The Kurds: Op­por­tu­nity and Peril

The Kurdish Globe - - NEWS - Conn Hal­li­nan - OpEdNews

For al­most a cen­tury, the Kurds—one of the largest eth­nic groups in the world which does not have a state of its own—have been de­ceived and dou­ble-crossed, their lan­guage and cul­ture sup­pressed, their vil­lages burned and bombed, and their peo­ple scat­tered. How­ever, be­cause of the US in­va­sion of Iraq, the Syr­ian civil war and Turk­ish pol­i­tics, they have sud­denly been trans­formed from a pawn into ma­jor player in a piv­otal part of the Mid­dle East.

The Kurds—who speak a lan­guage dis­tantly re­lated to Farsi, the dom­i­nant lan­guage of Iran— strad­dle the bor­ders of north east­ern Syria, north­ern Iraq and west­ern Iran as well as con­sti­tut­ing a lo­cal ma­jor­ity in parts of east­ern and southern Turkey. At be­tween 25 to 30 mil­lion strong, they have long yearned to es­tab­lish their own state. Now, with their tra­di­tional foes weak­ened by in­va­sion, civil war and po­lit­i­cal dis­cord, the Kurds are sud­denly in the driv­ing seat.

But in the Mid­dle East that can be a very tricky place to be.

The Kurds' cur­rent as­cent be­gan when the US es­tab­lished a no-fly zone over north­ern Iraq fol­low­ing the 1991 Gulf War. When the Amer­i­cans in­vaded and over­threw Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003, the Iraqi Kurds saw their op­por­tu­nity and seized three oil­rich north­ern prov­inces, set up a par­lia­ment, es­tab­lished a cap­i­tal in Er­bil and mo­bi­lized their for­mi­da­ble mili­tia—the Pesh­marga. Over the past decade, the Kur­dish re­gion has gone from one of the poor­est re­gions in Iraq to one of the most af­flu­ent, fu­eled in the main by en­ergy sales to Turkey and Iran. It is an as­tound­ing turn of fate. Twenty-nine years ago, the Turk­ish govern­ment was burn­ing Kur­dish vil­lages and scat­ter­ing refugees through­out the re­gion. Some 45 000 peo­ple— mostly Kurds—lost their lives in that long-run­ning con­flict. To­day, Turkey is ne­go­ti­at­ing with its tra­di­tional neme­sis, the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK), and try­ing to cut a peace deal that would de­liver Kur­dish sup­port to Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan's push to amend Turkey's con­sti­tu­tion to al­low him an­other decade in power.

In 1988, Sad­dam Hus­sein dropped poi­son gas on the Kur­dish town of Hal­abja, killing be­tween 3 000 and 5 000 peo­ple. To­day, the Iraqi govern­ment of Nouri al-Ma­liki may be out­raged by the Kurds' seizure of oil as­sets, but the Bagh­dad regime is so pre­oc­cu­pied by a sec­tar­i­an­led bomb­ing cam­paign against Shi­ite com­mu­ni­ties that it is in no po­si­tion to do more than pro- test. Last November, the Ma­liki govern­ment backed away from a po­ten­tial showdown with the Pesh­marga in the north­ern town of Tuz Khur­matu.

Fifty years ago, the Syr­ian govern­ment stripped 20 per­cent of its Kur­dish mi­nor­ity of their cit­i­zen­ship rights. Since Kurds make up about 10 per­cent of that coun­try's pop­u­la­tion, this cre­ated be­tween 300 000 and 500 000 state­less peo­ple. To­day, Syria's Kur­dish re­gions are largely in­de­pen­dent be­cause the Da­m­as­cus regime, locked in a life and death strug­gle with for­eign and do­mes­tic in­sur­gents, has aban­doned the north­ern and east­ern parts of the coun­try.

Only in Iran are the Kurds in much the same sit­u­a­tion they were in a decade ago, although with the Te­heran govern­ment's en­ergy fo­cused on its wors­en­ing eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion and on avoid­ing a con­fronta­tion with the US over its nu­clear pro­gram, that, too, could change.

In short, are the Kurds' stars fi­nally com­ing into align­ment?

Maybe and maybe not. If pol­i­tics, in­va­sion and civil war have cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for the Kurds, they are frag­ile, re­ly­ing on the tran­si­tory needs or cur­rent dis­ar­ray of their tra­di­tional foes, the cen­tral gov­ern­ments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkey is a case in point. Er­doğan needs the votes of Kur­dish MPs to put a new con­sti­tu­tion to a ref­er­en­dum in time for the 2014 elec­tions. End­ing the con­flict with the Kurds could also boost Turkey's ap­pli­ca­tion for Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship and bur­nish Ankara's re­gional lead­er­ship cre­den­tials, which have re­cently been tar­nished by a num­ber of Er­doğan mis­steps, in­clud­ing his un­pop­u­lar sup­port for the Syr­ian in­sur­gents and his in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian in­ter­nal poli­cies.

Most Kurds would like to end the fight­ing as well, but that will re­quire con­ces­sions by the Er­doğan govern­ment on the is­sues of par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the right for Kurds to be ed­u­cated in their own lan­guage.

But Er­doğan has balked at these two de­mands, and the Kurds are grow­ing im­pa­tient. PKK leader Cemil Bayik re­cently warned that "Septem­ber 1 is the dead­line" for a deal, and a fail­ure to reach an agree­ment by then "will make it un­der­stood that the aim [of the Turk­ish govern­ment] is not a so­lu­tion." Given the long his­tory of an­i­mos­ity, it would not take much for the peace talks be­tween the two par­ties to un­ravel.

Syria's Kurds have threaded a haz­ardous path be­tween their de­sire for au­ton­omy—some would like full in­de­pen­dence—and not tak­ing sides in the cur­rent civil war. In­deed, the fight­ing go­ing on in north­ern and east­ern Syria is not be­tween the in­sur­gents and the As­sad govern­ment, but be­tween Kurds rep­re­sented by the Kur­dish Demo­cratic Union and the com­bined forces of the ex­trem­ist al-Nusra Front and the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant, both of which are af­fil­i­ated with al-Qaeda.

Most of Syria's oil re­serves are in the Kur­dish re­gion and con­trol of them would pro­vide a fi­nan­cial base for what­ever side emerges vic­to­ri­ous.

The As­sad regime may have aban­doned the north, but Da­m­as­cus has re­cently made head­way against the in­sur­gency, gains greatly aided by in­fight­ing among its op­po­nents. So far the war is a stale­mate, but it might not stay that way for­ever. Even Syr­i­ans op­posed to the As­sad govern­ment are tired of the fight­ing, and most have no love for the sec­tar­ian groups that have in­creas­ingly taken over the war against the Da­m­as­cus regime. In short, the cur­rent au­ton­omy of Syria's Kurds may be a fleet­ing thing.

Of course, it is pos­si­ble that the Syr­ian Kurds might cut a deal with As­sad and help drive the in­sur­gents out of the area— maybe in al­liance with the Iraqi Kurds—in ex­change for greater au­ton­omy. Although that would en­rage both the Turks and the Ma­liki govern­ment, it is not clear ei­ther could do much about it.

Er­doğan's sup­port for the Syr­ian in­sur­gents is widely un­pop­u­lar in Turkey, and any di­rect in­ter­ven­tion by the Turks to block au­ton­omy for Syria's Kurds would em­broil Ankara in a civil war. With an elec­tion loom­ing next year, that is not a move Er­doğan wants to make. As for Iraq, thanks to the US dis­man­tling of Sad­dam Hus­sein's army, Bagh­dad does not have the ca­pa­bil­ity to take on the Pesh­marga at this point.

What will fi­nally emerge is hard to pre­dict, although a re­turn to the past seems highly un­likely. Iraq's Kurds can only be dis­lodged by a ma­jor in­va­sion from Turkey in co­op­er­a­tion with the Bagh­dad govern­ment. Given that Kur­dish oil and gas are as­sum­ing in­creas­ing im­por­tance for the Turk­ish econ­omy, and that any in­va­sion would be costly, why would Ankara do that?

More­over, co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Bagh­dad and Ankara has been soured by Turkey ig­nor­ing Bagh­dad's protests over its ex­ploita­tion of Kur­dish-con­trolled (but Iraqi-owned) oil, and by Turk­ish sup­port for the Sunni ex­trem­ists who as well as try­ing to over­throw As­sad are mas­sacring Shi­ite sup­port­ers of the Ma­liki govern­ment in Basra, Bagh­dad and Kar­bala.

Turkey's Kurds—be­tween 20 and 25 mil­lion, the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Kurds in the world—are on a knife's edge. There is lit­tle doubt that the av­er­age Turk­ish Kurd wants the long-run­ning con­flict to end, as do the Turks. But Er­doğan is drag­ging his feet on the key peace is­sues, and the PKK may de­cide the time has come to pick up their guns again and abide by the old Kur­dish adage: trust only the moun­tains. But there is a so­lu­tion. For Turkey, grant­ing Kur­dish lan­guage rights and cul­tural au­ton­omy, and re­duc­ing the min­i­mum per­cent­age of votes to serve in the Turk­ish par­lia­ment from its cur­rent 10 per­cent, would prob­a­bly do the trick.

For Syria, the for­mula for peace would be much the same, with the added move of restor­ing cit­i­zen­ship to the al­most half mil­lion state­less Kurds. But that is only likely to hap­pen af­ter a cease­fire and a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment of the civil war.

The Iraqi govern­ment will have to bite the bul­let, rec­og­nize that an au­tonomous Kur­dish area is a re­al­ity, and work out a deal to share oil and gas rev­enue.

As long as Iran is fac­ing an at­tack by the US and/or Is­rael, that coun­try's Kurds will re­main out in the cold. The US and its al­lies should keep in mind that sanc­tions and threats of war make it im­pos­si­ble for Iran's mi­nori­ties (which also in­clude Az­eris, Baluchs and Arabs) to achieve a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion to long­stand­ing griev­ances. If the US is re­ally con­cerned for mi­nori­ties in Iran, it should find a way to ne­go­ti­ate with the Te­heran govern­ment over Te­heran's nu­clear pro­gram.

Still, the Ira­nian govern­ment, too, would do well to en­gage se­ri­ously with its Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion. Au­ton­omy for the Kurds is out of the bag and not about to go back in, re­gard­less of the fi­nal out­comes in Syria and Turkey. Sooner or later, Iran will have to con­front the same is­sue that gov­ern­ments in Da­m­as­cus, Ankara and Bagh­dad now face: recog­ni­tion and au­ton­omy or war and in­sta­bil­ity.

A tailor from West­ern Kur­dis­tan, makes flags in the Kur­dish na­tional colours, Afrin, Oc­to­ber 10, 2012.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Iraq

© PressReader. All rights reserved.