The Rise of Independent Kurdistan?

By Adam Garfinkle – Via Meadia – 26.8.2012

Via Meadia has zeroed in during the past month or so on the Kurdish portfolio. In three posts, Walter has pointed to the key role of some 30 million Kurds in the mix of antipathy—or better, multi-balanced opposition—among the Syrian government and its rebel opponents, the Iranian government, the Iraqi government, and the Turkish government. Those who understand how complicated matters are within Syria, and its adjunct sufferer Lebanon, should be warned that matters Kurdish are more complicated still. Walter has done a good job of marking out the main contours in the context of recent developments; in his overseas absence I mean here only to dot a few background “i”s and cross one or two strategic-assessment “t”s on the subject.

Walter has deftly picked through some of the relevant history in his reference to Sykes-Picot. In that secret agreement among the World War I allies, the Kurds got the shaft, true enough. But there is an older history, more social than political, that bears a brief comment.

The various peoples of the Middle East and North Africa—Arabs, Kurds, Berbers, Persians, Turks, and others—have tended historically to identify themselves not in terms of ethnic or linguistic particularisms, but in terms of sectarian affiliation, with Islam fully dominant from the 8th century onward—that is, from the times of the early Abbasid Empire until the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. Modern nationalism is a European invention, and it made its way to the Middle East slowly and unevenly. Thousands of pages of scholarly investigation await you if you really want to understand this process, but in the meantime just register that it was the Young Turk revolution of 1905 that provides the most convenient date to mark the advent of nationalism in the region. Some Turks (and not all of them were literally young) looking to save their imperial domain from continuous decay decided, half consciously and half not, to imitate the ways of the more powerful Europeans who were bearing down upon them. And when the Turks broke the link of authority that matched political power to sectarian affiliation, the notion spread to the non-Turkish residence of the Empire.

The reason this matters is that the Kurds never thought of themselves as a separate nation until very recently, certainly not before the 20th century. As a mountain-dwelling people speaking mutually incomprehensible dialects of Kurdish and lacking an extensive written literature, the Kurds focused their collective identity largely on the tribal and drew that identity in contradistinction to other, sometimes competitor Kurdish tribal confederacies, and whenever non-Kurdish power hovered around them. That is why, while Kurds often played important roles in the great parade of Muslim empires, they did not do so self-consciously as Kurds, but rather as Muslims. It is well known, for example—at least to those who have dipped their toes into the exhilarating waters of Middle Eastern history—that the great Saladin himself, that scourge of the Crusaders, was a Kurd.

The explosive power of national identity has come more slowly to the Kurds than to the Arabs, the Turks, and most other Middle Eastern peoples. The reasons are several, and one has already been mentioned: the mountainous terrain of Greater Kurdistan (and I mean here a geographical expression like Scandinavia, not necessarily an in-waiting political definition) tended to divide peoples into tribal groupings and made any sort of central government authority very difficult to develop and maintain. This geographically based division also exacerbated linguistic separation over time.

The other reason this matters for practical purposes is that the territory of Greater Kurdistan was chopped up into four different zones, each one corresponding to a piece of peripheral sovereign territory in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. While it would be too much to say that these four countries managed to create hermetically sealed borders, they were sealed enough to make it difficult for Kurds to move or coordinate across them. That makes the situation of the Kurds somewhat different from that of Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mountains and the tribalism and the divisions are similar, but the politically operative geography has been different.

Moreover, while 19th- and 20th-century governments in Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, and Ankara often left the Kurds alone in a kind of de facto autonomy, just because they were too much trouble to bother with given limited state administrative capacities, they did not always leave them alone. At various times, all four governments posed serious problems for their Kurdish residents. Intimidation, suppression, repression, co-optation, and land theft are not inappropriate terms to describe these problems, but they differed in all four countries as the regimes and circumstances of those countries themselves differed. The result was that Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds, Iranian Kurds, and Turkish Kurds each developed what one might call different problem sets that shaped their political attitudes and strategies. And the difference among those problems sets in turn contributed to the fissiparous tendencies among the Kurds themselves.

Again, illustrating this general point is a long and voluminous history of detail and nuance for which we do not have remotely enough time. But just consider, as a way to grasp the point, that until just a few years ago in Iraqi Kurdistan alone geographical and tribal divisions created extremely serious and debilitating obstacles to Kurdish political power. The long-running competition, sometimes violent, between the Barzani and Talabani clans was the stuff from which local politics was made. These clans created what looked like, but really were not, modern political parties: the Talabanis had the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Barzanis the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The division between them enabled both the Iraqi government and the Turkish government to arbitrage to their advantage between the two, playing the Kurdish factions against each other. Multiply this division a dozen-fold as you expand the territorial perimeter to include Syria and Iran, and you get some idea of the multi-level and multi-actor game that has been going on for decades.

This protracted game forms the essential background against which to understand the current policies of the Kurds in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Kurds elsewhere, as well as the policies of the four national governments toward the Kurds. No one forgets anything in this part of the world. The principals remember details, slights not least, that most American State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence community officials responsible for this region never knew in the first place.

Okay, so much for the necessary background in brief. What has changed? Four rather different sorts of things, I would say.

First, the Kurds are less divided today than they have been historically. This is partly a function of increased literacy and urbanization. The increased importance of written language has helped to overcome to some extent the linguistic pluralism within the Kurdish language. There are also cell phones and other modern gadgets in Greater Kurdistan today, as there are in all sorts of remote areas, from Papua New Guinea to the jungles of South America. No one really knows just what sort of influence this technology is having on Kurdish identity construction, but it’s not a stretch to suppose that something non-trivial is going on.

Second, for the first time ever there is a Kurdish epicenter to which other Kurds can look for inspiration, guidance, and actual political and economic coordination: that center is of course the KRG. The next issue of The American Interest, November/December 2012, will feature an analysis of Kurdish prospects by a truly world-class expert that details the development of the KRG from an accidental autonomous zone, the result of two Gulf Wars, into what for all practical purposes is a de facto sovereign state. Suffice it to say for now that the KRG is a going concern that is not going to be reabsorbed into a unitary Iraqi state. Not only does the new Iraqi constitution concede as much, but the Kurds have also marshaled enough power and morale to fend off any imaginable effort by Baghdad to subdue them.

Kurds in Syria, Iran, and Turkey know that, and this has made a discernible difference in how these four Kurdish communities relate to one another. In particular, Syrian Kurds now caught in the midst of a collapsing Syrian state have every reason to make common cause with Iraqi Kurds, and Iraqi Kurds have every reason—some ideological, some geostrategic—to return the favor. But this, as Walter has suggested, just restarts the great game in and around Kurdistan. It is conceivable, theoretically at least, that the union of KRG territory in Iraq with Kurdish territory in Syria could reach all the way to the Mediterranean. That would certainly revolutionize heretofore landlocked Kurdish circumstances. The Turkish government knows this and, with the most to lose in the face of a burgeoning Greater Kurdistan movement, realizes that it must prevent such a notion from moving from theory into reality.

This is the underlying strategic calculus behind the recent Turkish threats and exertions concerning the supposed Syrian reactivation of support for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The Turks claim that the Assad regime has again turned to using these particularly nasty Marxist Kurds against Turkey, as it did for a very long time in the past. The Turks had to capture their leader and credibly threaten an invasion to get the Syrians to stop. There is no reason to doubt Turkish accusations. At the same time, what the Syrian regime is doing creates a real dilemma for the Barzani leadership of the KRG, and that brings us to our third point of change.

That third point of change has been a fairly remarkable reversal of the traditional Turkish attitude toward how to play the Kurdish great game. With the most to lose at the hands of a successful and unified Kurdish nationalism (about 20 million out of 30 million Kurds live in Turkey), the Ataturkish governments in Ankara before the present Muslim-oriented one generally took a hostile attitude toward all Kurdish political activism. The Turkish state, modeling itself after that of secular France, brooked no tolerance for separatist ambitions based on ethnic division. The model was that everyone who lived within the boundaries of the new Turkish state was a Turk, just as everyone who lived within the boundaries of France was a Frenchman, regardless of lingering particularisms from the past. So the Turkish state took to calling its Kurds “country Turks” and other such ridiculous names to hide the fact that the country was in truth not ethnographically and hence politically homogeneous. They also banned the use of the Kurdish language in schools and in the media, and in other ways tried to extirpate Kurdish cultural separateness within the Turkish state. As for Kurdish political activism across the border in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Turks were against it. Unlike the Iraqi and Iranian governments who sometimes used Kurds across the border to discomfit each other, the Turks as a rule avoided that kind of tactic.

The AKP government has adopted a far more flexible, nuanced, and possibly quite dangerous attitude toward the Kurds both within Turkey and beyond. Current Turkish leaders reject at least to some extent the blood-on-the-saddle Ataturkish attitude toward the definition of Turkish citizenship. Because they are more pan-Islamic then pan-Turkish, at least compared to earlier Republican Turkish governments, they have extended the budding trend to allow more Kurdish cultural expression within the country. But most amazingly, the AKP government has decisively reversed the tactical proclivities of its predecessors by embracing the KRG across the border in Iraq. Indeed, Turkey has become the KRG’s main lifeline to the world.

Why the change? On one level it’s about money. Turkish companies and entrepreneurs are all over the place, and many have made quite a bundle, not least in oil-related activities. But more fundamentally than that, the Turkish leadership has calculated that by making friends with the KRG it can both moderate its policies—specifically preventing KRG support for the PKK—and even use the burgeoning strength of the KRG as leverage against Iraq, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria. In other words, if you can’t beat them, use them.

Whether this change of approach will actually work for the Turks in the long run is a matter of speculation. It certainly hasn’t solved Ankara’s PKK problem thus far, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of the approach. And that brings us to our fourth change.

One of the reasons the current Turkish government thinks it can use the KRG as leverage against its neighbors, and particularly against Iran in the long run, with which it has deep and historical problems going back to Ottoman-Safavid times, is that all the states of the region have grown far weaker than Turkey. Turkey is in good shape. The AKP attitude toward the economy has been far more liberal then the statist approach of the Ataturkish leadership, and that has led to rapid and broad economic growth. The party is reasonably unified and popular, a real change from the feeble and corrupt Turkish governments of the preceding three decades. Turkish strength and self-confidence contrast fairly dramatically with the situation in Iraq, a country still reeling from war, civil strife, and regime change. It also contrasts, obviously, with the mayhem in Syria. And it contrasts, as well, with a weakening of the Islamic regime in Iran, which now must deal with international isolation on top of its thoroughgoing incompetence and increasingly acute lack of legitimacy among most of the Iranian population.

If the Turkish government thinks it can maneuver its relationship with the KRG effectively in an environment of ambient weakness, just imagine what the Kurds must be thinking. Yes, they are thinking it: independence.

There is a natural debate going on right now among the KRG leadership. On the one hand, these men know how risky a declaration of formal independence would be, especially if they do not have the prior endorsement of the United States, the European Union, and Turkey. Without such protection, Kurds outside Iraq could come under intolerable pressures and pain. Losing their Turkish lifeline would be especially harmful, and while the Turks are playing the game now in a way that helps the KRG, it’s by no means clear that the Turks can tolerate such a bold new step.

On the other hand, Kurdish leaders also know that they now have at hand a window of opportunity that may not remain open for long. The ways of the world, in this part of it at least, have a nasty habit of changing for the worse when you least want them to. For now the KRG leadership is continuing its creep toward a capacity for independence, doing everything it can to build institutions that can allow at least Iraqi Kurds to make a go of it on their own. Ultimately, the disposition of the United States is critical, because however much deteriorated the emotional dimension of the U.S.-Turkish alliance is, only the United States can deliver eventual Turkish acquiescence to Kurdish independence.

So what about the American attitude? The United States used to be against Kurdish independence, period and full stop. But the reasons for this opposition no longer claim much power. American administrations opposed it in part because Kurdish independence was a short-term ploy of the Soviet government after World War II, designed to hurt two American associates at the time, Iran and Turkey. Somehow it stuck in our heads that Kurdish independence was a bad thing even after the Soviet opportunity to use the Kurds to advantage had long since disappeared. But there were other reasons, too. We did not think it was a good idea in general to mess with the national boundaries of the area, artificial and prone to mousetrap/ping-pong ball collapse as they are. In particular, as a subset of this general concern with shaky boundaries, successive U.S. administrations supported the continuation of Iraq as a unitary state.

None of these reasons make a lot of sense anymore. Iraq is no longer a unitary state, thanks in large part to what we did to it. Other borders have been tampered with lately, Sudan and Mali being the two most recent cases in point, and the great crescendo of clattering of mousetraps has not been heard as a result. (Not that the results have been pretty.) And the Turks now seem for the first time at least theoretically reconciliable to the idea of an independent Kurdish state, so long as they think they can more or less control the dangers it might pose to them.

That doesn’t mean that the United States should suddenly change its tune and support the transformation of the KRG into an independent state. From a moral aesthetic point of view, such a shift would be fully justified. There are thirty million Kurds who, if you asked them, would almost certainly choose to be together in a sovereign state. I can’t think of any other people on earth so voluminous and so set on self-determination in a national framework as the Kurds. Do they deserve a state, all else equal? Sure, but all else is never equal. Alas, moral aesthetics alone should not determine U.S. policy. Here’s why.

If the current KRG obtained independence, it would to one degree or another become an irredentist magnet for Kurds in Syria, above all, but also in Iran and ultimately in Turkey. There is plenty of unfinished business at hand, too, with a potential to generate vast amounts of violence. For example, the current borders of the KRG are far too circumscribed as far as Kurds are concerned because they do not include Kirkuk and Mosul (ancient Nineveh). For another example, Syrian Kurds are incensed still, decades after the fact, at the appropriation of fairly huge chunks of their ancestral lands by the Syrian government and the forced influx of Arabs upon them. They want their land back, and they are finally in a position to imagine actually taking it. Not entirely dissimilar circumstances exist in both Iran and Turkey. In other words, KRG independence could well be just the beginning of a very messy and protracted process, not the end of one. And if the United States plays midwife to Kurdish independence, it will very likely get stuck with a shitload of dirty diapers to manage for years to come.

Could such a mess possibly be in U.S. interests? Well, there are some imaginable benefits from it. It could certainly screw with the mullahs, and that’s good. It could actually increase U.S. leverage over Turkey under some circumstances. But only a fool looks forward blithely to an unpredictable upheaval of this magnitude. As they would say in the State Department, where I hung my bowler hat for a few years, the matter requires some study.

The broader point is that we seem to be on the verge of a real game-changing phenomenon in the region. Just as the Berber/Tuareg rising has changed the shape of North Africa and the Sahel (and that’s just at its early stage, most likely), the Kurdish rising may change the shape of Southwest Asia, reverberating via Syria across the Levant. The Arabs have a saying: “Everything starts small except calamity.” We may be about to experience an illustration of that maxim.