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Springtime for Kurdistan
Posted on Aug 29, 2006
By Parag Khanna
The lobby of the Erbil International Hotel (also known locally as the ?Sheraton?) exudes a cosmopolitan vibe, night and day. Cabinet ministers regularly meet with locals and each other there, pouring over investment proposals, greeting foreign delegations and fielding questions from journalists. They have no time for formality or pretense. ?We were always taken advantage of because we were asleep,? Falah Mustafa Bakir, a senior minister in the Barzani government, told me. ?Now we have to be awake round-the-clock.?
Iraqi Kurdistan is now the freest and most productive of all Kurdish-populated regions, and has become the melting pot for the region?s Kurds and a hub from which resistance to subjugation in particularly Iran and Syria is planned. Syrian Kurdish men in particular have fled en masse to study in Sulaymaniah, where they can freely associate and make plans to return home and agitate for greater rights.
But to measure Kurdistan?s merits purely on the basis of comparison to the frightening mayhem of Iraq would be a straw-man approach. Kurdistan needs to accelerate its political development if it is to convincingly distinguish itself from its politically regressive neighbors. With Kurdistan no longer divided and ruled by Saddam, the two ruling parties—or rather families—Barzani?s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and Talabani?s PUK, still divide and rule Kurdistan. They have mafia-like control over business interests in the region and high-level stakes in Baghdad itself. A rivalry between the parties has meant that the two cellphone operators in Kurdistan remain incompatible, utterly corrupt nonsense for a population so small. More fundamentally, they have resisted efforts for the formation of new parties such as the ?People?s Front,? maintaining a patronage duopoly which dictates the terms of elections. Anger at both parties is simmering, as demonstrated by the gains made by the Kurdistan Islamic Union Party in the most recent elections. Anger at PUK and KDP corruption recently boiled over in Halabja, where hundreds of demonstrators torched the very monument inaugurated by Colin Powell two years ago to commemorate the victims of Saddam?s chemical gas attack in 1988.
Ultimately, the remaining task of consolidating Kurdistan?s position vis-à-vis more powerful and manipulative neighbors will require that its leaders stick together and cooperate. With the exception of America—and more recently Israel, which prefers that Iraq remain weak—Kurds still realize that they have, as their saying goes, ?no friends but the mountains.?
Because America continues to officially seek a united Iraq, little news of Kurdistan?s unique success makes the headlines. But as America?s standing hits new lows among Iraqis and remains high in Kurdistan, its need for a reliable, secular ally in the region may force it to concede even greater autonomy to the Kurds, perhaps in exchange for support for Washington?s increasingly confrontational policies on Syria and Iran.
What Kurds want most in the post-Iraq settlement is Kirkuk. The oil-rich city was a central point of contention with the Kurds as Iraq was formed in 1921, and judging from the two-hour-long litany of complaints given to an audience of card-carrying PUK members by their man on the ground there, the situation remains far from resolved. Saddam?s campaign to isolate the Kurds meant they had no major power stations, railways, airports or refineries. Though there are oil deposits elsewhere in Kurdistan, its autonomy is unsustainable without a major industrial center. The Kurds have already demographically reversed Kirkuk?s violent Arabization under Saddam, but they will have to wage a nonviolent, democratic campaign to become the masters of its oil fields through a referendum scheduled for 2007. If they can complete a refinery for Kirkuk oil in its outskirts in the next five years, the last foundation for independence would be in place.
But as a landlocked country, Kurdistan cannot amount to much more than a Middle Eastern Bolivia without reassuring its neighbors that it has no regional ambitions beyond claiming Kirkuk. Though the ideal united Kurdistan state, the dream of mid-20th century Kurdish hero Mustafa Barzani, would stretch from the Syrian city of Afrin through Iraq?s Badra district to the Ilam region of Iran, Kamal Fuad, an elder statesman in the PUK Politburo, makes clear that ?our responsibility stops at Hamri mountain,? which lies 100 kilometers south of Kirkuk and constitutes a natural land boundary with the rest of Iraq. Mosul, which was the Ottoman and then Baathist administrative center for northern Iraq, holds no interest for Kurdish leaders.
Few neighbors want a strong Iraq to emerge from the ashes, and even fewer seem to want a strong Kurdistan encroaching on their borders. The Turkish government, for example, has shown little sympathy in closing its border to Kurdish oil refined in Turkey and needed back in Kurdistan, leading, ironically, to long lines for petrol throughout Kurdistan and the common sight of plastic gas containers being sold on the roadside. But in one of the most hopeful examples of globalization trumping geopolitics, it is Turkish companies applying the most pressure on their government to back down. As the master construction engineers of the region, Turkish contractors are speedily building both of Kurdistan?s international airports, as well as tunnels, flyovers and ring roads. Interestingly, the Turkish government?s recent steps to recognize Kurdish rights, combined with its concerns over the pan-Kurdish rhetoric of Kurdistani satellite television, have led it to launch two ?moderate? Kurdish-language satellite stations of its own, a net plus for Kurdish identity.
Ultimately, having Kurds remain as minorities in the neighboring states—rather than entirely consolidating into Iraqi Kurdistan—would serve Kurdistan?s interests. Minority status helps to build international pressure for greater rights. For example, in the wake of the recent Kurdish protests across Turkey, particularly in Diyarbakir in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, a Kurdish TV station plans to open a case before the European Court of Human Rights against Turkey for restricting its airtime and content. Minorities straddling Kurdistan?s borders will also preserve trade relations. The smuggling of fuel, tea, sugar, and drugs has for centuries linked the markets of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan—with Kurdistan right in the middle. The famed Hamilton Road along the Zagros range (built by New Zealand engineer A.M. Hamilton in 1928-32) can once again be the modern artery for this branch of the Silk Road. The Zagros mountainscape is pinch-yourself magnificent, the site of thousands of impromptu family picnics throughout the week of Nowrouz, the Zoroastrian-derived celebration of spring. Kurdish women in colorful, flowing gowns and men in their baggy peshmerga suits with matching headdresses and cummerbunds dance in the markets and hills like a scene from a Bollywood movie.
If geopolitics has an end state, it is when borders, populations, resources and interests find equilibrium. In Palestine and Kurdistan, new quasi-states are emerging in response to a need to correct the mistakes of the post-Ottoman settlement as well as the more modern imperative to transcend the rigid state system altogether. Kurds will undoubtedly have, in some form, all the freedoms they deserve. They should get them sooner rather than later.
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