The “Kurdish Spring” in Turkey two years ago never gathered the same momentum toward change at the top as its namesake, the “Arab Spring” launched the previous year (still playing out bloodily in Egypt, Yemen, and partially-Kurdish Syria). But shifting dynamics in Syria, along with other developments, point to a gradually settling consensus that Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region is quietly humming along the road toward full independence.
The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani (pictured above), used his strongest language yet on April 8th regarding Kurdish independence. Referring to the secret World War I–era Franco-British pact which undermined Woodrow Wilson’s later promise of an independent Kurdistan by allowing the new Turkish Republic to consume their homeland, Barzani told a Kurdish television audience, “The mistakes of the Sykes–Picot Agreement should be corrected. The agreement itself has failed and the region should go back to its original nature, since some of the nations have been linked to each other by force. No one can stop us from announcing the state of Kurdistan, but we want this to happen through dialogue and mutual understanding rather than war and bloodshed.”
Most surprising, perhaps, has been not only a recently introduced bill in the United States Senate to remove southeastern Turkey’s now more-or-less pacified Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) rebel group from the “terrorism” black list, but also an indication that President Barack Obama supports the move as well. The Senate bill is backed by none other than Obama’s hawkish gadfly and former election opponent Senator John McCain, of Arizona, who also now says, “It is time we stop treating the K.D.P. and P.U.K. as terrorists” (referring to Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Iraq’s largely-ceremonial and now exiled president, Jalal Talabani, and Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party), adding that their designation as “Tier III” terrorist groups “betrays our Kurdish friends and allies who have served as a stabilizing force in the region and displayed consistent loyalty to the United States throughout the years.” It was largely a U.S.-imposed “northern no-fly zone” over northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War which allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to build sovereign institutions outside of Saddam Hussein’s reach, with Erbil as its capital. The designation of Kurdish autonomists as “terrorists,” in both the U.S. and western Europe, is a vestige of the Cold War days when Turkey’s role as a front-line state within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against the Soviet Union made it a far more reliable asset to Western security than it is now. And, if you want to strict about the definition of “terrorism,” the P.K.K., before its recent cease-fire with Ankara, attacked military targets almost exclusively, not civilian ones.
|P.K.K. flags on display at a demonstration in Berlin|
In fact, actions speak even louder than words—actions like ditch-digging, I mean. The K.R.G. has been busily digging a massive trench between the Iraqi region it governs and the neighboring portion of northern Syria now called Rojava, or “West Kurdistan,” where retreating Syrian government forces in 2012 allowed the establishment of a fully autonomous de facto state. Rojava has become a shaky state, with discontinuous territory, but a state nonetheless, with a commitment to multiculturalism: Sunni Arabs, Assyrian Christians, and even diaspora Chechens share power with the majority Kurds in its three self-governing “cantons.” But one group is shut out of the governing of Rojava, and that is the Kurdish factions strongy allied with Barzani’s K.R.G.: the territory is run by a group closely allied with Turkey’s P.K.K., which alarms both Turkey and the K.R.G. government that is enjoying the pleasant surprise of an oil-lubricated thaw in Turkish–K.R.G. relations.
|Building Kurdish unity—not.|
|Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) is in yellow, Iraqi Kurdistan in orange.|
|In Iran, Mustafa Hijri (left) of the K.D.P.|
and Khalid Azizi of the K.D.P.I. make nice.
|ISIS—not the good guys, and worth digging a trench to keep out|
|Waving the Kurdish flag in Erbil|