Mustafa Fahs

Regional impossibilities

The idea of establishing national entities based on sect and ethnicity in Syria and Iraq is a threat to territorial unity in two of the region’s most powerful states

Kurdish People

Over a month ago, Syrian armed opposition factions entered an open confrontation with forces loyal to Bashar Assad in northwest Syria. The opposition has been able to liberate most of Idlib Governorate, from rural Idlib to the town of Jisr al-Shughur, as well as vast tracts of the Al-Ghab Plain. With regard to demography, the opposition has taken full control of areas with a Sunni majority population and come into direct contact with Alawite areas to the west of the Al-Ghab Plain and rural Latakia. This has placed areas that support the regime and provide it with manpower in the firing line of opposition forces.


Politically, this change on the battlefield has put the regime in the firing line of its regional adversaries, Ankara, Riyadh and Doha, who have agreed that it must fall. They have also agreed that the unity of Syrian territory must be maintained and that the formation of independent sectarian or ethnic cantons must not be allowed.


The battle opposition forces have embarked upon in northwest Syria has coincided with the outbreak of ethnic violence in northwest Iran, in the Kurdish city of Mahabad. Protests erupted in the city after a Kurdish woman committed suicide when a policeman tried to sexually assault her. Outwardly, the incident seemed to be the direct cause of the action by the Iranian Kurds; however, on a deeper level it was a response to a history dominated by the policies of racial and sectarian discrimination that the authorities in Tehran have used against ethnic and racial minorities since the establishment of the modern state of Iran over a century ago.


Logically, the two cases cannot be linked. In the first case, Syria’s opposition forces have achieved a military success as the result of the recent convergence of regional interests in the county. This has a geostrategic dimension based on the impossibility of accepting an independent Alawite entity. The second, although it came in reaction to a sexual assault, has revealed the extent of the predicament the relationship between central and outlying areas of Iran is facing. It has also revealed Iran’s escalating minority crisis and the threat it poses to the country’s internal security and territorial unity.


Historically, the Soviet-supported Kurdish Republic of Mahabad lasted for no more than 11 months after the Kurdish Democratic Party announced its formation in northwestern Iran in 1946. The new state was the victim of a settlement between Washington, London and Moscow which would see the latter withdraw its support after being granted control over part of Iran’s oil wealth. The dictator Joseph Stalin gave orders for his army to withdraw from north and northwest Iran, allowing the Iranian army to enter the city of Mahabad, and arrest and execute the separatist leader Sheikh Qazi Muhammad.


Today, the Kurdish cause has returned to the forefront thanks to the region’s complicated crises. Kurds in more than one state feel they have a chance to capture the word’s attention and openly declare their separatist inclinations that until a short time ago were mere undeclared desires. Events in Iraqi Kurdistan are a prime example of this.


In Syria, the Kurds are doing their best to take advantage of this historic opportunity, on the one hand by escaping the control of the central government, and on the other by not joining opposition forces and imposing preconditions on any cooperation. This situation allows them to build towards independence in the long term, following the example of Iraqi Kurdistan. The events in Mahabad, considering the situation in the region, should alert Iran to the danger of the Kurdish snowball, and the fact that weakening the central government in Baghdad and pushing for the partition of Syria will directly affect its national security, its internal stability and the safety of its territory.


For its part, Turkey seems to be coping with the current Kurdish crisis better than other affected countries. This is the result of the country’s relative success in holding a dialogue with the Kurds, and reaching a long-term understanding with the help of Erbil. In 2012, the dialogue made it possible for Turkish Kurds to establish their first officially-sanctioned political party. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has gone on to take 11 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections. This has presented the Kurdish political class with difficult choices. They may continue to form an opposition but it must be an opposition within state institutions that shares governance and complies with the state’s conditions. As well as this, there is the Justice and Development Party’s success in gaining the favor of Kurdish religious movements. The Turkish government also succeeded in signing a peace agreement with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has led to the withdrawal of its fighters to Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. This does not eliminate Turkish concern that some Kurds might coordinate with Kurdish armed groups cooperating with Tehran and Assad in Syria. Ankara is not necessarily safe from the expansion of secessionist demands to Turkish Kurds, who could take advantage of the Syrian Kurdish situation and the possibility it could reflect on Kurds in Iran who have regained the dreams of Mahabad.


In Syria, Ankara has taken a decisive stance against Tehran, refusing the establishment of an Alawite entity should Assad retreat to the country’s coastal region. Partitioning Syria into ethnic and religious entities is a red line for Turkish national security that no one may cross. Such a step would directly affect security in Hatay, as the Turkish province has an Alawite majority and there are separatist groups that call for unity with Alawites in Syria. Likewise, the Kurdish Alawite minority — 30 percent of the Kurds — will encourage taking advantage of Syria’s partitioning to serve their separatist inclinations.


While Iran may be considering partitioning Syria to compensate for its great losses in the country, it cannot prevent the fever of partition from reaching Iraq. There, political Shiitism will lose its controlling position if it loses the Sunni and Kurdish regions. The central and southern Shiite region will fall under Iranian influence, and have no political role at all. On top of this, the rise of minority entities could well destroy the unity of Iranian territory. Baku and Ankara have a powerful influence over Iranian Azeris, who make up 22 percent of the population, and hold many administrative positions and high offices. Some of them would like to see the grip of the central state loosened and gain some form of self-administration. There is also an active separatist movement that calls for unity with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Then there is the evermore explosive issue of the Baloch people and the Ahwazi Arabs, which could easily ignite, especially as Tehran has resorted to using its security forces rather than opting for a developmental approach in dealing with the cultural and social rights of ethnic groups.


Turkey is intent on preserving the unity of Syrian territory as much as Iran is intent on preserving the unity of Iraqi territory and both are trying to avoid the issue of minorities—a constant threat to their national security. But is there an adventurer who wants to break away from the established principles on which the region’s collective security is based and toy with regional impossibilities? In the end, no one can deprive a people of their right to decide their own fate.


Mustafa Fahs is a former fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He tweets @mustafafahs


This article has been translated from the original Arabic by Ullin Hope. 

Kurdish People's Protection fighters take part in a training session on 30 April 2015 in the region of Ras al-Ain, Syria, close to the Turkish border. (AFP/Uygar Onder Simsek)

Politically, this change on the battlefield has put the regime in the firing line of its regional adversaries, Ankara, Riyadh and Doha, who have agreed that it must fall. They have also agreed that the unity of Syrian territory must be maintained and that the formation of independent sectarian or ethnic cantons must not be allowed."