Sunday, April 27, 2014

Signs of Kurdish Spring: Syrian Border Trench, Barzani Statements, U.S. Push to Delist P.K.K. All Point to Eventual Independence

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
But Barzani, in his statements, also referred to the plight of Kurds outside Iraq. “In Turkey and Iran,” he said, “the rights of the Kurds have not yet been officially recognized while Kurds have been attached to these countries forcefully.”  He trod a little more lightly on the question of Kurds in Syria, whom he called more divided, making that situation more complicated.

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.
Rojava is also fighting for its life to limit territorial gains by a new al-Qaeda-derived Sunni Arab terror group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, a.k.a. ISIL), which has made great strides in controlling much of the Euphrates valley, all the way from the Syrian–Turkish border region downriver across the Iraqi border to Fallujah, on the outskirts of Baghdad itself.  The K.R.G.’s greatest fear is opening a pathway through its territory for ISIS militants to move freely back and forth and consolidate those gains—especially now that ISIS has been parlaying its stranglehold on Fallujah into foraying northward into K.R.G.-administered lands just outside the official Kurdistan Region, in mixed Arab–Turkmen–Kurdish areas in dispute between Baghdad and Erbil.  The Iraqi central government, too, is is locked in battle with ISIS to preserve the very unity of the non-Kurdish parts of the Iraqi state; backchannel discussions between Baghdad and Erbil have perhaps made it quite explicit that Iraqi Kurdistan cannot get more self-rule of any kind unless it nails shut the doorway to explosive Rojava.  So, for better or worse, the reunification of “West” (Syrian) and “South” (Iraqi) Kurdistan may have to wait until Iraqi Kurdistan disentangles itself from Arab Iraq.

Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) is in yellow, Iraqi Kurdistan in orange.
Even in Iran, the most effectively totalitarian of the four states with significant Kurdish populations, the two main Kurdish political factions moved toward reconciliation this week.  The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (K.D.P.I.) and its splinter group the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.) made moves to repair a split that occurred in 2007.

In Iran, Mustafa Hijri (left) of the K.D.P.
and Khalid Azizi of the K.D.P.I. make nice.
Why is all this happening now?  Perhaps it is because the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has realized that it must make its Kurdish problem go away before it can successfully solve its (Sunni) ISIS problem.  Not incidentally, taking the mostly Sunni Kurdish people out of Iraq will leave the remaining population with an overwhelming Shiite majority, instead of the current very slight one.  It is also possible that signals from the K.R.G.’s main allies, including the U.S. and, to an extent, Israel are encouraging the establishment of a new solidly Western-allied state in the Middle East to counter Russia’s new expansionism, especially as President Vladimir Putin contemplates a more and more seamless Russian-aligned front along the northern edge of the region that includes the (soon?) whole north Black Sea coast, the North Caucasus, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Iran.

ISIS—not the good guys, and worth digging a trench to keep out
But Kurds have never been ones to look a gift horse in the mouth.  They have waited for centuries for the Western promises of “self-determination” at the close of the First World War to come to fruition.  They can almost taste it.

Waving the Kurdish flag in Erbil
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

1 comment:

  1. armenia again..may be president wilson tried to protect armenians after the othoman 1915 the way, wilson gave the armenians a new wide coast line in trebzon!!!

    kurdistan...some voices say that why kurdish were not in the geneve II talks for peace in syria...

    usa...those movements to create new states in usa are based in real needs or are they just romantic puerto rico or hawaii once became part os usa, some friends told me that some people in western venezuela are just directly asking to unite to usa...and that idea was also present in rep dominicana in the past, i heard


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