Pan-Kurdish congress planned to unify ranks amid regional turmoil

Reuters News

7/23/2013 11:34:00 AM - Reuters News

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have agreed to convene a pan-Kurdish congress to tackle historical divisions and position themselves to take full advantage of regional upheaval.

Often described as the world's largest ethnic group without a state of their own, Kurds regard the modern borders that have carved up their homeland of "Greater Kurdistan" as a historical injustice.

Geopolitics may have condemned the Kurds to live in four different countries, but their own competing ideologies and partisan rivalries have also got in the way of greater unity, and even led to armed conflict.

Representatives of 39 Kurdish parties attended a symbolic meeting in the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region on Monday, though any joint initiatives, let alone the political or institutional unity that some dream of, are still a long way off.

No date for the conference has yet been set, but some participants said it could be held as early as next month.

"Our main goal in holding this congress is for all Kurdish political factions to reach a shared strategy and voice," Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said in a speech, describing the meeting in Arbil as "historic".

"I call on all participants to work together in a spirit of brotherliness and patriotism, far from any narrow political ideologies."

Successive governments in Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran and Ankara have long exploited disunity among the Kurds to thwart their aspirations for more independence or a unified homeland, and at times resorted to brute force to suppress them. Thousands were gassed to death by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Ramzy Mardini of Beirut's Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies said divisions still posed a challenge: "Competition amongst the Kurds is leading to contradictory policies, which inhibit their ability to position themselves as winners of the Arab Spring."

Nonetheless, ethnic Kurds who fought out their partisan rivalries in the 1990s now run their own quasi-state in northern Iraq, and are enjoying unprecedented prosperity while sectarian violence threatens to rip the rest of the country apart.

In Syria, civil war has provided an opening for greater autonomy for the Kurds after years of oppression under President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, who denied thousands citizenship and confiscated their lands.

In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is currently in talks to end a three-decade armed rebellion in return for greater rights for the Kurds, who make up around one fifth of Turkey's population.

Only in Iran have Kurds' fortunes remained little changed.

"There is no doubt that the Kurds see the historical upheavals plaguing the region through the lens of opportunism," Mardini said. "It is by way of an unraveling of the political order that national borders could eventually be redrawn. The Kurds are trying to best position themselves for that moment."

(Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Kevin Liffey)