It essentially was an accident. Saddam Hussein had been whipped in the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush called on Iraq’s Kurds and Shia to rise up. They did – but Bush was all talk; there was no U.S. military help and they were slaughtered.
So as Kurdish refugees clung to the freezing mountains in northern Iraq and pushed to the border of a panic-stricken Turkey a guilt-ridden U.S. — along with Britain and France and Turkey’s acquiesence — established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. That gave the Iraqi Kurds breathing space and some protection and – most importantly – the chance to build their own government.
And their own home.
Fast-forward through a Kurdish civil war, another war with Saddam and the Kurdish region grew stronger and stronger. There was oil to sell and there was huge, growing economic trade with their old foe Turkey. There was cooperation with the U.S. and Turkey in going after the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers Party — once unthinkable among many Kurds.
While it is far from being a done deal, and always very tenuous, a Kurdish homeland finally seems to exist in the Middle East after decades of betrayal and broken promises, poison gas and genocides.
A homeland in one of the four nations where Kurds have lived for centuries, that is. Now, with another war tearing apart another country, history is teasing us with the hint of a sequel. If it happens, it could change the dynamics of the Middle East as equally strong as the Arab awakenings have.
“The #Kurds of #Syria r where #Iraq’s Kurds were 20 yrs ago. A war has created an opening that will bring deserved freedom and opportunity,” said one Tweet excitedly.
As Syria’s civil war becomes more brutal, Syrian Kurds – the often forgotten cousin – have found their strength and common purpose. They have emerged as one of the strongest foes to Syrian President Assad, all while keeping a wary arms-length from other groups under rebellion in that nation.
Syrian Kurds have seized the far eastern end of the nation and have limited access to outsiders. “Free Kurdistan” banners and graffiti are appearing. Of concern to the U.S. and Turkey is that some of the rebels have been preparing and training with the support of Turkish members of the PKK and Iraqi Kurdish fighters.
Among the border guards on the Iraqi side are Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters who secure northern Iraq. The official policy of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is to oppose all arms smuggling to Syria. Kurdish authorities also want to prevent the infiltration of Sunni Arab fighters associated with the Free Syrian Army.
Syrian Kurds’ treatment by Assad mirrors that which was foisted upon Kurds in Iraq: second-class status, denied employment opptunities, not permitted to speak their language. Thus, no Kurds are in the “Free Syrian Army” – and Kurds now seek to keep all non-Kurdish Syrians out of their terriorty in northeast Syria.
Ankara used to routinely chase and bomb Kurdish PKK guerrillas crossing from Anatolia to Iraqi Kurdistan. Now it may be positioning itself to do the same in Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quite clear: “We will not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey.”
It’s all anchored by Ankara’s long nightmare; the prospect of a semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdistan very closely linked to Iraqi Kurdistan – the beginnings of a Greater Kurdistan that will inflame the Kurds in Turkey. Such reality may be far off if at all, but the concerns among the Turks are genuine.
Turkish security services insist that they are closely patrolling the 550-mile border. But medical supplies, matériel and fighters slide across the frontier every night, making this the most important base for the growing Syrian rebellion.
“The Turkish police are watching the border, but with their eyes closed,” Ahmed al-Debisi, a Syrian pharmacist and opposition member based in Antakya, who is trying to clandestinely make gas masks out of Coke cans and cotton balls, in case the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, unleashes chemical weapons, told The New York Times.
Chemical attacks woud be a page out of the Iraqi Kurds history that the Syrian Kuirds would like to avoid.
For the Kurds to take over the towns they live in is actually a preemptive move before whatever new regime assumes power in Damascus. This Kurdish uprising is the beginning of a state that opposes a future Sunni Arab Syria. Their minimal goal is autonomy.
Those at the Kandil Mountains — while waiting to see the final tally of advantages they will derive from Kurdish autonomy and how these advantages might be translated into tools for strategic bargaining — will continue to say, “The ball is in Ankara’s court.”
Living predominantly in the northeastern wedge of the country, Syria’s approximately 2.5 million Kurds are often called “the forgotten Kurds” – a community overshadowed by their numerically superior brethren in Iraq and Turkey. Even in the annals of Kurdish history – a long narrative of nationalist aspirations, crushed hopes, uprisings and internecine squabbles – Syria’s Kurds are an overlooked lot. That soon may change.
(Photo credit: AFP / GETTYIMAGES)