• Sunday 26th May 2019

The Kurdish Elephant By John Feffer

Islamic State, the ongoing fragility of Iraq, the disintegration of Syria, the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the democratic future of Turkey.

Let’s mix some metaphors in the Middle East, all of them involving elephants.

In the crisis zone that encompasses Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the Kurds are the elephant in the room. They are the “problem” that no one really wants to talk about.

Because it would be stitched together from bits and pieces of their territory, the countries of the region oppose an independent Kurdistan. Outside actors, meanwhile, feel varying degrees of guilt for abandoning Kurds over the years: for not paying attention to human rights abuses visited on the minority, for ignoring the promises of self-determination (going back to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points), and for using the Kurds as pawns in myriad geopolitical games. Sovereign sensitivities and outsider guilt combine to drape a cloak of invisibility over the Kurds.

But the Kurdish problem is another kind of elephant as well – the one that the blind analysts grope and thereafter provide conflicting reports on what they’ve found.

For some observers, the Kurdish elephant is all tusk: a violent, thrusting animal that endangers all within its orbit. For other observers, the Kurds are a large flank that is strong and reliable. And for still others, the Kurds are nothing but a slender tail: sensitive, an easily victimized afterthought.

When we mix these two metaphors, we come up with a picture of the Kurds as a large, often ignored, and frequently misinterpreted creature – and all the other beasts of the jungle are either willfully or genetically blind. What could be more ridiculous than the blind leading the invisible?

This is a bad combination even in peaceful times. But it’s especially vexing right now, when the Kurds are at the very center of the most urgent issues facing the Middle East: the rise of the Islamic State, the ongoing fragility of Iraq, the disintegration of Syria, the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the democratic future of Turkey.

This urgency went up a notch in the last week. The Obama administration has just teamed up with Turkey to declare a “safe zone” on the border with Syria – and right between territories that Kurdish militias have occupied. This announcement comes only a few days after Ankara broke a two-year ceasefire and bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq (and possibly Syria as well).

Which brings us to our third elephantine metaphor. When the pachyderms of the region are fighting – the United States, Turkey, Syria – it’s not just the grass that must be careful. So must the Kurdish elephant: tusks, flank, tail and all.

Kurds and the Nuclear Deal

The 30 million Kurds dispersed around the Middle East maintain that they’re the largest ethnic minority in the world without a sovereign state to call their own.

But in the northern part of Iraq, Kurds have a near-country that controls its own educational system, deploys its own army, and conducts its own foreign policy. It has its own national flag and national anthem. But it doesn’t have full say over its economy – it must share oil revenue with the central government in Baghdad. It doesn’t have its own currency. And it doesn’t have a seat in the UN. But it’s the closest the Kurds have come to an autonomous existence since 1946, when the Kurds created a state for 10 months centered around the Iranian city of Mahabad.

You might think that this rump Kurdistan – officially known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – would have a terrible relationship with Iran. After all, Iran has persecuted its Kurdish minority for decades. And Tehran, a major backer of the central government in Baghdad, is deeply worried about the breakdown of the Iraqi state and the ceding of greater autonomy to the KRG.

And yet, Iran is the second leading trading partner of the KRG. As such, the recently concluded nuclear deal could be a major windfall for the Kurds of Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera:

As a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is expected to prompt the removal of some of the economic sanctions on Iran, Kurds might be poised to reap the fruits of an Iranian economic boom. “Iranian economic influence will bring with it increased prospects for economic growth and investments,” said Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute, a largely KRG-funded think-tank in Erbil.

Of course, high levels of trade do not a love fest make. Some Iranian Kurds still dream of reviving their short-lived, post-World War II state. Various politico-military formations are making plans in exile in the mountains of Qandil and KRG cities like Sulaymaniyah under slogans such as “democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan.” And Iran worries that the discord in Iraq among regions, confessions, and ethnicities can spread like a disease across borders.

Turkey has made a similarly pragmatic accommodation with Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s the KRG’s leading trade partner – primarily as a result of linking the Kurdish oil pipeline to its own Ceyhan line and allowing the KRG to deposit its oil revenues into a Kurdish bank in Turkey.

But that hasn’t prevented Turkey from going after the Kurds either, as the recent bombings indicate.

Turkey and the PKK

Turkey and its Kurdish population have long had a vexed relationship.

A quasi-Marxist liberation movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), emerged in Turkey in the late 1970s. It challenged Turkey’s right-wing authoritarian government and its identity as a unitary entity. The government’s attacks on the PKK, combined with its assault on leftist critics, produced a “dirty war” that lasted for nearly two decades and left tens of thousands dead.

The rise of the Justice and Development Party changed the dynamic in Turkey. As I wrote recently:

The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, generally took a more relaxed attitude toward ethnic minorities. The cultural and even political expression of Kurdish identity, for instance, became more acceptable with the development of Kurdish-language TV shows and college programs. The AKP’s embrace of a mild multiculturalism, as well its push for greater tolerance for the expression of religious identity, gained it support in those early years from various minority groups.

Ankara negotiated a ceasefire with the PKK two years ago. But it was increasingly difficult to maintain that agreement in the murky politics of Iraq and Syria, where PKK fighters have set up shop. The main Syrian Kurdish party and militia – the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and the Popular Protection Units (YPG) – are affiliated with the PKK. They have accused Ankara of supporting the Islamic State against the Assad regime (and against Kurdish militants). Last week, the PKK killed two Turkish policemen in retaliation for an Islamic State massacre in the predominantly Kurdish town of Suruc in Syria.

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