Quest for an Independent (Israel-friendly?) Kurdistan - Part I

Monday, August 20, 2012 |  Elizabeth Blade

“The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent state,” said Dr. Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, an organization calling for the establishment of a federal region in the northern part of the country where Kurds would be given the right to self-determination.

The Kurdish population totals an estimated 30 to 50 million people in the Middle East alone. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Kurds were dispersed between Turkey (15-25 million), Syria (3-4 million Kurdish-speaking and 4-5 Arabic-speaking Kurds), Iran (7.9-12 million) and Iraq (more than 6 million).

While the majority of Kurds belong to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam, like the majority of Turks and Arabs of the region, they have been constantly repressed. In Syria, for example, Kurds were banned from giving Kurdish names to children, celebrating traditional holidays or running their own schools. Their land and property was confiscated by the authorities, while thousands have been stripped of their citizenship since 1960s, with many others being detained, arrested (and even killed) without reason.

The situation improved slightly following the upheavals in the Arab world that have toppled regimes that have been in power for decades. In a bid to retain power, President Bashar Al Assad introduced several initiatives aimed at appeasing the Kurds. The issue of citizenship, for example, was resolved, whereas government representatives held several clandestine meetings with the Kurdish leadership asking them not to side with the opposition in exchanged for additional benefits. Even though the Kurdish areas remained relatively quiet during the revolts, the Kurdish people did use the unrest to promote their national interests.

“The Arab Spring will eventually lead to the creation of a decentralized federal republic of Syria, prompting Kurds to establish an autonomous area within the country,” said Abbas, stressing that the creation of Greater Kurdistan – a state that would stretch into the territories of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey – was not on the horizon even though it was desirable. “We don’t want to change current boundaries,” he continued, but warned that the Kurdish people might have to look for alternatives if the international community continues to ignore their plight.

However, Prof. Ofra Bengio, Head of the Kurdish studies program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies, believes that only the Kurds of Iraq are likely to achieve independence, adding that the process will take time. “The Kurdish area of Iraq has clear-cut borders, with Arabs required to obtain a special permit to cross the line," she told Israel Today. Nevertheless, Bengio pointed out that Kurds in the three corners of the so-called Kurdish triangle (consisting of Syria, Turkey and Iraq) have bolstered ties with each other, increasing their trans-border activity.

Apart from borders, a flag, and an anthem, northern Iraq also boasts several independent institutions, including a presidency, a parliament and an independent army. It enjoys a booming economy, relative security, and its own representatives abroad working to bolster foreign ties independently of the Iraqi mission.

This is part one of a three-part story. Check back tomorrow for part two of this important report.

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