Kurdish problem is fixing itself

Opinion: A unilateral declaration by Barzani would be a mistake

Massoud Barzani with US secretary of state John Kerry. Photograph: AP

Massoud Barzani with US secretary of state John Kerry. Photograph: AP


When Recep Erdogan 10 days ago – to no one’s surprise – formally announced his candidacy for Turkey’s forthcoming presidential election, he promised to “stop at nothing” to fix the Kurdish problem.

It seems, for important strategic reasons, but also for reasons of his electoral convenience, that the Kurds, 14 million of them in Turkey, are flavour of the month. Kurdish votes in the city and region around Diyarbakir could be crucial to Erdogan’s majority in the second round of the presidential election.

And so there are promises of talks, of an amnesty for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prisoners and fighters who are not linked to violence, of the repeal of anti-terror laws, and of new rights for the Kurdish language to be taught in some schools. How times are changing – this is the new face of the bloody conflict between the government and Kurds, which has claimed some 40,000 lives over the past three decades.

New balance of forces

And it’s not just in Turkey. Further afield in the region, through the fog of war in Iraq and Syria, the shifting alliances, collapsing state authority and new balance of forces, the Kurdish cause – “a nation of 30 million, dispersed across four countries, with no state” – appears to be emerging as potentially the big winner.

The Kurdish problem, pace Erdogan, seems to be fixing itself. His gesture, it seems, is just playing catch-up, a recognition of the new realities: the Kurds, at last, matter in the new dispensation, and to all the parties to the conflict.

In Iraq the disintegration of the central state in the face of the onslaught by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis, or the Islamic State), and the reality that the Kurdish peshmerga forces have assumed the defence of the Kurdish autonomous region against Isis, has allowed control of the city and region of Kirkuk, and with them important oilfields, to fall into the ha- nds of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Irbil.

It and the main Iraqi-based Kurdish political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – have long insisted that the Kurdish-majority city, home also to sizeable Turkmen and Arab minorities, should be part of their remit. There is no question now of handing it back, however, even if a new central government is cobbled together.

KRG president Massoud Barzani has seized the opportunity. Last week he announced that Kurdistan’s moment had finally arrived. “Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence. From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now . . . We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

He has asked the Irbil parliament to set a date.

Bargaining chip

That is going too far, and Barzani knows it. But his declaration is understood by all to reflect a new strategic balance, and may be an important bargaining chip.

Kurdish independence, although supported by Sunni insurgents in Iraq as paving the way for the dismantling of the country and establishment of their own state, is opposed by the US and Iran, who are determined to maintain the country’s integrity. They see the Kurdish role in a government reflecting all the communities as crucial to sustaining that. Greater Kurdish autonomy, and particularly control of oil revenues, would be another matter, and perhaps now a necessary and inevitable price.

That reticence on the issue is true of Turkey too. Ankara has not only moved to ease the repression of its domestic Kurds but taken a decisive turn towards a regional alliance with the Kurds outside its borders that it once feared. Its relations with the KRG have warmed, and it is now the major outlet for its products.

Crucially, the KRG and the relatively successful Kurdish rebel forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria – it controls three enclaves in the north of the country and is the only force that has so far pushed Isis back successfully – are seen as important bulwarks against Isis along more than 450 miles of Syria’s 540-mile Turkish border and all of the latter’s border with Iraq.

But full KRG independence would be a step too far for Ankara, likely to dangerously inflame similar secessionist ambitions for a greater Kurdistan in the communities in Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

A unilateral declaration by Barzani would be the worst possible start for a new embryonic state, trading the goodwill the Kurds now enjoy for the prospects of diplomatic and economic isolation in one of the world’s least hospitable regions. Not a propitious birth. Kurdistan must wait.


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