria, though significant communities also exist in Armenia, Georgia, and Russia.

CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions from 1992, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

1992 CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

Denied their own state, the history of the Kurds in the 20th and 21st centuries has been one of near-endless uprisings and bloodshed. In particular, the Kurds in Turkey have been in almost constant revolt against Ankara since the beginning of the Turkish republic. Turkey sought to forcibly assimilate the Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and to actively suppress Kurdish culture and language. The Kurdish uprisings became especially heated under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the war between Turkey and the PKK, human rights abuses were committed by both sides, but especially by Turkey. Kurdish uprisings also occurred in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Iran. In Iraq, the plight of the Kurds gripped headlines in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein used poison gas to suppress a Kurdish uprising, killing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish citizens. His Al-Anfal Campaign is today referred to by many Kurds as “genocide.”

Netanyahu’s move to support Kurdish independence comes as the Kurds of Iraq and Syria remain almost entirely isolated from Damascus and Baghdad, cut off by territory seized by the radically militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL has menaced the southern border regions of Kurdish-controlled territory and has appalled and shocked the world with its flagrant abuses of human rights.

In an immediate response to ISIL, Russia has dispatched fighter jets and advisors to assist Baghdad in its fight against the self-proclaimed militant Islamic state. Russia has issues of its own with regard to militant radical Islam. In the North Caucasus, the war in Chechnya in the 1990s began as a more nationally-based conflict. However, as the conflict progressed, radical Islam began to overtake nationalism as the dominant ideology of the Chechen rebels. Soon, this ideology spread, facilitated by the work of Saudi missionaries, to other parts of the North Caucasus, notably Daghestan, thus widening the scope of the situation. Russia’s recent aid to Baghdad and its very strong support for Bashar Assad’s Syria need to be comprehended in this context.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

But what about the Kurds? Will the Kremlin too back Netanyahu’s call for an independent Kurdish state? This does not seem likely for the immediate future. Russia has good working relations with Turkey and Iran and, as mentioned above, it has both stood by Assad’s Syria and has aided official Baghdad.

At the same time, Russia also has a lengthy relationship with the Kurds, dating back to the Tsarist era. In 1946, the USSR supported the creation of a Mahabad Kurdish Republic in Northern Iran.  After the fall of that state, Moscow gave refuge to one of its key figures, the famous Iraqi Kurdish rebel leader Mustafa Barzani, and his followers.  Barzani was the father of Masoud Barzani, the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan.  In February 2013, the younger Barzani paid an official visit to Moscow where he was greeted warmly and met with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and others.  His “independent” attitude reportedly shocked Baghdad.

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Beginning in the 1960s, Kurdish-language radio broadcasts were made from Yerevan in then-Soviet Armenia and could be received by Kurds from other countries like Turkey where broadcasting in Kurdish was officially prohibited. Some Turkish Kurds even believed that broadcasting in Kurdish was impossible until they heard the Soviet broadcasts.  There were also Kurdish-language Soviet newspapers like Riya Taze.  Earlier, there was also the brief experience of the so-called “Red Kurdistan” (“Kurdistana Sor”) in the Caucasus.  Further, it has been alleged that when the PKK began its insurgency against Turkey in the mid-1980s, it received support from the Soviet Union.

There is also a significant and active Kurdish diaspora population (both Muslim and Yazidi) in Russia. In Soviet times, this population was even larger since it also included Kurdish populations in the now-independent republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Given this history and the situation on the ground, it is possible that if the situation between the ISIL and Syria and Iraq continues to worsen, Russia may well follow Israel’s lead and back Kurdish independence. Ultimately, though, it remains to be seen what will happen next and how Moscow’s Kurdish policy will evolve.


6 thoughts on “Moscow’s Kurdish Question

  1. He’s so generous with other peoples’ minorities.

    On Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 11:05 PM, Reconsidering Russia and the Former Soviet Uni


  3. Pingback: How to Crush Erdoğan’s Expansionism | Joshua Tartakovsky

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