The decision by the Iraqi government in 1970 to grant self-rule to the Kurdish region in Iraq following a 30-year armed rebellion, wetted the apatite of Kurds in Turkey for separation leading to the start of an armed insurrection in 1984 with demands ranging from local self-government to full independence.
The self-rule agreement in Iraq stipulated a number of powers for the devolved Kurdish administration. This included a separate budget, an article in the state constitution stating that the state of Iraq is comprised of two main nationalities (Arabic and Kurdish).
Kurdish became the language of instruction in schools within the self-rule region and was taught as an additional language in other schools, Kurdish language newspapers and radio stations were established, the right to maintain the armed Kurdish peshmerga forces could now appear on the streets of Baghdad in their distinctive attire and the Kurdish political parties were established, although they were totally powerless like all other political organizations in Iraq.
The central government reserved the powers to control external borders and to manage oil production and revenues.
The beginning of the reconciliation process
The offer was a substantial one and the Kurds favorably received it. It remains, almost 50 years later, the most generous offer Kurds anywhere have had from any of the governments in the region.
The project, however, eventually failed due to the complete lack of trust between the two parties. It was a more wide-ranging, more comprehensive offer than the one made to Kurds in Turkey by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), but the latter was delivered with a trustworthiness that Kurds sensed and was heralded as a major reason for optimism, forging a new political landscape in Turkey capable of evolving, which it did ever since.
The 1970 self-rule agreement in Iraq was not received favorably by the Turkish government, which warned Iraq of the dangers of going down the path of giving political rights to its Kurdish population.
At a time when Kurds on the other side of the border could not speak, read or even sing in their own language, the Turkish government was concerned with the spread of the virus of separation.
The referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan is a bigger incentive for Syrian Kurds to start a rebellion than the 1970 agreement was for Turkish Kurds. Kurds in Turkey had to battle a stable state with a strong military at a time, before 1984, when all three main states in the region, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, were enjoying a period of political stability.
In contrast, Syrian Kurds today operate in the absence of an effective state in a region looking for a new political identity, which has the ideal conditions for a separatist project awaiting the initial spark for takeoff.
Separatism is given a further boost by the fact that the region is currently the scene of an international power struggle between some of the most powerful nations in the world, much as in the period following the end of the World War I. Only this time, the power struggle is not conducted with tanks and guns, but through various proxy wars involving minority communities.
The region is simply a theater of conflict between superpowers. This was aptly demonstrated in the statement made by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that his country is willing to provide arms to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) because otherwise, Russia would gain influence with them.
The situation is fluid and the political map of the region is subject to significant change at a moment's notice. To demonstrate this point, it is worth remembering that the city of Mosul was part of the French spoils after the Great War for a couple of weeks before the British wrestled control of the city.
The referendum on independence, which will need to receive the green light from the U.S. before it can take place, will no doubt increase the appetite for separation. Kurdish political parties have always been very quick to involve themselves in superpower power struggles to gain political favors.
Kurdish fighters may be fighting alongside other nations, but they are always fighting for a different political and ideological cause. There is also a general acceptance that Turkey is waging war on the PKK in Iraq and Syria because it regards the establishment of a Kurdish political entity on its boarders as a red line in terms of Turkey's national security.
Such an entity would be viewed, in theory at least, as a potential source of instability and a base that foreign powers could use to encourage other separatist movements in Turkey.
Kurdish support for the Turkish referendum
Kurdish society is currently influenced by two very different political realities. The first was formulated in an environment in which the central state is absent and the second in an environment where the central state is present and effective.
The former supports the idea of independence while the latter promotes the idea of citizenship within the wider state. The latter is seen as a more viable and secure option that provides a better guarantee of security and prosperity than the independence adventure.
An independent Kurdish state would almost certainly fall under the influence of foreign powers, plunging Kurdish society into endless internal struggles and possibly even civil war. Kurdish voices in support of the citizenship option are getting louder, as demonstrated by the increasing Kurdish vote for the new centralized presidential system of government in the recent Turkish referendum.
The ordinary Kurd on the street is less convinced today of the wisdom of forming a new, weak Kurdish state, susceptible to foreign interference and likely to collapse at any moment. Putting the emotional aspect engendered by national sentiment aside, there is no confidence that such a state would deliver on the vital interests of the Kurdish region or secure a better future for younger generations.
After all, the existence of a semi-independent Kurdish-administered region has not slowed the mass migration of young Kurds to Europe, or convinced such migrants to come back to Kurdistan.
The significance and implication of the Kurdish political enclave in Iraq can be viewed in two different ways. It is, in addition to being a realization of a long-held nationalistic dream, a constant reminder of the economic and political weakness and fragility of Kurdish territory.
Twenty-five years after its establishment, there is no real confidence in its ability to survive in the long term, or even the medium or short terms. It remains deeply divided along tribal lines and a time bomb that could be detonated at any time at the choosing of foreign powers.
The message of the referendum in Iraq to Kurds in Syria is also twofold: a long-term communication to Kurdish civic society concerned with the need to come together and cooperate in an age of international and regional blocs and alliances, and a different statement addressed to the various Kurdish armed factions concerned with the armed struggle and the U.S.-Russian rivalry.
Kurds will always be Kurds and Arabs will be Arabs, but there is no Kurdish solution to a Kurdish problem or an Arabic solution to an Arabic problem, but rather common solutions to common problems, like a computer programmer providing common solutions that can be used and understood by different people in their own languages.
The example provided by Turkey after the success of the AK Party in 2002, providing a new beginning for Turkish society and politics and giving all parts of Turkish society the opportunity to participate in public life and reach the highest echelons of the state, is not an exclusively Turkish example.
This model was common throughout the region before the recent troubles and setbacks. It negates all nationalistic separatist projects, as demonstrated by the success of the state model in Iraq and Syria in the early parts of the 20th century and provides a pathway for progress in an age of ever more powerful international alliances.
* Researcher and writer in regional affairs and Arab-Turkish strategic relations. President of Mosul Foundation.
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