x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Regional turmoil spins the illusion of a greater Kurdistan

One should not be too sentimental about Kurdish nationalism, and there is no guarantee that the success of the autonomous area in Iraq would extend to a larger state.

The Kurds have no friends but the mountains. This old saying is certainly true of the countries where most Kurds live - Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. All these governments distrust their Kurdish minorities and have discriminated against them to varying degrees for decades.

That is unlikely to change. But the force of Kurdish nationalism, so long repressed, is once again on the rise. There is even talk of a Kurdish state, an idea that was mooted at the end of the First World War, but crushed by the hostility of the newly minted Turkish Republic and, of course, the Kurds' enduring lack of powerful friends.

Two contradictory forces have changed the landscape. The first is an oil boom in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, which has plans to raise its output from 200,000 barrels per day to a respectable one million barrels per day by 2015. This would qualify Iraqi Kurds for membership in Opec if they had their own sovereign state, which they do not.

Despite this deficiency, the Iraqi Kurdish region looms larger on the radar of international business than many countries with a seat at the United Nations. Oil companies are flocking to Irbil, the capital of the region. Even Exxon Mobil, the US oil giant, has signed up to explore for oil and gas, despite warnings from the government in Baghdad that it will be frozen out of contracts in the rest of Iraq if it goes into business with the Kurds. The stability of Iraq's Kurdish region in a turbulent neighbourhood has changed perceptions of the Kurds, from eternal losers to someone you can do business with.

The second development is the Syrian civil war, which allowed that country's Kurdish minority to take control of parts of the north-east, bordering Turkey and Iraq, when the regime pulled out troops to fight the insurgency elsewhere. As Kurdish flags fly over border towns, they seem to signal the end of Syria as a unitary state, despite efforts by Turkey and Syrian rebel forces to push the genie of Kurdish nationalism back into the lamp.

Nowhere have these changes had a bigger effect than in Turkey. With its restive minority of 20 million Kurds, the Turkish government for years looked on the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region as a destabilising factor, frequently sending its army and air force over the border to battle rebellious Kurdish groups. But Turkey had grown to trust Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous region, and to see Kurdistan as a business partner and long-term supplier of oil and gas.

A pipeline is planned to enable Iraqi Kurds to export their oil directly to Turkey, a development that will change the balance of power between Mr Barzani and the Baghdad government in their long-running dispute over sharing oil revenues.

Mr Barzani has intervened in Syria to try to exert control over the Kurdish parties that have emerged into the daylight. But the most powerful force among them is the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state since the 1970s. A spike in violence in the Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey has prompted charges from Ankara that the Syrian regime is arming Kurds to attack the Turkish army at home, as payback for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's support of the rebel forces.

That accusation may be true. But there is a longer-term trend that is more worrying.

The example of a flourishing Kurdish area in northern Iraq is a tempting one for all Kurds. Why should Syrian Kurds accept second-class citizen status when they see their brothers in Iraq capable of running their own affairs? And why should the Kurds in Turkey do the same? One of the perverse results of the crisis is that while Syria is falling apart, it is has brought Kurds closer together. The effect of this on governments seeking to control Kurdish nationalism is immense.

In the 1982 Turkish film Yol (The Road), one of the Kurdish characters stares longingly across the border where the flapping Syrian flag is seen as a banner of freedom. How much more powerful would be the attraction if, across the barbed wire, it was the red, white and green flag of Kurdistan?

One should not be too sentimental about Kurdish nationalism. The Kurds are a clan-based society, and the different dialects of Kurdish are not all mutually comprehensible. The idea of all the Kurds coalescing into a state is unrealistic, given the variety of political parties - some feudal, such as Mr Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, and others allied to the revolutionaries of the PKK, whose tactics mirror the ruthlessness of the Turkish military.

The success of Mr Barzani's autonomous area stems from the limited freedom of action it has, squeezed between the hammer of Turkey and the anvil of Baghdad. Such a precarious existence has demanded mature leadership, which might be in short supply if the autonomous region expanded into new territories.

As for the Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria, the population is mixed Kurdish-Arab, with simmering land disputes dating from the Syrian government's policy of dispossessing Kurdish landowners and replacing them with Arabs in the border region. Any attempt to declare the region as a Kurdish autonomous zone would be fraught with the danger of inter-communal war.

The Syrian crisis has added a further complication. For Turkey, the problem of Kurdish nationalism is returning to undermine its ambitions to be a regional power. The balance between military repression and concessions towards recognising Turkish Kurds' cultural and ethnic distinctness is going to have to shift towards the latter.

Iraqi Kurds under Mr Barzani will surely want to proceed on a path to strengthening their embryonic state, relying on the help of Turkey. But the question is how long can Mr Barzani insulate northern Iraq from the crises to the north and west - rising levels of PKK violence in Turkey and the growing dominance of the PKK affiliate in Syria.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @aphilps