The breakdown of authority in Syria and creation of a Kurdish enclave there has unexpectedly pushed Kurds to the forefront of regional politics—and almost nobody’s happy.
The opposition Syrian National Council, the umbrella group leading the fight against the regime’s forces, has refused to accept Kurdish demands for self-rule, causing a rift with the Syrian Kurdish parties. Turkey, which is battling its own Kurdish rebellion, is concerned about the effect of a new Kurdish autonomous region right on the border and has threatened military action against the enclave. Meanwhile, the United States, which says it wants Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to go but doesn’t want to commit forces to make it happen, has stated its opposition to Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
The real fear isn’t that Syria will be divided. It’s that Kurds are uniting. The breakdown of Syrian authority has pushed Kurds across the region to work together, something unthinkable just a few months ago.
Take Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. Barzani is a well-known critic of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish Kurdish rebel group fighting for self-rule inside Turkey. He’s frequently condemned PKK attacks on Turkey and been wary of PKK attempts to build influence among Iraqi Kurds. Barzani also has called on the PKK to withdraw from its remote mountain bases in northern Iraq because they invite Turkish military retaliation….
Today, however, Barzani is facilitating the PKK’s entry into legitimate politics and helping the group solidify its long-sought role as a regional player. Barzani recently brokered a power-sharing agreement between the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which consists of about sixteen small Syrian Kurdish parties, and the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is the best organized, best armed and single biggest Kurdish party inside Syria.
The PYD is also a supporter, if not an actual branch, of the PKK. The Syrian Kurdish parties agreed they needed to work together if Kurds were to prevail in their demand for autonomy. “In this sensitive time,” reads the Erbil agreement, named after the Iraqi Kurdish capital where the parties met, “it is necessary to overcome all conflicts and obstacles that interfere with a unified Kurdish front.” The agreement created a joint council for governing the Kurdish region of Syria and committed them to working to overthrow Assad. They also agreed that the region would not be used for armed attacks. Put otherwise, there would be no PKK attacks on Turkey from Syria....
The Erbil deal formalized a role for Barzani’s allied parties and other non-PYD Kurdish nationalist groups by committing them to developing a unified political solution for the Kurdish area. In the process, Barzani also gave himself a boost as a Kurdish power broker and a regional leader. “There is nothing in the foreseeable future that might pose a serious threat to the unity of the supreme Kurdish Body,” PYD leader Salih Muslim said in an email interview, referring to the new Kurdish council. “All parties are serious and determined to continue working together.“
Barzani’s decision to get involved is a reminder of how the Kurdish problem cuts across borders, which is exactly what states in the region have always feared. Ankara, for one, has long worried that what happens to Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria or Iran would strengthen Turkish Kurdish separatists or legitimize international calls for Turkey to grant Kurds national rights. Turkey is right to be concerned.
After Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the creation of a Kurdish federation in northern Iraq reinvigorated nationalist demands by Turkish Kurds, who demanded no less for themselves….If Syrian Kurds win autonomy, Turkey’s reasons for denying its Kurdish minority the same will sound specious. After all, it’s hard to keep claiming that Kurds don’t know what they want—or don’t really want what they say—if almost one-half of the region’s Kurds govern themselves.
More than anything else, the new Kurdish politics in Syria puts the spotlight on the PKK, the armed guerrilla group fighting for self-rule inside Turkey. The group has been fighting for almost thirty years for self-rule in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and now dominates Kurdish national politics inside Turkey.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to end the conflict through democratic reform but over the past two years has reverted to repression of legal Kurdish politics and activities. The PKK, meanwhile, has upped its actions, recently pinning down Turkish troops for three weeks in the Semdinli area near the Iraqi border, and briefly kidnapping a parliamentarian traveling through the region.
Turkey argues that the Syrian Kurdish PYD party must be cut out of any deal because it is part of the PKK, listed as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe. The Syrian Kurdish party denies an official link, saying only that their members admire and follow the ideology of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. “The PKK has supporters in the four parts of Kurdistan and no-one can prevent it,” PYD leader Muslim noted.
The existence of a Syrian Kurdish party close to—or a part of—the PKK is hardly surprising. Ocalan built up the PKK from Damascus, where he based himself soon after fleeing Turkey in 1979. The Syrian authorities allowed him to recruit among Syrian Kurds for the fight against Turkey, which Ocalan said would be the first step to liberating all of Kurdistan….
After Ocalan was forced to flee from Syria in 1998, amid Turkish threats to attack Syria, the PKK’s structure in the country collapsed, but its supporters remained. The PYD grew out of the remnants of the PKK’s former organization structure inside Syria. Turkey fears that if the PYD gains a formal hold over Syrian Kurdistan, this will be a political and military boost for the PKK….
The PKK isn’t used to giving political supporters inside Turkey the freedom to act as they see fit. Now, it needs to refrain from demanding the PYD follow rebel dictates. If the Syrian Kurds are free to practice democratic politics, this means that Kurdish groups inside Turkey will have more leverage to press the PKK to give them the same leeway. This can only have a positive effect on how Kurdish politics is practiced in Turkey and even in Iraq.
Likewise, it’s time for the United States and Turkey to reevaluate their approaches to Kurdish politics, whether in Syria or in Turkey. Too often U.S. policy in the region seems as much a hostage to fears of Kurdish autonomy as it is to fears of Turkish military intervention to stop Kurds from gaining autonomy. Washington needs to jettison this approach.
Similarly, before Saddam Hussein was driven from power, Ankara frequently threatened military action to block Iraqi Kurdish autonomous self-government. Now, the Iraqi Kurds have a nearly autonomous state—and Turkey has a consulate in Erbil. Turkey is warning that creation of a Kurdish enclave in Syria with any connection to the PKK would be cause to send troops across the border. Such a move would be a disaster for Turkey, which can’t beat the PKK on its own territory, let alone in a foreign land.
It’s time for Washington and Ankara to put together a Kurdish policy that makes sense for the Kurds instead of one that is based on regional fears, threats and repression. (Top)
Steve K. Walz
According to Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s Military Intelligence head, the Jewish state will face a more unstable and Islamist environment than in previous times. This is being fueled by the unchecked rise of radical Islam, and could force Israel into unwanted conflicts.
Kochavi outlined his ominous assessment of Israel’s tactical position in the Middle East during his presentation of Military Intelligence’s annual evaluation….“It will be an environment that deals with a series of crises, regional and internal, which raises the level of sensitivity of all the players, and which could lead, without prior warning, to an eruption,” said Kochavi.
The general said that Iran is deliberately using its position as host of the Nonaligned Movement gathering in Tehran to justify its nuclear program and stall any diplomatic attempt by the UN to stop them from producing an atomic bomb, which would almost certainly destabilize the entire Middle East and an action that could provoke a military strike by Israel or the United States.
Against the backdrop of Kochavi’s report, Israel and the U.S. are conducting a series of behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to forge new alliances in the region, with the goal of staving off an attack on Israeli and American interests in the Middle East.
Sources report that the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq is working with high-ranking Israeli government officials to help create an internationally recognized Kurdish national entity, one that would also encompass swaths of Turkey and Syria.
Turkey’s government currently treats the Kurds as enemy aliens within their midst. The Syrian Kurds have officially broken ties with teetering Syrian President Bashar Assad. And a British newspaper reported that the northern Iraqi Kurds have allowed Israeli commandoes to use their territory to train for a possible attack on Iran, which is located opposite the Iraqi border.
There have also been reports that French, German, American and Israeli intelligence officials have been using European towns for secret meetings between pro-Western Lebanese Druze, Sunni and Christian politicians in order to put pressure on the pro-Assad Shiite Hizbullah militia.
Fierce gun battles between pro- and anti-Assad militias have broken out in Tripoli and Beirut over the past few weeks. Military and political officials in the U.S., Israel and France fear that if Assad falls, Iran will instruct Hizbullah to reignite a sectarian civil war in Lebanon that could spill over the border into Israel.
The region’s instability and the potential for either a Hizbullah or Iranian Revolutionary Guard terror attack on Israel and its interests have also had a deleterious effect on Israeli participation in UN-sponsored events taking place in Persian Gulf nations.
According to several Israeli media reports the Shin Bet has, for the moment, scrapped Minister of Environment Protection Gilad Erdan’s participation in the UN’s annual climatology conference in Qatar, scheduled for November.
This follows Qatar’s rejection of allowing Israeli security personnel to enter the Persian Gulf oil sheikhdom. In the past, Qatar, which has informal relations with Israel, has allowed Israeli politicians and athletes to partake in various events in their country. (Top)
Turkey is as complex as a Byzantine mosaic or a potent Turkish coffee. Straddling Europe, Asia and the Middle East, it's a Muslim country with ancient Christian roots - but founded as a modern nation in 1923 by a militant secularist, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For decades an economic backwater, it's now the fastest-growing economy in Europe.
That economic success was achieved by an Islamist-leaning government that has managed successfully to meld the conservative religious devotion of the masses with the economic interests of the secular elite.
But what if Turkey, propelled by its majority of populist conservative Muslims, were to adopt a more extreme version of Islam? Syria, its neighbor to the south, is disintegrating - abetted according to some reports by rebels connected to Al Qaeda. Some of those rebels may be drifting across the border into Turkey. And there are rumors that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has intestinal cancer; with no clear successor to his decade-old leadership, his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party could splinter and give rise to a more extremist Islamic rule.
Yet experts say Turkey is so much improved economically from a decade ago that there is little chance its people would risk that prosperity -- and relations with the West -- to adopt an extremist Islamic state. That is not to say, however, that Turkey isn't dealing with a precarious religious situation. "The society is going more conservative," said Ebru Erdem, political science professor at the University of California at Riverside. "It's been going on since the 1990s, and that is still in progress."
Erdem said Turks who don't fast during the holy month of Ramadan, for instance, or who drink alcohol, face ostracism. And last spring the AKP ignited a debate about the morality of abortion and C-sections, two issues Erdem said had never before caused so much as a flicker on the Turkish radar screen.
"They are not like the Islamist parties of before," Erdem said. "They come from the same traditions, but they said they have taken off that shirt and they present themselves as a 'liberal' political party." Erdem and other Turkey experts liken the religious dynamic in Turkey to none other than the U.S., comparing the AKP to the most conservative Christians of the Republican Party.
"They are modeling on the Americans," Erdem said. For instance, she said, the government has gradually begun regulating alcohol sales. "They say it's not good for you, and they give the example of the U.S. Bible Belt, where you can't buy alcohol on Sundays."
Brian Mello, a Turkey expert who teaches political science at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, said "political Islam is really popular, especially in Istanbul. You'll see a lot of women wearing a headscarf, and if you look at the popular support for the ruling party, they've done nothing but increase their support."
He said "the real fear" is that Turkey is home to "various Islamic movements that have sought to reclaim the capacity to engage in religion in the public square ... That could be a slippery slope to an Iranian-style Islamic regime." The emphasis is on the word "could," however.
According to Mello, "if you look at the U.S. now, and look at all the anti-abortion laws passed in state legislatures, and if you're a secularist, then you might become afraid about the role of religion in American politics. If those fears are legitimate in the U.S., they're legitimate in Turkey, too."
But Mello added: "The way religion affects the Republican Party in the United States is stronger than the way it affects (the ruling AKP) in Turkey." Which is to say - interesting, worrying if you happen to be a secularist - but likely unimportant when it comes to the economy.
Andrew Birch, senior economist for Europe for IHS, agrees. "When you look at the Justice and Development Party, there are a lot of concerns from the West, including the party's lack of democracy. But from an economic point of view, they've been good stewards of the economy."…
A more immediate concern is that Turkey's economy has begun to slow, Birch said. Last year the economy grew at an 8.5 percent pace, but in the first half of 2012, its growth was below 3 percent.
"If there are economic hardships, that's going to give a boost to Islam because the fundamentalist movement is being drawn from poorer, disenfranchised areas," Birch said. "But I'm not worried about them cycling back. As long as Istanbul stays important - that's where the secular business people reside and hold a strong grasp - I wouldn't be worried that much about an influx of conservative ideology going into the business sector."
Erdem says the ruling party would probably like to enforce a more conservative Islamic society - but can't afford to. "The current success is dependent on incoming foreign flows," she said. "Especially with the financial crisis in Europe, a lot of hot money has come to Turkey because Turkey is stable. "Even if they wanted to [enforce a change] for an ideological reason, they couldn't risk it," Erdem said. "They owe their electoral success to economic security." (Top)