As change sweeps the Middle East, euphoria has slowly given way to anxiety that the tumult will benefit extremist religious groups with anti-Western or anti-modernization agendas.
Optimists rightly point to several dynamics that may curb the influence of such groups, such as the secular nature of many of the forces that have dislodged old regimes and the relative lack of public support that extremists have thus far garnered.
Yet few have focused on another development that could help promote moderation in the region: the tentative, but growing, role of the region’s Kurdish population.
Policy makers in the U.S. and Europe need to set aside their traditional way of viewing the world exclusively as a collection of nation-states; recognize the possibilities and risks behind Kurdish empowerment; and craft a strategy to encourage this pro-Western population to gain more influence in the region without provoking a backlash.
The history of the Kurds in the Middle East is a seemingly endless tale of oppression, thwarted ambitions and tragedy. Totaling more than 30 million, the Kurds of the Middle East -- who are overwhelmingly Muslim and ethnically distinct from Arabs, Persians and Turks -- have long fought for autonomy from hostile governments or even outright independence.
The hardships of the Kurds of Iraq are perhaps the most infamous, involving genocidal chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Next door in Syria, about 2 million Kurds have struggled to preserve their ethnic identity against laws banning their language, and other government acts to force assimilation. (Many had long been denied Syrian citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless, until early April when President Bashar al-Assad granted nationality to 300,000 in an effort to shore up his teetering government.)
Across the Region
Turkey’s approximately 15 million Kurds, a small minority of which have waged a terrorist campaign against the government, claim a history of rebellion, open war and forced relocation by the Turkish military. Iran’s more than 5 million Kurds enjoy more linguistic rights than in other countries, but also have clashed violently with the state.
For all their historic suffering, a series of developments may now be changing the fortune of the Kurds in fundamental ways. The Kurds in Iraq, who gained effective autonomy after the 1991 gulf war, have reaped tremendous benefits from Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 and the subsequent efforts to build a new political system. Kurdish parties now wield significant power in Baghdad, having been a key coalition partner of every government. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, has been president of Iraq since 2005.
The Kurds maintain a high degree of political and cultural autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north of Iraq. Although they must address issues of governance and participatory politics to maintain their momentum, their economy is booming, and any visitor to the Kurdish region of Iraq will be impressed by the public investment, infrastructure projects and new businesses visible at every turn.
Other Kurdish gains across the region are more tentative, but have the potential to be equally significant. In Turkey, Kurds may be on the cusp of the most promising moment in decades to address their grievances. This week’s election brought a solid victory for the ruling pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Even so, the AKP will need to find parliamentary partners in order to reach a two-thirds majority necessary to enact the sort of constitutional reforms it seeks.
Turkey’s main Kurdish party, the BDP, and Kurdish independents are most likely to serve this role, giving the country’s Kurds the opportunity and the leverage to resolve many of the outstanding issues related to their place in society. They have already made clear their desire for the end of military operations in the Kurdish areas of the southeast and for more political autonomy.
Depending on what happens in Syria, new opportunities may also arise for the Kurds there. Should the Assad regime fall, a political arrangement based on power-sharing among Syria’s ethnic and religious communities -- much like that in post-Saddam Iraq -- would give the Kurds a real place at the table.
Potential for Conflict
Admittedly, rising Kurdish influence also brings the possibility of further complications and even conflict. Kurds of the Middle East may decide to take advantage of the changes in the region to push for a separate state, the Kurdistan that has long been the focal point of so much Kurdish song and poetry. A push in this direction wouldn’t be surprising, given the hardships endured by the Kurds and their desire to be free of the vagaries of Baghdad, Damascus and Ankara.
Alternatively, political sophistication may come with this new power, as has been the case among Iraq’s Kurds. Many of them appreciate the gains that can be realized in the context of a democratic Iraq and have weighed them favorably against the potential costs of provoking regional powers that will oppose a separate Kurdish state.
A Globalization Strategy
Rather than feeding new clamoring for a Kurdish state, an increase in influence may lead the region’s Kurds to adopt a “globalization” strategy. This approach would acknowledge the waning importance of state borders around the globe and focus on building strong cultural and economic links -- and maybe ultimately institutions -- that span political boundaries. Working toward a “virtual” Kurdistan, the Kurds of a transformed Middle East might realize many of their aspirations without incurring the ire of the region’s larger powers.
The U.S. and its allies should favor this outcome, not simply because it would be good for the Kurds, but because it would be good for their own interests. Kurds, perhaps because of their dark history at the hands of extremists, tend to be moderates. While many are devout Muslims, they are more likely to favor secular government.
They are among the most pro-American populations in the Middle East, having either watched or benefited from the American-led no-fly zone over northern Iraq for more than a decade. And, if the Kurds of Iraq are any indication, they are also entrepreneurial and welcoming of U.S. and Western investment.
Allies for U.S.
A region where the Kurds play a role in the national politics of Iraq, Syria and Turkey and possibly carry significant economic weight as a collective group will almost certainly be more moderate and conducive to American interests than the Middle East that many see on the horizon. And if the gains of Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Syria were to encourage Iran’s Kurds to agitate against the regime in Tehran, all the better.
All this argues for Barack Obama’s administration to incorporate a Kurdish angle into its new Middle East strategy. First, the U.S. should continue to encourage the resolution of outstanding issues between Baghdad and the Kurds of Iraq. In particular, a formalized law on sharing oil revenue will help cement the Kurds in the framework of Iraq by ensuring them of a portion of the country’s vast resources.
The Next Syria
Second, the U.S. can be an advocate for a post-Assad political arrangement in Syria that gives some political power to each of the country’s many communities; this will be good for all Syrians, not only the Kurdish ones. While Assad might prove capable of staying in power for weeks or even months, he is likely to be added to the list of leaders unseated by the Arab Spring.
When this day comes, Syria and the region will greatly benefit from any efforts made today to map out a transitional political order. Unlike in Yemen, where the U.S. had a long relationship with a president, America isn’t the likely broker in Syria. But its close ally, Turkey, is -- and should be encouraged to work in this direction.
Third, the U.S. should quietly encourage the new government in Turkey to treat its Kurdish minority generously, making such treatment a focal point in the rich and complex bilateral relationship. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past recognized the need to address the Kurdish “problem.” The U.S. should support rejuvenated efforts to find an acceptable solution on an amnesty for Kurdish militants, to establish the right of Kurds to be educated in their own language, and to provide greater autonomy for the Kurdish region of Turkey.
New Regional Dyamics
Finally, the U.S. can use its good relationships with the Kurds in Iraq to counsel pragmatism as they assess the new regional dynamics. Because of their advanced development, the Kurds of Iraq will play a leadership role for the community at large. The U.S. should continue to dissuade them from over-reaching and claiming a Kurdish state.
Difficulties in forging a new strategy for the fast-changing Middle East are compounded by the tendency of analysts to look at the world exclusively in terms of nation-states, rather than considering subnational and transnational forces. But if policy makers take a less traditional view, they might see an opportunity to empower one of the region’s more moderate, pro-American populations in a way that helps the Kurds, Western interests and freedom and prosperity in the Middle East.
(Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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To contact the writer of this column: Meghan_OSullivan@hks.harvard.edu
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