The Kurds Seize Their Chance
Many Kurds have come to believe that the present prolonged turmoil in the Middle East — in Syria and Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Iran and Turkey — is giving them their best chance of self-determination in modern times. They are determined to seize it. It could be that the map of the region is being redrawn before our eyes.
During the four hundred years of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds enjoyed considerable autonomy and even political unity. Since they lived in largely inaccessible mountains, the Ottomans allowed them to run their own affairs. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First World War, it signed the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 with the victorious allies — a treaty which among its many provisions, seemed to promise the Kurds a state of their own. But the Turks would have none of it. They were determined to create a strong Turkish state out of the ruins of Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish national movement fought the Sèvres Treaty and, after long negotiations, forced the allies to sign a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, which recognised the sovereignty and borders of the new Turkish Republic. This was bad news for the Kurds, because the Lausanne treaty made no mention of them. Instead, they found themselves carved up between the new Turkey and the Arab states of Iraq and Syria formed by Britain and France out of former Ottoman provinces. The Kurds have had to live with dispersal and oppression ever since.
Kurdish hopes of a better life have now been revived, largely because of a number of important regional developments:
• In Iraq, the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil seem to be on the brink of war. Both sides have massed large numbers of troops along a contested border in the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. The immediate causes of the dispute are first, a contract the KRG has signed with Exxon Mobil to drill for oil in the Kirkuk area; and secondly, a proposed strategic energy partnership between the KRG and Turkey. This would involve a government-backed Turkish company drilling for oil and building export pipelines from the KRG to Turkey to transport Kurdish oil and gas to international markets. Needless to say, if these projects were to go ahead, they would bring Iraqi Kurds a big step closer to independence.
Baghdad is now fighting back. Sami Alaskary, an aide to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said that “if Exxon lays a finger on this territory… we will go to war for oil and for Iraqi sovereignty.” Baghdad has put Lt. Gen. Abd al-Amir al-Zaidi in command of Iraqi troops confronting the KRG. This officer is thought to have played a role in Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds. Showing defiance, KRG’s President Massoud Barzani paid a high-profile visit to Peshmerga front lines on December 10.
At this delicate moment, the stroke suffered by Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, 79 — himself a Kurd — has removed from the scene a potential mediator between Baghdad and Erbil.
Fearing that a close KRG-Turkish partnership will cause Baghdad to ally itself even more closely with Iran, the United States has urged the KRG to go slow in its oil deals with Turkey. But Washington has been rebuffed. The Kurds smell independence.
It will be recalled that the autonomous Kurdish enclave emerged under Western protection in northern Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. With its own flag, national anthem, presidency and parliament, the KRG has since acquired several characteristics of independent statehood, in particular its own powerful armed forces — the Peshmerga, meaning “those who face death” – are believed to number some 200,000 men. Although Iraq’s new constitution of 2005 defined the country as a federal state of Arabs and Kurds, Iraqi Kurdistan, increasingly dynamic and prosperous, has virtually broken free from Baghdad’s control.
• In Syria, the prolonged civil war is destroying the once strong and united country. Vicious fighting between the beleaguered Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad and numerous groups of rebel fighters is increasingly taking on the appearance of a sectarian war between the Sunni majority and the minority Alawi community, the latter well represented in the army and security services. The fighting seems to be leading inexorably to the fragmentation and partition of Syria, with each sect and ethnic group looking to its own defence.
Last summer, Syrian government troops were deliberately withdrawn from Kurdish-majority towns along the Turkish border in the north of the country. By handing this strategic border region over to the Kurds, the Syrian regime evidently sought to punish Turkey for its support of the Syrian rebels. It may also have withdrawn its troops because it needed them to fight the rebels elsewhere. The area is now being governed by the Kurds themselves — by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an armed and disciplined movement formed in 2003, closely allied to Turkey’s militant Kurdish organisation, the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK.
Also on the scene in northern Syria is the Kurdish National Council, a loose grouping of eleven Syrian Kurdish factions, formed in 2011. On December 11, Shirku Abbas, chairman of the Kurdish National Council, declared in an interview that the United States and its European allies had agreed to provide finance and logistics for an independent Kurdish army strong enough to keep Islamist and Salafi fighting groups out of the Kurdish regions of Syria. Shirku Abbas made no secret of his ambition to create an independent Kurdish enclave inside a federal Syria on the model of the KRG in northern Iraq.
• Turkey, in turn, is being forced to make concessions to its own militant Kurds. A mass hunger strike by thousands of Kurdish political prisoners was brought to an end last November after an appeal by the PKK leader Abdulla Ocalan from his island prison of Imrali. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself acknowledged the role played by Ocalan. Indeed, there are suggestions that Erdogan may now be contemplating a political negotiation with Ocalan — and further concessions to the Kurds.
• Always anxious to weaken and subvert its neighbours, Israel has for years armed and trained the Kurds of Iraq against Baghdad. Since the 2003 war, its relations with the KRG have grown still closer. Israeli drones are said to be operating against Iran from bases inside the KRG, while Mossad is said to have launched cross- border intelligence missions from the KRG against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel is also said to be backing a Kurdish guerrilla group inside Iran, the PJAK (or Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) to carry out armed attacks against Iranian targets.
The misfortunes of one are the blessings of another. The more the Arabs sink into disunity and warfare, the more its enemies will triumph – and the more the Kurds will believe that their dream of independence may at last be realised.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).