Kurdish dreams, Middle East realities
Common Ground News Service - By Güneş Murat Tezcür
In an increasingly globalised world, few places symbolise state power and security challenges more than the border zone between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Whether this border will blossom with commerce and cultural exchange, or become a transit point for tanks and militants, has great implications for the future of the Middle East and the relationship between the Muslim world and the West.
Turkey's strong reactions to rising Kurdish nationalism thus far only aggravate the feelings of alienation among its Kurdish-speaking population. Turkey's recent offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq prompted Kurdistan's Prime Minister Nechirvan Birzani to question whether the Turkish government was actually trying to target more than just the Kurdish rebels.
In order for the vision of a blossoming and peaceful border to become a reality, Turkey and other regional states with sizeable Kurdish populations need to extend full recognition to Kurdish demands for greater cultural and political rights. In turn, Kurdish nationalism needs to recognise the geo-political reality by eschewing the goal of rewriting the prevailing borders and denouncing armed struggle. The United States and the European Union need to encourage reconciliation between Turkish and Kurdish politicians, given their huge leverage over both parties.
Tragedy has marked the history of Kurdish nationalism, which was too embryonic and feeble to challenge the political agreements, following World War I, which divided Kurdish-speaking people under the sovereignty of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Recent times, however, have been more kind. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds experienced the patronage and protection of a world power for the first time in modern history. Iraqi Kurds now have their own military force, exclusive control over their way of life, and the right to refuse to fly the Iraqi flag associated with the atrocities of the overthrown regime. Strategic calculations and fear of backlash from their powerful neighbours are the only reasons they don't unilaterally declare independence.
In Turkey, Kurdish nationalism seeks autonomy, not secession, as most Kurds there have stakes in the economic and political system and seek improvements in their civic and political rights rather than separation. Nonetheless, they still admire the symbolic achievements of Iraqi Kurdistan: the tri-colour Kurdish flag with a blazing golden sun at its centre, public rituals honouring Kurdish heroes, and the adoption of Kurdish as the official language. Such expressions of cultural and political identity face legal persecution and administrative hurdles in Turkey, however, despite constitutional and legal reforms since the late 1990s.
Turkey is increasingly worried about the growing assertiveness of Iraqi Kurds and perceives Kurdish control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as a threat to its national security. Turkish concerns are broadly shared by Iran and Syria, countries that are fearful of political activism among their own Kurdish citizens. Furthermore, Arab states are suspicious that the US-led war in Iraq will ultimately create an oil-rich, pro-Western and independent (in all but name) Kurdistan, threatening their claim to the area's oil supply.
Iraqi Kurds have actively collaborated with the United States since the invasion and brought much needed relief to military efforts in the northern zone. The United States also plays the ethnic card against Iran by providing support to Kurdish insurgents. Meanwhile, the United States has paid special attention not to alienate Turkey and conservative Arab states, its traditional allies in the region.
The United States now has a bigger responsibility to find a modus vivendi regarding the question of Kirkuk oil. It is an open secret that a referendum on the fate of Kirkuk mandated by the Iraqi Constitution will make the city part of the Kurdish region. However, regional powers including Turkey and Syria will not accept the outcome unless they are given firm guarantees that Kirkuk oil will remain under the control of the Iraqi federal government.
The revival of Kurdish nationalism presents a unique challenge to the prevailing political order in the region as well as US policy towards the Middle East. It will require great political acumen and diplomatic skill on the part of US leaders to navigate between the opposing demands of the Iraqi Kurds and their neighbours without leaving another legacy of "neo-imperialism" in the region. To do this, they must develop a comprehensive policy that entails confidence-building measures, including a pledge from Turkey not to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdish guarantees to cut support to Kurdish militants fighting Turkey and a settlement on Kirkuk oil.
* Dr. Güneş Murat Tezcür is an assistant professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.