Surveying from afar the masses of Kurds who gathered at the city of Diyarbrakir
to hear their jailed leader announce a cease-fire with Turkey, Prime Minister
Recep Erdogan asked, apparently seriously, “Why weren’t they waving Turkish
flags?” The jubilant Kurds didn’t wave their nominal country’s flag because they
want to belong to another; a country that is steadily coalescing as the most
solid result of the regional transition that began with the US invasion of Iraq,
then saw Arab governments collapse and is now generating a new Turkish sobriety
that affects Israel as well.
The country those demonstrators had in mind
– Kurdistan – is, for now, a geographic concept, like the Alps or the Sahara,
rather than a political entity.
However, the Kurdish Rim that sprawls
from the Taurus Mountains north of Cyprus to the Zagrus Mountains south of
Tehran, an Asian swathe the size of Japan with a population the size of Spain’s,
has been inching toward partial self-declaration for the better part of a
The announcement, to which hundreds of thousands of Kurds
listened over loudspeakers in their largest city in Turkey, was read from a text
written by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in his jail cell
in an island off Istanbul. “The time has come,” he wrote, “for politics to
For now, this means that thousands of Kurdish fighters
nesting in Turkey will leave the country, and the violence that has taken some
40,000 lives will finally be halted. For Erdogan, this violates previous vows
not to talk with the man Turkey sees the way Israel saw Hamas founder Ahmed
Besides reflecting exhaustion in a war it could not win, Turkey’s
move is part of a reassessment of its regional priorities following the Arab
KURDISTAN’S QUEST for independence harks back to Woodrow
Wilson’s promise to establish on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire new states for
the Kurds, the Armenians and the Arabs. That was in 1920.
later, the Sultan had given way to Kemal Ataturk, who deleted Kurdistan and
Armenia from the international treaty that re-drew regional borders. Since then,
rebellions erupted repeatedly along the Kurdish Rim, while a succession of
Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian governments united in foiling Kurdish
Still, Kurdish identity was as impossible to ignore as
Kurdish violence was impossible to quell. Though they are Sunni Muslim, like
most Arabs, the territorially contiguous Kurds speak their own language and are
ethnically apart from their Arab, Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Armenian
neighbors. In 1988, that ethnic distinctiveness produced Saddam Hussein’s
gas-attack on Halabja, the town whose Kurdish population the Iraqi strongman
suspected of helping Iran in its war with him.
Fifteen years on, that
part of Kurdistan is the cornerstone of a new Kurdish future. The American
invasion produced much uncertainty and instability elsewhere in Iraq, but in the
Kurdish north it gave rise to a relatively stable, prosperous and democratic
Mountainous, pro-Western and ethnically homogeneous, the
American-backed Kurdish autonomy has been generally removed from the violence
that has taken thousands of lives in the center and south of the
The autonomy’s president, Massoud Barazani, has been elected
twice in multi-party elections that were declared fair by international
observers, and he works opposite a functioning parliament. Average per-capita
income, now estimated at $5,500, is more than 10 times the level it was at a
decade ago, and the economy of farmers, herdsmen and oil-drillers has been
growing in recent years by more than 10% annually.
Dyerbakir, the Kurdish
city where hundreds of thousands gathered to hear their leader’s cease-fire
announcement, is some 400 kilometers away from Erbil, the K u r d i s h
Moreover, seen from Turkey, where at least 15 million
of the country’s 75 million people are believed to be Kurds, the Iraqi
autonomy’s population of 5.5 million seems small – as does the territory itself,
which is roughly the size of the state of Maryland.
Yet the Kurdish
autonomy is a precedent and inspiration for something larger than its own
dimensions, a role that became apparent in the wake of the past two years’
events in the Arab world.
THE ARAB upheaval has yet to mature, but its
implications for the Kurds cannot be exaggerated.
While no one knows the
future of the Arab monarchies, the prospects of Egyptian Islamism or the
political aftermath of Lebanon, not to mention Syria, one result seems
increasingly likely: A greater Kurdistan.
Syria’s two million Kurds,
largely concentrated in its northeast, are territorially contiguous with their
brethren in Iraq. Though tribally and politically divided, Syria’s Kurds already
have effectively parted with Damascus’s tutelage. Both Assad and the rebel
forces are hardly present in Syrian Kurdistan.
An expanded Kurdish
autonomy is therefore a very realistic prospect, and chances are high it will
become an unannounced Western aim.
This is where Turkey comes
Turkey has been consistently hostile to Kurdish autonomy demands,
seeing in them a gateway to a separatism that would tear the country asunder.
That is why Turkey forbade its Kurds to open schools that would teach in
Kurdish, and that is why it opposed any Kurdish self-determination
The Erdogan government, however, strayed a bit from this
pattern, tolerating the autonomy in Iraq and allowing some Kurdish-language
That concession was part of Ankara’s neo-Ottoman
outlook, which sought to cultivate Middle East inroads that had been neglected
for nearly a century. The diplomatic turn from west to east also produced new
dialogues with historic enemies like Armenia and Greece, and also a new
mercantilism, including brisk trade with the Kurdish autonomy. Next year, oil
will be flowing in a pipeline from autonomous Kurdistan to
Turkey’s so-called “zero problems with neighbors” policy quickly
floundered, as Ankara proved reluctant to deliver substantive concessions. That
is why normalization with Armenia stalled and the occupation of northern Cyprus
remained intact. Still, Turkey returned to the Middle East with relish, warming
to Damascus with a free-trade agreement and smiling at Iran, whose nuclear
designs Ankara defended together with Brazil, to Washington’s alarm. Provoking
Israel, which started long before the Mavi Marmara
flotilla affair, was part of
this quest to ingratiate the rest of the region, including its most notorious
Now this is mostly nostalgia.
Bashar Assad transformed
overnight from darling to archenemy and with him the Tehran-Beirut Shi’ite Axis
he lynchpins. Facing refugee pressure, occasional cross-border fire and also
sprouts of Syrian terror, Ankara has shelved its neo-Ottoman lyrics in order to
confront a prosaic Middle East with which it is all too familiar.
in this context that the Kurds are suddenly worthy bedmates.
If the enemy
is the Shi’ite Axis and the goal is to produce a post-Assad proxy, then the
Kurdish irredentism must be neutralized, at least temporarily.
logic applies to Israel. The urgent need to reshape Syria and, while at, it
contain Iran, demands a measure of harmony with the Jewish state.
then, is the rationale behind Turkey’s decision to let Barack Obama broker the
phone call between Prime Ministers Erdogan and Netanyahu and to engage Kurdish
Chances are that both Netanyahu and Ocalan will soon learn
that Erdogan expects not compromise but surrender, as he did from Armenia and
Cyprus. Even so, last week he effectively conceded that his much-heralded
neo-Ottomanism is in its death throes and that Kurdish self-determination is
past its birth pangs.The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman