In a sign that the Kurdish ethnic minority in the Middle East is increasingly closer to establishing a sovereign state, the Turkish government, a longtime opponent of the Kurdish independence movement, passed a law this week allowing peace talks with Kurdish rebels in the nation.
According to Al Jazeera, Turkish President Abdullah Gul approved legislation that would allow the Turkish government to meet and engage in peace talks with Kurdish leaders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization Turkey has labeled as a terrorist group for years and banned from operating in the nation. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has engaged in minimal talks with the government since 2012, the outlet reports, but the new law is the first official legislation that would allow an opening for such discussions.
While the Turkish government has generally been in opposition to the Kurdish minority and the PKK, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who is running for president, has enacted several reforms intended to incorporate the Kurdish minority into Turkish political life and win their vote. In 2012, Erdogan passed a law allowing schools to teach Kurdish. A year later, Erdogan passed a series of reforms that allowed for Kurds to officially use Kurdish names for towns and lowered the threshold of votes needed for a party to enter Parliament, giving Kurdish parties a better chance of representing the minority in the legislature. These reforms were considered minimal, however, particularly given the illegal status of the PKK.
In addition to the Kurdish population of Turkey, Erdogan and the Turkish government have reached out to the Kurdish minority in Iraq, with which they have a common enemy: the Islamic State– formerly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq contributed significantly to preventing a full takeover of Iraq by the Sunni jihadist group, fighting in the suburbs of Iraq to keep ISIS from controlling major roads to the capital, as well as in areas in northern Iraq where the Iraqi army had long ago fled or been executed. Their rising prominence in Iraq has led Turkey to further trade with the Kurdish population, while the Shi’ite government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to continue to lose control.
Similarly, in Syria, Turkish Kurds are leaving Turkey behind to fight ISIS in the battlegrounds of northern Syria. Kurds fighting in Syria are doing so to contain the threat of ISIS, and explicitly note this is their sole goal, not to help the government of President Bashar al-Assad. “Our brothers in northern Kurdistan – Turkish Kurdistan – have started a campaign to send youths to Kobani to defend it… there are some youths who have crossed the border from Turkey to Kobani who are now in the frontlines alongside the People’s Protection Units,” Redur Xelil, spokesman for the armed Syrian Kurdish group the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units, told Reuters; “It is all to repel the Islamic State.”
The gains made by Kurdish forces against ISIS jihadists have led to increased calls for independence. The Kurdish population of Iraq has said that it will now boycott Cabinet meetings, arguing that the Iraqi government is ignoring the major gains against ISIS attributable almost exclusively to the Peshmerga.
Calls for independence in the Kurdish community have even hit the pop star circuit. Iraqi-born Kurdish pop singer Helly Luv has seen her new music video, “Risk It All,” garner millions of views on YouTube, in large part for its overt pro-independence message. Luv says she has received death threats and all manner of criticism for the military imagery in her video, as well as its separatist message. “There were death threats from many Islamic groups… it was a really hard time for me… (But) my whole message is that, Kurdish people, we need to risk everything for our dreams and fight for our country,” Luv told Reuters in April.