ISTANBUL — Late into the night on Sunday on the shattered streets of Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish city devastated last year by battles with militants affiliated with the Islamic State, residents celebrated the outcome of the recent Turkish parliamentary election results, honking horns, cheering and firing their guns.
The election, in which the Kurdish party surpassed a threshold for the first time to enter Parliament, was the latest milestone in a broader trend: As the Middle East unravels, at great human cost, from wars and sectarian strife, the Kurds have moved doggedly through the chaos to secure more rights and autonomy for themselves.
Their electoral victory in Turkey was a historic watershed, a moment of political empowerment for the long-suppressed Kurdish minority, which fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
The victory was celebrated in Kurdish areas across the Middle East, reverberating in the mountains of northern Iraq, where Kurdish militants fighting the Turkish state have long hidden; the halls of power in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil; and in enclaves in northern Syria where Kurdish fighters from around the region have flocked to battle the Islamic State and where Kurds are beginning to establish the infrastructure of their own government.
“This victory will have good consequences for the Kurds in Syria and the region,” Salih Muslim, a Kurdish activist in Kobani, said of the Turkish election result.
The Kurds, a population of roughly 30 million spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, have historically been treated as second-class citizens by autocratic governments and long dreamed of their own state. Their aspirations were thwarted by Western powers after World War I, when new borders were drawn that carved up the Kurdish communities. But slowly, during the upheaval of the Middle East, the Kurds are now reaching for self-determination.
The battle for Kobani last year in Syria, which ended in victory for the Kurds after a monthslong American-led air campaign, drew Kurdish fighters from around the world and fanned the flames of pan-Kurdish nationalism.
In Iraq, after the Islamic State swept across the north of the country last year and captured Mosul, Kurdish forces took charge of Kirkuk, a city long contested between Kurds and Arabs that sits on a sea of oil and is considered something of a spiritual homeland for the Kurds.
Now, the Kurdish win in the Turkish election is seen regionally as another pivotal step.
“I think this is a milestone for Kurdish people and for Turkish politics,” Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, wrote in an email. “Not long ago, Kurds were officially nonexistent, at best identified as mountain Turks. After decades of denial and persecution, the time for the Kurds has arrived.”
The Kurds’ victory came at the expense of Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. Kurdish voting strength effectively dashed Mr. Erdogan’s ambition to establish an executive presidency. It also reflected a profound shift in Turkish politics in recent years, and perhaps a miscalculation on Mr. Erdogan’s part.
Mr. Erdogan once counted on loyal support from the Kurds for having granted them some limited rights and by pushing forward a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which fought the bloody insurgency against Turkey at the cost of nearly 40,000 lives.
However, the peace process had stalled as Mr. Erdogan turned more nationalistic, fearing that his outreach to the Kurds could cost him at the ballot box by alienating Turkish nationalists.
The pivotal battle for Kobani, which played out on Turkey’s border last fall, also played a role in Mr. Erdogan’s setback in the election. Last year, as the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, assaulted Kobani, Turkey positioned tanks near the border but did not intervene. It held back despite calls by Western allies, including the United States, which was carrying out an air campaign in support of the Kurds, to do more to help. Mr. Erdogan, it seemed, saw Kurdish autonomy in Syria as a greater threat to Turkey than the Islamic State.
Kobani became a rallying point for Kurds during the election campaign. Mr. Erdogan’s party — as president, he was not on the ballot — also lost the support of many religious Kurds, who had long been drawn to the Islamist message of the A.K.P. and opposed to the leftist worldview of the P.K.K. and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P.
“The government did nothing to support Kobani, they just watched,” said Musa Tarhan, 32, a textile worker and a Kurd in Istanbul who once supported the A.K.P. “That was a breaking point for me.”
The H.D.P. was able to expand its base of support by attracting liberals who once supported Mr. Erdogan but in recent years became disenchanted by his authoritarian style.
The H.D.P., which passed the 10 percent legal threshold to win representation in Parliament, is led by a young and charismatic former human rights lawyer, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been hailed as the brightest political star to emerge in Turkey since Mr. Erdogan. The party ran on a platform based not only on Kurdish rights but also on gender equality and multiculturalism, drawing comparisons to Syriza, the leftist, anti-austerity party in Greece that rose to power in an election this year.
As Elif Safak, one of the Turkey’s most famous novelists, wrote in Time magazine this week, “It is one of the biggest ironies of Turkish political history that the Kurds — once belittled by the elites as a ‘backward culture’ — have become the major progressive force in the country.”
Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkey at the Council on Foreign Relations attributed the party’s success to a strategic decision by Mr. Demirtas to broaden its message. “The real genius behind the Peoples’ Democratic Party is that it is quite obviously a Kurdish-based party, but Demirtas took advantage of the current political environment in Turkey and spoke to issues beyond parochial Kurdish issues in the peace process and Kurdish rights, and talked about democracy and the role of Erdogan.”
Now, though, even as the Kurds enter Parliament, the future of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has ties to the H.D.P. but is not controlled by it, is in question. As the A.K.P., which won the most seats in the election but not a majority, seeks coalition partners, analysts say the most likely alliance might be with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, which is hostile to any concessions given to the Kurds in exchange for peace.
Already, political violence has marred the Kurdish areas in Southeast Turkey. Just before the balloting, a bombing at a political rally in Diyarbakir killed three people. After the vote, an Islamist Kurdish official was killed, prompting street clashes between rival Kurdish factions that left several others with injuries. Mr. Demirtas, speaking to reporters in Ankara on Wednesday, essentially accused Turkish intelligence of stoking unrest in the Kurdish region.
“You would think they are waiting to allow the country to slip into civil war so they can say, ‘Look at how valuable the A.K.P. is,’ ” Mr. Demirtas said.
A lasting peace deal, analysts say, could serve as a powerful example for stability in a region in upheaval.
“If we can develop a culture of reconciliation in Turkey, it would be a strong message for the entire Middle East, currently torn with sectarian and ethnic violence,” said Yusuf Alatas, a Kurdish lawyer and activist.
For many Kurds, though, the ultimate goal remains statehood.
Jassim Hamma-Amin, who works as an auto mechanic in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, said he had closely followed the campaign in Turkey and regarded the outcome as a victory for Kurds everywhere.
“The Turkish government used to say there were no Kurds in Turkey,” he said. “Now, it has to work with them in the government. That is very important.”
He said the victory was a small step in the quest for a Kurdish state.
“There are Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, so if the Kurds can get into all those governments they can work together to help the Kurds,” he said. “Slowly, slowly it is progress toward a Kurdish state.”
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(via NY Times)