A nation once again?
Kurds gain from regional tectonic shift in northeast Syria following the Assad regime's retreat back to Damascus.
Kurdish soldier holding flag. Photo: Azad Lashkari/Reuters
In Syria, the Assad regime’s retreat back to Damascus and the Alawi heartlands
in the west of the country has made possible the emergence of a Kurdish
autonomous area in the country’s northeast.
This area shares a border
with Kurdish- controlled northern Iraq. As a result, a contiguous area of
Kurdish control, stretching along the southern border of Turkey, has come into
This emergent reality is raising again a question long dismissed
from serious strategic discussion: namely, that of the establishment of a
However, the obstacles on the path to Kurdish sovereignty
remain formidable, and the geo-politics of the situation are fraught and
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, led by
Massoud Barzani, possesses its own armed forces, political system, capacity for
oil production, public services and Kurdish-language education system and media.
Its capital, Erbil, has the feel of a boomtown, with construction cranes along
the skyline and new malls and hotels emerging from the dust.
quasi-independence of northern Iraq is leading to increasing tensions with the
government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. In the course of the
last year, the autonomous Kurdish region cut off oil deliveries to the center of
the country in a dispute over payment. The KRG’s providing of refuge to a
fugitive former Iraqi vice president, Tariq Hashimi, also raised Baghdad’s
The KRG’s efforts to boost its oil production capacity and
infrastructure are viewed with suspicion in Baghdad, which sees these as a
possible prelude to a bid for independence.
The latent tensions came to a
head in November, with clashes between the Iraqi army and the KRG’s Pesh Merga
forces along the poorly demarcated line dividing the Kurdish autonomous zone
from Iraq. The two forces remain deployed in large numbers on either side of the
In October 2011, the KRG signed a contract with US oil giant
Exxon-Mobil for exploration of areas on the southernmost tip of the KRG area.
The Baghdad government has made clear that it considers such deals to be illegal
and that Exxon-Mobil will be making a “grave mistake” if it begins the
exploration next year, as scheduled.
The dispute remains unresolved. Yet
the KRG is finding an unlikely ally in its face-off with the authorities in
That ally is Turkey. Ankara needs a source of crude oil. The
Erdogan government is worried at the Shi’a Maliki government’s Baghdad’s
increasing closeness to Tehran. The KRG offers a potential alternative source.
In the course of 2012, Erbil announced the signing of a deal with Ankara for the
construction of a new cross-border crude oil pipeline (which would rival the
Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, under the Baghdad government’s control). Oil
consignments are also making their way in trucks across the
Ankara, which once viewed the development of a Kurdish autonomy
in northern Iraq with extreme suspicion, now appears to see Erbil as a possible
ally against Baghdad and Tehran.
But at the same time, Turkey has
signally failed to develop any coherent policy able to satisfy the aspirations
of its own 18 million-19 million-strong Kurdish minority. Instead, Ankara
remains committed to a brutal counter-insurgency against the PKK guerrilla
movement, which is demanding autonomy for the Kurdish majority areas of
southeastern Turkey. More than 700 people died this year in the fight between
the PKK and the Turkish armed forces.
The main headquarters of the PKK,
meanwhile, are in the Qandil mountains area of northern Iraq, adjoining the
border with Turkey. There is no love lost between the PKK and the Barzani
government in Erbil. But the KRG draws the line before taking aggressive steps
against the PKK militants in Qandil. So while Ankara, for its own reasons, is
now a near-ally of the Kurds of northern Iraq, it remains opposed to the
aspirations of its own Kurdish population.
This picture is further
complicated by the situation in Syria. There, the de facto autonomous Kurdish
region is dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), which is the Syrian
franchise of the PKK. This situation derives from the reality of PYD strength on
the ground. But it has also been uneasily accepted by Barzani and the KRG and
their local allies. The result is that these forces are today nominally in
alliance in the Kurdish area.
With the Assad regime looking increasingly
beleaguered further south, it is possible that this Kurdish unity may shortly be subjected to a harsh test,
as it seeks to secure its future against a resurgent Sunni Arab, Islamist (and
Turkish-supported) attempt to maintain a unitary Syria.
So an autonomous
Kurdish region in northern Iraq has built close relations with Ankara on the
basis of shared interests. But this region harbors Kurdish rebels seeking
autonomy and rights in a struggle against Turkey.
At the same time, the
rulers of this Kurdish region and the anti-Turkish Kurdish rebels are in
alliance in a third country – Syria – where they may shortly be defending
themselves against a Turkish-supported attempt to reunify Syria.
means that while the Kurds have made real and impressive gains over the last
year, an imminent bid for statehood remains unlikely. The Kurds have one of the
most obviously deserving of causes on an ethical level. In northern Iraq, they
have laid much of the basis for sovereignty.
But they still lack a
unified national movement.
And they are faced by a tangle of rival
interests – in Baghdad, Ankara and Syria, not to mention Tehran – which each
have a reason for opposing the emergence of full Kurdish sovereignty. So the
odds remain steep.
The Kurds may console themselves, of course, by noting
that the Middle East and the wider world today boast a number of examples of
partially sovereign quasi-states, which lack full sovereignty but seem fairly
The Hamas entity in Gaza is one such example;
Hezbollah-dominated south and east Lebanon (at least before May 2008) another.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank offers a third variant, and the
Syrian Alawis may be in the process of carving out a fourth.
It may be
the fate of the Kurds in the period ahead to carve out a similar such space,
albeit with vastly more historical grounding on its side than any of these other
Although they do not have a state just yet, the Kurds have
already established themselves as among the unexpected winners in the tectonic
shift currently under way in the Middle East.