The Baghdad newspaper Sabah published a surprising article a few weeks ago. Its editor, Abd Jabbar Shabbout, suggested it was time to settle the “age-old problem” between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds by establishing a “Kurdish state.” Never before had I heard such a once-heretical view so publicly expressed in any Arab quarter. And this was no ordinary quarter: Sabah is the mouthpiece of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Shabbout went on to suggest a negotiated “ending of the Arab-Kurdish partnership in a peaceful way.”
He called his proposal Plan B, Plan A being the “dialogue” between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq that emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But Plan A, he said, was getting nowhere. Differences over power and authority, oil and natural resources, territory and borders were so deep that the dialogue repeatedly failed. In December the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga faced off in an atmosphere so tense, according to Shabbout, that hostilities could have broken out at any moment as a result of the slightest miscalculation.
And it wasn’t only Shabbout, but Maliki himself, who warned that if war did break out it wouldn’t be just a war between Kurdish rebels and Baghdad, as it used to be under Hussein, but an “ethnic war between Arabs and Kurds.”
Could it be that the “Kurdish question” has reached another critical stage in its history, one that is intimately bound up with the region-wide cataclysm that is the “Arab Spring”?
The Kurds’ destiny has always been shaped less by their own struggles than by the vagaries of regional and international politics, and the great Middle Eastern upheavals they periodically produce. With World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France promised the Kurds a state of their own, but then reneged. They fetched up as minorities, more or less severely repressed, in the four countries — Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria — among which their vast domains were divided. They repeatedly rebelled, especially in Iraq. But their rebellions were always crushed, the last one, under Hussein with the genocidal use of gas.
But the Kurds never ceased to dream of independent statehood. Their first breakthrough came after Hussein’s megalomaniacal invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when an internationally protected Kurdish “safe haven” was established in northern Iraq, which enabled them to take their first state-building steps in the shape of a regional assembly and a degree of self-government.
Then, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds consolidated their autonomy with broad new legislative powers, control of their own armed forces and some authority over Iraqi oil resources. But from the outset, they made it clear that they would remain committed to the “new Iraq” only if it treated them as an equal partner.
It wasn’t long before this ethno-sectarian, power-sharing democracy began to malfunction, and to generate those disputes no “dialogue” could resolve. The Kurds began accumulating constitutional, political, territorial, economic and security “facts on the ground,” designed to ensure that a newborn Kurdish state could stand on its own feet and defend itself.
So are the Iraqi Kurds now on the brink of their third, perhaps final, breakthrough toward independence? Could the great losers of post-World War I settlements become the great winners of the Arab Spring? “Not only is Iraqi Kurdistan undergoing an unprecedented building boom,” reports Joost Hilterman in Foreign Affairs, “its people are now articulating a once-unthinkable notion: that the day they will break free from the rest of Iraq is nigh.” And Kurdish President Masoud Barazani often openly alludes to it. “We have had enough,” he says, of the “dictatorship in power in Baghdad.”
It seems, however, that they need one more game-changing event to transform the geopolitical environment in their favor. And they are turning to Turkey to bring it about.
This is, historically speaking, extraordinary. Turkey was always brutal in repressing Kurdish nationalism — in recent times from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK — within its borders. And ever afraid of Kurdish gains in another country as a progenitor of them in Turkey, the government in Ankara has long set great store on Iraq remaining a united country, with its Kurds as an integral part of it.
But since 2008, in a reversal of earlier policy, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pursuing “full economic integration” with Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi central government have been relentlessly deteriorating, with the two now on opposite sides in the great Middle Eastern power struggle that pits Shiite Iran, Maliki’s Iraq, Bashar Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah against the Syrian revolutionaries, most Sunni Arab states and Turkey itself. Under pressure from this struggle, Turkey’s extraordinary courtship with Iraqi Kurds has moved from the merely economic to the political and strategic too.
In fact it has moved so far, the Kurds believe, that Turkey might soon break altogether with Maliki’s essentially Shiite regime and deal separately with those two other main components of a fragmenting Iraqi state , its Sunni Arabs and, more important, its Kurds. In return, an independent Kurdistan could serve as a potential source of much-needed, abundant and reliable oil; as a stable, accommodating ally and buffer between Turkey and a hostile Iraq and Iran; and even — in a policy turnaround as extraordinary as Turkey’s own — as a collaborator in containing or combating the PKK.
It is even said that Erdogan has gone so far as to promise Barazani that Turkey would protect his Kurdish state-in-the-making in the event of an Iraqi military onslaught against it. Presumably that would never come to pass if the Maliki regime really is contemplating a Plan B, and the seismic step of letting the Kurds go of its own free will.
David Hirst was the Guardian’s Middle East correspondent for 40 years. He is the author of The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.