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Jonathan Eyal
Thursday, Jul 3, 2014

World

Turkey signals it is ready for an independent Kurdistan

The Straits Times | Jonathan Eyal | Thursday, Jul 3, 2014

Members of Kurdish security forces, known as Peshmerga, patrol a field around the Jihadist-controlled Bashir region, 25 kms south of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, on June 20, 2014.

Can one solve a problem by simply refusing to talk about it? For many decades, that is precisely the attitude the Turkish government had about the Kurds.

Even a mention that Kurds may be entitled to have their own country was punishable with a jail sentence.

But no longer, it seems. Officials close to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are now indicating they are ready to accept the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq.

The ruling AK party's spokesman Huseyin Celik said at the weekend that an independent Kurdistan is a "reality... nobody has the right to deny".

The admission is a sign that Turkey is beginning to regard Iraq's territorial collapse as inevitable. And it may be the start of a fresh contest between Turkey and Iran over the Middle East's future landscape.

The 31 million-strong ethnic Kurds have long been regarded as one of history's biggest losers, having been persistently denied the right to a state.

About half of all Kurds live in Turkey, with 7 million apiece in Iraq and Iran, and 3 million in Syria. Keeping them apart by preventing an independent Kurdish state was just about the only objective that Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria always agreed on.

The seeds of an independent Kurdistan were sown in 1990, when the Kurds of northern Iraq took the opportunity of the first Gulf War to rebel against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

Though Saddam was not ousted then, the United States and British war planes stayed on to maintain a "no fly zone" over the area to prevent him from exacting revenge on the Kurds.

That protection provided the start of an autonomous Kurdish region, which is now a state in everything but name, with its own well-functioning government and disciplined military.

Still, there is no doubt that the deep inroads made recently by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) fighters have boosted the Kurds' prospects for independence.

For not only does the fighting raise the spectre of Iraq's collapse but the Sunni extremists' assault has handed over to the Kurds some oil-rich territories that they coveted for decades, such as the big oil city of Kirkuk and its surroundings.

The Peshmerga - as the Kurdish military is known - have finally brought all of Iraq's Kurdish minorities under their protection. The job of creating a state is virtually complete.

A stream of Western politicians led by US Secretary of State John Kerry have recently travelled to Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, to warn the Kurds not declare full independence.

For now, they may heed the warning but they make no secret of the fact that this is just a temporary concession.

"It's very difficult to see Iraq staying whole," the president of Kurdistan's regional government, Mr Mas'ud Barzani, said recently.

By becoming the first country to openly admit that an independent Kurdistan is now only a matter of time, Turkey hopes to derive a number of important advantages.

It wants to make friends with Kurdistan's leaders, in the hope of persuading them not to encourage a separatist movement among the Kurds of Turkey at a future date.

The Turks also want to make Kurdistan economically dependent - the Kurds now export their oil through Turkey.

Furthermore, with Mr Erdogan bidding to be elected as his country's president next month, the nine million or so Kurdish votes among the Turkish electorate will come in handy.

And these are best secured by portraying the Turkish government as a friend.

Either way, having used their military for over a century to crack down on the Kurds, Turkey's government is now planning to smother them with love.

The tactic may work. The Kurds appreciate the credit line that Turkey has advanced them against future sales of oil. They also know that their fragile new state will need protectors against the violent Isis.

"We now have 1,000 kilometres of border with terrorists," said Peshmerga spokesman Jabbar Yawar recently regarding the capture of large parts of Iraq by the jihadist group.

But Turkey will not be the only actor in the region. It faces competition for influence from Iran, which objects to the very idea of an independent Kurdistan.

But Teheran has also prepared for the possibility of an independent Kurdistan - it is supporting the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party which opposes the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party of President Barzani, largely in order to counteract the Turks.

The stage is therefore set for the emergence of a new country in the Middle East but also for the start of a new proxy battle between its neighbours.


This article was first published on JULY 1, 2014.
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