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Aidan Fishman

AIDAN FISHMAN 2012: Springtime for Kurdistan?

Aidan Fishman, March 14, 2012

[This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post]

In 2009, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest a fraudulent presidential election that restored Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Bereft of any real external support, the demonstrators were beaten and intimidated into submission, although public signs of disapproval toward the regime continue to re-emerge periodically.

    For much of this year, the biggest news story of the Middle East has been the so-called “Arab Spring,” as massive waves of civil disobedience, general strikes and protest marches toppled dictators from Tunisia to Yemen. Recent electoral results in Tunisia and Egypt show signs of an Islamist revival, leading some commentators to warn of an impending “Islamist Winter”.
    2012 may prove to be a turning point for yet another of the Near East's great peoples: the Kurds.
    Who are the Kurds? They speak the Kurdish language, a member of the broader Iranian language family. Their history is shrouded in mystery, with some historians linking them to mountain tribes mentioned by classical Greek authors. Kurdish nationalists claim a more august past, asserting their descent from the powerful Median Empire that dominated the Near East in the sixth century BCE. Promised a state by the victorious Entente powers at the end of the First World War, the Kurds have successfully resisted assimilation by the Persian, Turkish and Arab conquerors, despite the powerful pull of these storied civilizations.
     Given the obsessive attention paid by the international media to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one would be forgiven for supposing that the Palestinians constitute the largest stateless population of the Middle East. But while generous estimates count 11 million Palestinians worldwide, there are well over 20 million Kurds dwelling in the volatile region where Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria meet. In all four of these countries, there are already signs that the Kurds will play a starring role in the key regional events of 2012.
      Alone amongst their dispersed brethren, the Kurds of Iraq have their own autonomous region, complete with a flag, a parliament and official borders, which in classic Middle Eastern fashion, are disputed with the Iraqi central government. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurdistan has quietly prospered, largely spared from the civil war that ravaged the rest of Iraq. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has overseen a boom in oil production and a renaissance of Kurdish culture, although minorities such as Assyrians and Arabs sometimes complain of discriminatory treatment. Overall, the relative security and prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan serves as a hopeful model for an enlarged Kurdish state.
    In recent weeks, Iraqi Kurdistan has been unwillingly thrust into the spotlight by Iraq's sectarian political squabbles. As the last U.S. troops withdraw from the country, Iraq's mercurial Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is taking steps to set his house in order and emerge from the American orbit. Although he and his party profess Iraqi unity and neutrality, al-Maliki is clearly drifting into an alliance with Iran, his natural Shi'a protector and patron during his years of exile.
    To further this goal, he has ordered the arrest of Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, for allegedly plotting an assassination attempt. Al-Hashimi has since fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, begging and receiving refuge from President Barzani. If the current impasse continues, expect Iraq's Kurds to bolster their de facto independence from Baghdad, flouting central government laws and decrees and quietly inviting American “advisers” to remain in the region.
    Meanwhile, Syria's Kurds have been swept up in the torrent of revolution shaking the Assad regime. Long denied citizenship and constantly harassed, Syria's Kurds dwell in the country's only oil-producing region, underlining their strategic importance. After the murder of a local Kurdish strongman in October, his followers seized control of Qamishli, the nerve centre of Syrian Kurdistan.
     Nevertheless, the Kurds have been oddly quiet since then, playing no prominent role in the wider Syrian Uprising. Local Kurds are uneasy with Turkish backing for the Syrian rebels, as Turkey has long been a foe of Kurdish aspirations. Indeed, Kurdish representatives stormed out of a Syrian opposition conference in Turkey in May, denouncing their erstwhile hosts. If Syria's budding civil war drags on much longer, the country's Kurds may opt for separatism, hoping to join their comrades in Iraq.
   Turkey is home to the world's largest Kurdish population, and also its most restive. Comprising 20% of the population, they have long been targets of repression and forced assimilation. This has sparked a number of revolts since Turkey's birth after the First World War, with the most recent coming under the banner of the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the US and EU.
    Although Turkey's mildly Islamist government of Prime Minister Erdogan stormed to power in part via a promise to respect Kurdish culture and language, it has since backtracked on many of its pledges and faces a renewed PKK insurgency. Last week, Turkey killed 35 of its own Kurdish citizens in a botched airstrike, sparking protests by Kurds throughout Turkish Kurdistan and even in Istanbul, home to many Kurdish migrants.
    While the current torpor will probably subside in short order, Turkey has a serious long-term problem with its Kurdish population. Some analysts are predicting that Erdogan's “economic miracle” will come to a crashing halt in 2012 as Europe, Turkey's traditional export market, suffers from increased austerity and financial turmoil. Economic prosperity that benefited all Turkish citizens would come to a sudden end, propelling disgruntled Kurds from the political sidelines directly into the arms of the insurgents.
    Moreover, Turkey may soon face its own version of Israel's dreaded “demographic threat”. The birthrate in Turkey's rural, agricultural East, populated mainly by Kurds, is rapidly outstripping that of its more urbanized West. At some point, the Turkish military may be stretched far past its limits, attempting to hold down up to a third of the country's citizenry.
    Iran's Kurds have been the quietest in the region, receiving little media attention with all the scrutiny applied to their country's potentially catastrophic drive for nuclear arms. Briefly granted sovereignty as a Soviet puppet state in 1946, Iranian Kurds chafed under the Shah's heavy-handed rule. Fervent supporters of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, many were soon put off by the new regime's discrimination against Sunni Islam, of which most Kurds are adherents.
     In 2011, the mullahs crushed the PJAK, a local Kurdish militia group, in a tit-for-tat guerrilla warfare campaign. Nevertheless, 2012 may yet represent a year of opportunity for Iran's Kurdish population. If the Islamic Republic falters, due to either crippling economic sanctions or an American strike to disable its nuclear program, ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Azeris and Arabs may renew their calls for cultural autonomy and equal rights.
   Although the Kurds seem marginalized and far removed from the Middle East's halls of power, prolonged periods of chaos and crisis often bring previously hidden forces to prominence. After all, who had heard of Khomeini before the Islamic Revolution? Who spoke of Lebanon's Shi'a before that country's civil war and the rise of Hizballah? As the Arabs, Turks and Iranians totter on the edge of political Armageddon, the hour has finally arrived for a Kurdish resurgence.
   Emil Fackenheim, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of modern times, became a staunch advocate of Zionism, especially after the the immense tragedy of the Holocaust. Through the State of Israel, he saw a Jewish “return to history,” a drive to reclaim the nation's fate and become actors, rather than mere observers, in the high-stakes game of international affairs.
    No one knows what changes or surprises 2012 will yield. At this point in time, a viable, independent Kurdistan seems little more than a pipe dream. But if they act wisely, boldly and opportunistically, this coming year might be remembered as the year when the Kurds finally returned to history.
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