The Kurdish challenge

Will the Western powers be able to take advantage of a new force in the Middle East power struggles?

The Kurds are an ancient Indo-European people whose origin is unknown, but who have inhabited the area of the Zagros and Taurus mountains of the Middle East since the beginning of history. They are divided into clans and tribes and currently inhabit portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The most famous Kurd in history was Saladin (Salah-al-Din), the scourge of the crusaders. They have never had their own homeland but have always lived in areas ruled by other peoples.

That may be about to change. And if it happens and how it happens will add yet another element of uncertainty and danger to the already chaotic Near and Middle East. The Iraqi Kurds already have their autonomy and their own armed forces, as well as controlling a substantial portion of Iraq's oil production, which would provide an independent Kurdistan with a ready-made economic base. Relations are not good between the Shi'a dominated government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. Syria's Kurds have been taking advantage of the anarchy in that country to take political control of their region in the north--east The Kurds of Turkey have been fighting the government in Ankara for decades, and any number of military offensives by the Turks have failed to defeat the insurgency.

The Kurds are well aware of the opportunities which are now opening to them. Iraq, and now Syria, offer sanctuary to the Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. The autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq is in a position to provide material and military support to their brethren in neighboring areas. The Iranian government is casting anxious eyes on their own substantial Kurdish population, which along with Azeris, Arabs and Baluchis, represent a large portion of the population, constantly in a state of ferment.

An independent Kurdistan would be resisted violently by all of the four countries where they live, but traditionally the Kurds have been a warlike people and, as the Turks have found out, they are very hard to keep down. This may be their truly historic opportunity to establish their independence, and they are most unlikely to let it pass.

What would this mean for the region? A weakening of all the countries involved. The establishment of a new state which would be neither Arabic nor Turkish nor Persian. And most salient of all, an opportunity for Europe, The United States and Israel to redress at least to some extent the balance of power in the region, dealing with a new entity that is not viscerally anti-Western.

Will they rise to the challenge, should the opportunity present itself? Unfortunately recent history does not give rise to much optimism in that regard, and losing such opportunity would be a historic mistake.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and a lecturer at The Israeli National Defense College (MABAL), 2011-2012 session.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 20, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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