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

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 |  Elizabeth Blade

This is part two of a three-part series on Kurdish efforts toward statehood, and that potential state's future relations with Israel. If you have not done so already, we recommend first reading Quest for an Independent (Israel-friendly?) Kurdistan - Part I

Dr. Michael Eppel, an expert specializing in the Kurdish history at the University of Haifa, believes that the creation of semi-autonomous Kurdish regions that merge into one body is a likely eventuality.

“The Kurds are currently facing a lot of problems, bogging down their dream of a unified state,” he explained. “First of all, they are divided. Although they all share the yearning for independence, I am not sure that each of the groups knows what exactly that means and how to cooperate on the matter,” Eppel told the magazine.

Indeed, with 15 political parties in Syria alone, many of which are very small and relatively inactive, it’s difficult to imagine how Kurds could establish a central government. In July, Massoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), made an effort to unite the leading parties of the Syrian Kurds. His move, however, sparked criticism among those who argued that he was more interested in boosting his own popularity rather than overcoming differences.

“Another problem is that there is no territorial continuity between various Kurdish settlements in Syria,” said Eppel, stressing that while the three parts of Greater Kurdistan are connected, the settlements of Kurds inside Syria are not.

Abbas disagrees with Eppel's assessment but concedes that Kurdish ambitions of self-determination are impeded by the hostile attitude of Turkey, which views Kurdish sovereignty as a threat to Turkey's national security. After Kurds took control over several districts in northern Syrian, enlarging their border with Turkey from the previous 800km to 1200km, Ankara became extremely uneasy and began beefing up its military presence on the Turkish border.

“The creation of a Kurdish state is a nightmare for Turkey,” explained Eppel. “First of all, Ankara is concerned that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish authorities – would use the seized territories to launch additional attacks on Turkey. Secondly, the creation of a Kurdish region inside Syria could inspire similar developments inside Turkey, dealing a blow to the country’s nationalism,” added the pundit.

Such considerations have fueled fears that Turkey might use the PKK as an excuse to invade Syria, leaving the Kurds defenseless in face of a strong enemy. “The PKK doesn’t enjoy the support of the US, nor do they operate in mountainous areas that would protect them against the Turkish army,” argued Abbas.

Nevertheless, economic and political considerations seem to have dissuaded Ankara from invading the Kurdish area of Syria. Instead, Turkey may be unwittingly helping the Kurds to fulfill their dream of a Greater Kurdistan, by establishing tight economic ties with the KRG. There are at least 900 Turkish companies currently operating on the territory of northern Iraq, and Turks own an estimated 50% of all major businesses in the area. More than seven percent of Turkish exports have gone to the KRG.

Apart from trade, there is also close Turkish-Kurdish cooperation on energy projects, with the two governments agreeing to build two oil and gas pipelines, expected to be completed by 2014. “It’s a win-win situation. Being landlocked and having no access to ports, Kurds need Ankara – used as an energy hub – to transfer their oil to the international markets. Energy-starved Turkey, on the other hand, needs the Kurds to boost its economy and minimize dependency on Russia,” explained Eppel.

There are also common political interests promoting greater Kurdish-Turkish cooperation. Iraq’s central government is heavily influenced by Iran, Turkey’s main regional rival. United by a common religion – Shia Islam – Iraq and Iran have a common interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria, which undermines the Turkish ambition of establishing its control over the Levant and becoming the leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

That’s why, when it comes to Syria, Ankara prefers to back the Gulf states' plan to topple the current regime and establish a caliphate that has no place for Kurds. To get the support of the Kurdish street, Syria’s National Council – one of the main opposition groups in Syria that’s believed to be heavily influenced by both Ankara and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar-funded Islamist organization, appointed an independent Kurdish activist Abdul Baset Sieda as its leader and even issued a national charter to "redress the injustice … the Kurdish people have faced for decades …"

Yet the SNC policy towards minorities remains unaltered. In May, the group’s former leader, Burhan Ghalioun, rejected the existence of any region called “Kurdistan” within Syria and encouraged Kurds to abandon the illusion of federalism. The SNC also fiercely opposed changing the name of the post-Assad Syria from the current "Syrian Arab Republic" to the "Syrian Republic."

Check back tomorrow for part three of this story.

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