Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kurds Could Guide Arab Spring

Meghan L. O'Sullivan writes: The US and its allies should favour their empowerment in the region because it would be good for their own interests
As change sweeps the Middle East, euphoria has slowly given way to anxiety that the tumult will benefit extremist groups with anti-Western or anti-modernisation 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 US and Europe need to set aside their traditional way of viewing the world exclusively as a collection of nation-states; recognise 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. Totalling more than 30 million, the Kurds of the Middle East — who are overwhelmingly Muslim — 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 Hussain 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. 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.
Promising moment
The Kurds in Iraq, who gained effective autonomy after the Gulf War of 1991, have reaped tremendous benefits from Saddam Hussain'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.
In Turkey, Kurds may be on the cusp of the most promising moment in decades to address their grievances. Last 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 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. 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 realised in the context of a democratic Iraq and have weighed them favourably against the potential costs of provoking regional powers that will oppose a separate Kurdish state.
Working towards a ‘virtual' Kurdistan, the Kurds of a transformed Middle East might realise many of their aspirations without incurring the ire of the region's larger powers. The US and its allies should favour 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 favour 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 US and western investment. All this argues for President Barack Obama's administration to incorporate a Kurdish angle into its new Middle East strategy.
Complex relationship
First, the US should continue to encourage the resolution of outstanding issues between Baghdad and the Kurds of Iraq. In particular, a formalised 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.
Second, the US can be an advocate for a post- Al 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.
Third, the US 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 recognised the need to address the Kurdish ‘problem.' The US 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.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 21/06/2011
-Meghan L. O'Sullivan is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government

No comments:

Post a Comment