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Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding

Can China Address the Kurdish Question?

Looking at the crises of the artificial states in the Middle East at the surface level, one can argue that the nation-state project has, after a hundred years, reached a point of no return. Almost all states in the region are characterized by harsh autocracies or by weak, dependent and even failed regimes, lacking legitimacy and function. Turkey is not exempt from this pattern of failure. The last century of Turkish history has shown that the Kurdish question is the main obstacle to progress and prosperity of this new and artificial state.

As a large stateless nation or ethnic group in the Middle East, situated in four states with various internal and external issues, the Kurdish people could be a factor for political prosperity and economic development. They and their political project could create stability and democracy in the region. However, due to the same issues that other regional states and political entities face, the Kurds could also be the cause of instability, disruption and chaos. In other words, the Kurdish project has the potential to be a ‘kingmaker’ in the balances of the complicated political and social equations in the Middle East.

Kurdish initiatives in Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey) and Western Kurdistan (northeastern Syria) suggest an alternative system that can include the diverse mosaic of Middle Eastern peoples and societies. By rejecting the notion of centralist unification behind the Turkish and Syrian nation-states and promoting democratic and inclusive entities that can recognise every ethnic, religious, cultural and social groups, these initiatives could be a new and attractive project for the region’s people. However, they are also a threat to the nation-state system artificially established one hundred years ago by the colonial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, the Kurdish project is shaking the pillars of the system that has been imposed on the people of the Middle East for the last century. Thus, the states and societies in the region can consider it dangerous and unfamiliar.

For the Turkish state, the Kurdish problem is not only limited by its legal borders. Indeed, it has been a threat for the Turkish state in both Iraq and Syria as well. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (also known as Rojava, or West Kurdistan), a de facto federal region with a population of millions, has advanced a multi-dimensional model that is unprecedented in the Middle East. This model is currently under significant scrutiny. It can be argued that for the last seven years, despite Turkey’s invasion of Efrin (Afrin) in 2018 and Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Gire Spi (Tal Abyad), the Kurdish project has seen great progress and performed as a unique model of governance and management.

One can argue that, if it can survive the current international situation—especially threats from the Turkish state and its predominantly Sunni Arab and Turkmen armed proxies—it would be a quite unique alternative model for other regions in the Middle East. Nonetheless, there is still a likelihood that this model might be short-lived. It may be re-merged into the Syrian state under pressure from regional and international powers—primarily Turkey, Iran, and Russia—who seek to end this de-facto autonomous experiment. On the one hand, there is some limited support for the Kurdish project in northern Syria by some international actors (primarily Western powers). On the other hand, there is huge objection to this project from regional powers (including both the Sunni and Shia blocs).

If the Kurdish project in the Middle East fails, in the worst case scenario, it will create ongoing conflict. This is already the case in northern Kurdistan and Turkey, where continuous struggle, turmoil and protracted instability challenges the state and the region. Kurdish guerrillas could disrupt and attack economic interests—for example, transit networks and oil pipelines—if the issue remains unsolved. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) retains military forces in Turkey and has influence in all four parts of Kurdistan. The denial of the social, cultural and political rights of the Kurds could bring more chaos and especially political and economic instability to the region. However, if the Kurdish project be successful, it might be a positive model for democracy, diversity and empowerment for the peoples of the Middle East. It might be an opportunity to implement a new form of governance that could be different from what has been seen in the region for the last hundred years. Greater stability and prosperity will bring economic growth and  other positive outcomes for region and beyond. The relationship between the Turkish state and the Kurdish project could be mutually beneficial, rather than mutually detrimental.

One could argue that the Kurds hold the key to regional stability— and that all countries that have strategic economic interest in the region, including China, should take note. China has not yet intervened militarily in the Middle East like the United States and Russia have. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) needs a stable and secure pathway that is likely to go through the Middle East, including the states in which Kurds live.

As a rising economic and political power, China could play a major role in changing the course in the Middle East. In terms of general approaches, there is a difference between China and the other major power that have played roles in the Middle East for the last hundred years. China does not seek to impose its cultural or political hegemony on Middle Eastern states. It respects internal cultural and political differences as long as mutual interests progress. Therefore, China could potentially play a positive role in the process of resolving the Kurdish question especially with the government of Turkey as a main obstacle to a peace process.

The question here is whether China would wish to approach such a complicated case in the first place. There are two main obstacles in this regard. The first is related to the overall Chinese approach to international relations. Until now, China has been reluctant to interfere in the internal issues of any so-called sovereign state. China considers the Kurds to be non-state actors that cannot be dealt with formally. This is a major obstacle to Chinese engagement in the Kurdish issue. Its approach to the Kurdish question is likely to be sensitive, as it will not want to disturb its formal relations with the states in which the Kurds live. The second reason is the impact of Western intervention in the Middle East. China has less room to provide a different approach and take steps towards a solution towards regional crises.

However, both of these factors may not stop China from stepping forward in the region. This is simply because of its significant interests and the open opportunities to play a role—especially after the failure of the nation-state model, Western-backed initiatives, and post-Arab Spring projects in several parts of the region. China’s engagement in Afghanistan after the failure of the U.S. intervention and the return of the Taliban is one example. Its attempt to promote reconciliation between Iran and Saudi and accepting both of them as new members of BRICS is another example of China’s power to engage diplomatically.

Thus, there is the potential that China could support a peaceful solution to the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people. One can argue that this would benefit their interest in regional stability. Moreover, China has the ability to encourage Turkey to abandon its dead-end approach and take steps towards a new era of peace and prosperity in the region.

About the Author

Seevan Saeed


Dr. Seevan Saeed is an Associate Professor in Middle East Studies at Shaanxi Normal University and a Research Fellow in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

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