With the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq, the Kurds are astutely eyeing their chance for independence, and it would seem like a ripe time to do so. While ceremonies in Europe commemorated the 100th anniversary of the shot that sparked World War One, another sweeping conflict is erasing that war’s colonial legacy, chiefly the Syria-Iraq border, a line arbitrarily dividing the Kurd’s traditional patrimony, drawn by imperial powers eager to divide up provinces that once constituted the Ottoman Empire.
What’s more, it is precisely these states – Iraq and Syria – who had in the more recent past, under their respective Baathist despots, crushed Kurdish political and human rights. For a jarring reminder of this depravity, one need only look up Syria’s 60’s era resettlement programs that displaced more than 100,000 Kurds from their native farmland or, even worse, the footage of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical assault on the Kurdish city of Halabja. Now, both states are mired in a fight for their own survival, a struggle from which it is unclear if they will emerge quite the same.
Despite the mayhem, there is an ounce of order, indeed a little bit of historical justice. In the northern Iraqi town of Alqosh, the Peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government are filling a very important vacuum. By the time of this writing, the Iraqi army has already launched a counteroffensive against what was called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (now they call themselves the Islamic State). Yet before Baghdad struck back, a very embarrassing retreat saw the Iraqi army unable or unwilling to prevent the black-clad cadres of I.S. from shooting, bombing and hacking their way through the country. Up to plate stepped the Kurds, who rather than turning away their fellow Iraqis – many of which were Sunni Muslim and Christian – did what Baghdad should have. They fought for and defended innocent non-combatants. Yet they did not have to. They could have refused. After all, what is easier in a sectarian conflict – which Iraq is undoubtedly in – than to kick your factional adversary in the teeth when they are down; those Arab Iraqis are owed nothing by their Kurdish compatriots, something that cannot be said of the Iraqi military – their so called protectors.
But that is the point. The Kurds have shown themselves to be the most responsive and capable group in the “you-know-what storm” that has been brewing between Syria and Iraq, a situation so destructive that it might just undo Sykes-Picot and forge a new balance of power in the Levant. So clear is the magnitude of recent developments that no side with any interest in this matter is standing idly by, and the Kurds are no exception. Kurdish military maneuvers to seize what they consider integral territory have been significant, but so have economic initiatives. Quite recently, a tanker laden with crude oil pumped from Iraqi oil fields in Kurdish control delivered its load to the Israeli port of Ashdod. This is an unquestionably savvy political gesture toward Jerusalem, one which leaders in Israel have been keen to see.
Yet equally as important on the geopolitical scale, if not more so for the Kurdish national bid, was Turkey’s consent in allowing the Israel bound oil to travel through its pipeline. It would seem that somewhere between mending it’s rift with Israel, supporting dubious factions in the Syrian resistance and coping with what seems like Iraq’s imminent collapse at the hands of genocidal fanatics, Ankara has reached the conclusion that it cannot control the outcome of this war. Specifically speaking, given Iran’s overt intervention in Iraq and its ramped up efforts to buttress Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Turkey understands that it’s status as regional super-power is imperiled by this emerging southern axis – after all, it would be difficult to renew relations with Damascus after having shot down its warplanes and shelled its forces. Given these odds, Turkey rather not be entirely locked out from a feasible, strategic and lucrative Kurdish-Israeli partnership. Contemplating such isolation, Erdogan must have weighed his options, realizing that acknowledging Kurdish self-determination now might, firstly, ensure that a Kurdish state would come to be outside Turkey’s existing borders and, secondly, that it might make it amicable to Turkish interests. Only such a cost benefit analysis would have led a spokesman for Erdogan’s government to publicly say that…
“In the past an independent Kurdistan was a reason for war…but no one has the right to say this now”.
This is a seismic political shift. Historically speaking, there is no shortage of bad blood between the two peoples. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing, massacres and reprisal are common themes in each side’s narrative. The same forces with whom Turkey just signed a fifty year oil deal are likely men and women with discontented relatives in Turkey and themselves suffered from Saddam Hussein’s sanctioning of Turkish raids into Iraqi Kurdistan.
But for their part, the Kurds have much to gain from improved Turkish relations, both economically and politically. Apart from Israel they do not have any other natural allies in the region, certainly none among the Arabs. Under pain of isolation from the Arab world and at the risk of encouraging their own minorities’ political aspirations, no member of the Arab league would overtly normalize relations with a new country broken away from a fellow Arab state.
Barring backchannel diplomacy, if an independent Kurdistan was to become reality, one should not hold their breath to hear of any such relations, least of all between the Kurd’s and Baghdad. The Iraqi premier, Nuri al-Maliki, who recently rejected calls to create a government more inclusive of Sunni Muslims and Kurds, is only lending more validity to visions of a free Kurdistan by perpetuating their marginalization. Consequently, the Kurdish decision is a clear one: why stay aboard a crippled ship, especially one that would rather keep you toiling in the hull than have you join in steering up above?
But again, that is the point. In this growing war there is no reason for the Kurd’s to appease or appeal to the Arab world for a state. While Iraq embraces Iran and shuns it’s non-Shias, while Syria pounds its own cities into dust and while ISIS threatens to drag Lebanon and Jordan into its gleeful bloodbath, the Kurd’s are accepting refugees and killing – to the best of our knowledge – only jihadis. This is to say that, yes, while the Kurd’s are exercising realpolitik and doing what’s best for themselves, they are not indulging in the score-settling violence that is so typical of civil wars. They are calmly and smartly creating the proper environment that would allow them to establish a state on the ruins of not only Iraq and Syria, but also on the of Sykes-Picot line that rendered Syria onto the French and Iraq onto the British.
The faster the West realizes this, the better. Alarming Turkey might have been the only reason preventing some of its NATO allies from extending a political overture to the Kurdish Regional Government, but now that Ankara is no longer an obstacle, President Obama, who has not had a notable foreign policy win since eliminating Osama Bin Laden, might rally a “coalition of the willing” that is willing to help forge a friendly state in the Middle East. The difference in the making of this new ally, however, is that unlike the creation of friendly protectorates that was the policy du-jour of Sykes-Picot, this could be a legitimate ally, forged largely by its own well trained armed forces and led by its own elected and largely secular officials.
For a decade the American project in the Middle East rested on erecting a real functioning democracy. That project, despite putting truly moving pictures of hijab-wearing women with ink stained fingers on the cover of major newspapers, has produced less than stellar results. A Kurdish democracy, while remaining the work of the Kurds themselves, could redeem those dashed hopes.
Another key element of this equation is no less important than whatever happens on the ground in northern Iraq, which is to say, what occurs elsewhere. The Kurds have an intellectual and politically motivated diaspora that would be more than willing to link a new free Kurdistan to the wider world, promoting trade and development. Just in Europe there is a community of 1.5 million Kurds who, in addition to publishing and circulating political periodicals, also manage social networking sites and have even launched 15 television stations. Now, with a signed and functioning Turko-Kurdish oil export agreement, which so far has put 93 million dollars in the bank account of the KRG in Iraq, this international community should feel emboldened, encouraged to speak out more forcefully than ever and prompt their respective diaspora governments to take a firm stance on the Kurdistan question.
Simply put, the odds are that the Kurds will exit this affair with more chips than when they came in. They have been consolidating power and filling their pockets. Of course there is the possibility that an independent state might still not happen for years, but it will not be soon before it does that the Kurds will have made enough progress to become a geo-political contender. It is just as shrewd as it is correct to tap into this emerging power. Not to would be allowing it to either slip into oblivion or into the hands of neighbors that might not share the best of intentions. For all those years of exporting the revolution, the Islamic Republic is not likely to hit the breaks at 5000 revolutionary guards in Baghdad. The Gulf States, whose hands are not exactly clean of Syrian and Iraqi blood, have not been proven to be – morally speaking – any better than Tehran; both have put quite a dent in their coffers, not to mention foreign civilian populations, while trying to play at the region’s oldest pass-time, empire building. If millions of petrodollars keep on falling into the Kurdish piggy bank, it should not come as a surprise if the Kurd’s do so as well.
Since the time of this writing, the organization calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” has reinvented itself as simply “The Islamic State”. It has declared its emirate’s sovereignty as extending from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq and have elected as their “caliph”, their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi would be the first such ruler – a successor to Muhammad – since the last Ottoman emperor. This has massive implications in Islam’s radical ecclesiastical circles, but also signals the severe potential of this post-al-Qaeda generation’s jihadi designs. Having said all this, I will not belabor this submission’s core point. I will only say that in a time when borders dissolve and the odds appear grim, making the best of things might mean placing your bet with the guy in the room that seems to have his act together.