By now it’s obvious that “spring” is the wrong description of the political turmoil and civil war that have followed the Arab revolutions of 2011. But for one nation in the Middle East, it’s beginning to look like freedom and prosperity just might be blooming. “People are beginning to talk about the Kurdish Spring, not the Arab Spring,” says a grinning Fuad Hussein, a senior official in the government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Hussein and a delegation from the Kurdistan Region Government, which controls a strip of northern Iraq slightly larger than Maryland, were in Washington last week to talk about where their country stands a decade after the U.S. invasion. From Irbil, Kurdistan’s capital, the war looks like an extraordinary success.
Kurdistan is a democracy, though an imperfect one; the territory is peaceful and the economy is booming at the rate of 11 percent a year. Foreign investors are pouring though gleaming new airports to invest, especially in Kurdish-controlled oil fields. Exxon, Chevron, Gazprom and Total are among the multinationals to sign deals with the regional government. A new pipeline from Kurdistan to Turkey could allow exports to soar to 1 million barrels a day within a couple of years.
There was one university for the region’s 5.2 million people a decade ago; now there are 30. “Our people,” says Hussein, the chief of staff to President Massoud Barzani, “did quite good.”
The bigger story is that Kurds, a non-Arab nation of some 30 million deprived of a state and divided among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, are on the verge of transcending their long, benighted history as the region’s perpetual victims and pawns. Twenty-five years ago, Kurds were being slaughtered with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein and persecuted by Turkey, where nearly half live. A vicious guerrilla war raged between Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish army.
Now Turkey is emerging as the Kurds’ closest ally and the potential enabler of a string of adjacent, self-governing Kurdish communities stretching from Syria to the Iraq-Iran border. Having built close ties with the Iraqi Kurdish government, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now negotiating a peace deal with the insurgent Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) — a pact that could mean new language and cultural rights, as well as elected local governments, for the Kurdish-populated areas of southeastern Turkey.
Meanwhile, Barzani and the Iraqi Kurds have been trying to foster a Kurdish self-government for northern Syria, where some 2.5 million Kurds live. Syrian government forces withdrew from the area last year, giving the Kurds the chance to set up their own administration. Until recently, the principal Syrian Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was supporting the PKK’s fight against Turkey and leaning toward the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Now, thanks to the nascent peace deal, it may be switching sides: Earlier this month its fighters joined with Syrian rebels to drive government forces out of a Kurdish-populated district of Aleppo.
Middle Eastern geo-politics, which for so long worked against the Kurds, is now working for them. The sectarian fragmentation of Syria and Iraq has created new space for a nation that is mostly Sunni Muslim, but moderate and secular. Suddenly the Kurds are being courted by all sides. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this month sent a delegation to Irbil to propose that the Kurds return the parliament deputies and ministers they withdrew from the national government last year. Barzani’s government declined but agreed to send a delegation to Baghdad for negotiations.
As Hussein portrays it, the talks may be a last chance to avert a breakup of Iraq into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish areas — a split he blames on Maliki’s attempt to concentrate Shiite power. “Either we are going to have a real partnership, or we are going to go back to our own people,” he said, adding that the result could be a referendum on Kurdistan’s future.
It would make sense for the United States to join Turkey in backing this Kurdish renaissance; the Kurds are a moderate and pro-Western force in an increasingly volatile region. Yet the Obama administration has consistently been at odds with the Iraqi Kurdish government. It has lobbied Turkey not to allow the new oil pipeline that would give Kurdistan economic independence from Baghdad, and, in the Kurds’ view, repeatedly backed Maliki’s attempts to impose his authority on the region.
“The administration sees us not as a stabilizing force, but as an irritant, as an alien presence in the region that complicates matters, another Israel,” one of the visiting Kurds told me. That, like so much of the administration’s policy in the Middle East these days, is wrongheaded.
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