The weakening of the relevant states, alongside the tectonic sociopolitical changes taking place in the region as a whole, may end up changing the strategic map of the Middle East.
The last year’s upheavals in the Arab world have somehow blurred the sweeping developments taking place in a no-less important though less well-known strategic region that can be called the Kurdish triangle, comprising Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian Kurdistan. The net results of these developments may end up with the landlocked Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq in a position to create a corridor reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Clearly, if the KRG manages to secure such an outlet, its aspirations for independence will have received a significant boost.
How feasible is such a scenario and what are the factors that may contribute to it? Most significant are the latest developments in Syria, whose Kurds have taken advantage of the uprising there, and of the vacuum formed in their part of the country specifically, to take control of the area and push their call for autonomy. “We have established Kurdistan and we will not give it to anyone,” is a typical line reported recently from Syria in the Turkish press.
Some analysts claim President Bashar Assad himself was behind the move. Whatever the case, the Kurds of Syria managed to kill several birds with one stone: to attain a better bargaining position with Damascus; to improve their hand vis-a-vis the Syrian opposition, which has so far been unwilling to accommodate their national demands; to send a message to Turkey regarding its own Kurds; and finally, to move closer to the KRG.
Reaction in the Turkish media to the move has reflected an anxiety bordering on hysteria, the essence of which is that, whereas formerly, Turkey had 800 kms. of border with Kurdistan, they now share 1,200 kms. Others warned of a “mega” or “second” Kurdistan, that would threaten to embrace the Kurds of Turkey and Syria as well. The mayor of Diyarbakir, Turkey, Osman Baydemir, declared that the Kurds are going to establish autonomous Kurdistan, with a common currency and four capitals: his city, Irbil in Iraq, Qamishli in Syria and Mahabad in Iran.
Turkey’s concerns are threefold. It fears that the Democratic Union Party, Syria’s main Kurdish organization, which took control of that country’s Kurdish region and which has close connections with the PKK, the armed Kurdish revolutionary group in Turkey, will turn the region into a springboard for attacks against Turkey; that its own Kurds will attempt to imitate the move of their brethren in Syria; and that the KRG will try to exploit the opportunity to draw closer to the sea, via the adjacent Kurdish regions in Turkey and Syria. Faced with this multiple threat, Turkish officials and analysts suggested two solutions: forming a buffer zone along the border with Syrian Kurdistan and accommodating Turkey’s own Kurds.
Here we touch on another important factor in the Kurdish triangle, namely the Turkish role. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments that have ruled Turkey for a decade now implemented an important change in policy vis-a-vis both their own Kurds and the KRG. The new policy could be described as “engagement fraught with ambiguity.”
The AKP, in its desire to solve the Kurdish problem, was even willing to conduct secret talks with the PKK. But each time it took one step forward, it took two backwards, with the result being that rather than weakening the PKK, it kept it alive and kicking. The AKP also made important moves toward accommodating the Kurdish language and culture, even while it sent thousands of Kurdish activists into prison. This gave a significant boost to Kurdish nationalism.
The same ambivalence characterizes Ankara’s relations with the KRG. On the one hand, the regime has become a lifeline for the KRG, with which it signed an agreement on an oil and gas pipeline without consulting Baghdad. On the other hand, it continues rehearsing the mantra of Iraqi unity.
The third factor at play in the Kurdish triangle is the deepening relations between all three parts of Kurdistan. In the past, their common borders were sealed almost hermetically. Moreover, the governments in the affected countries, together with Iran, tried to coordinate strategies, with a view to suppressing their respective Kurdish movements and to forestall ties among them. During the last decade, though, and especially in the past year, the borders have became totally porous, while trans-border activity increased.
For its part, the KRG, which has effectively become a quasi-state, has turned itself into a model and the epicenter of Greater Kurdistan. Activists from all parts of Kurdistan frequent the KRG to consult, coordinate activities, and organize and train. It trained members of the Syrian Kurdish organization, for example, and reportedly sent 700 fighters to Syria to operate in Qamishli, the closest Syrian Kurdish city to the KRG.
The Kurdish national movement is now crystallized in almost all parts of Kurdistan. The weakening of the relevant states, alongside the tectonic sociopolitical changes taking place in the region as a whole, may end up changing the strategic map of the Middle East. Forged by the Great Powers after World War I, the borders separating the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran no longer appear as sacred or secure as they once did. It is therefore no longer inconceivable that the Kurds, who number more than 30 million, will take the opportunity of the fluid situation to erase the colonial borders of the 20th century and improve their political situation in the 21st century, including reaching out to the sea.
Prof. Ofra Bengio is head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, and author of: “The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.”