Aug 23, 2013

Challenges mar grand Kurdish conference

For the first time in modern history, in a significant opportunity to boost their unity, Kurds are planning to draft a strategy with a grand conference, but political rivalry and divisions among the parties as well as concerns of regional powers have largely dashed hopes that it will yield intended results.
The pan-Kurdish conference was initially scheduled to take place in Arbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan, and slated for Aug. 20, but it was postponed to September due to what the organizers called “some technical problems.”
The conference will be the first of its kind in the history of Kurds. The first failed attempt to hold a grand Kurdish conference goes back to 1978, when the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wanted to convene all representatives of Kurds in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The efforts to hold this current national conference of all Kurds, mainly organized by three leading Kurdish forces -- the PKK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- have been under way for months. In a meeting on July 22 in Arbil, led by President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani, representatives of the Kurdish parties from the four countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, officially agreed on the initiation of the Kurdish national conference. During the meeting, the participants agreed to establish a committee to handle the preparation of the conference. The committee consisted of 21 members: six from Turkey's Kurds, five each from Iraq and Iran, four from Syria and one representative of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. Around 600 politicians, NGO activists and guests are expected to attend the three-day conference.
The conference is expected to be led by Barzani because he is the most prominent and powerful leader among the attendees. Some accuse Barzani of deliberately rejecting the conference many times before but accepting it now so that he could lead the Kurdish gathering alone astwo other powerful Kurdish leaders are absent: PKK leader AbdullahÖcalan in jail and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in bed in a hospital in Germany.
The main aim of the conference is to unite Kurds at a time when they are more divided than ever over controlling Syrian territories predominantly populated by Kurds and the controversial ties of some forces with regional powerhouses: the PKK with Iran and the KDP with Turkey.
Although Kurds have pinned much hope for this conference, expected to gather representatives of all Kurds in the region, there is only little hope that the conference will yield substantial success in terms of achieving its stated goals. It is true that Kurdish political parties for the first time in modern history could agree to hold this conference, but it is also a fact that these forces also stand more divided than ever before.
Only days before the conference, a fresh wrangle started between the PKK and the KDP over Syria's Kurdish areas that are currently controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK. Newly elected co-chair of the PKK, Cemil Bayık, accused Barzani's KDP of conspiring against Syrian Kurds by closing the border with Syria and working with the anti-Kurdish forces, namely Turkey, in Syria against the PYD. In return, the KDP accused the PYD of building a dictatorship in Syria by unilaterally controlling Kurdish areas and not cooperating with other Kurdish parties that are mostly affiliated with the KDP and hence destroying all efforts to unite Kurds.
This division between the KDP and the PKK, the two major Kurdish parties, is only part of a bigger picture. The Kurdish parties in Iraq are seriously at odds because of mistrust between each other. The Iraqi Kurdish opposition bloc (the Gorran movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Islamic group), for instance, boycotted a gathering that would draft the agenda of the conference at the beginning, only to be convinced to participate later.
In Iran and Syria, internal political debates are eating away at the strong representation of Kurds in these countries at the planned conference. In Iran, the Kurds are in dispute over the representation in the organizing committee. The traditional Kurdish forces excluded their main rival, the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the Iranian offshoot of the PKK. In Syria, an agreement between the Kurdish political parties to cooperate hasn't begun to have an impact until now. Many Kurdish public figures, including the leaders of the Kurdish political parties in Syria, warned against impending civil war between Kurds in Syria if the PYD doesn't stop its unilateral steps.
While the Kurdish parties are deeply divided, the regional powers are also in contact with the Iraqi Kurdish officials to make sure the conference doesn't threaten the unity of their countries. Turkey, which has the highest Kurdish population, seemed to be relaxed because only days after the announcement of the conference, the KRG prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, rushed to Ankara to comfort Turkish officials. Only after visiting Ankara, Barzani flew to Tehran to allay Iranian concerns about the conference. His trip to Tehran, however, was portrayed as if he traveled there to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. As the two countries and other international players are expected to attend the conference, many activists and political parties refuse foreign participation in the conference because it will further reduce the chance of any serious agreement between the political parties. Iranian Kurdish political parties in particular harshly reject participation of Iranian officials and say itwould jeopardize all efforts to make the conference successful.
Aside from all these political factors, the Kurdish question in each of the four countries that have Kurdish minorities has evolved differently in the last century; this is why a common Kurdish strategy doesn't seem to work.
The negative atmosphere surrounding the pan-Kurdish conference pushed many to consider it as only a symbolic gathering. The conference, however, is significant because it's the first time in modern history that representatives of all Kurds around the world have agreed to gather in one hall.
Even if it fails to set up a national Kurdish strategy, the conference remains an important step forward.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Aug 13, 2013

Iraqi Kurdistan: from boom to doom?

Only a decade ago, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was a dirty, dusty and isolated town. During the summer months, people would refer to it as the “gateway to hell.” But ten years later, Erbil’s image has seen a startling change, and many of Iraq’s 28 millions would now consider the city a heavenly location to spend their summer vacation.
With a series of massive construction projects underway, a booming economy driven by the region’s enormous oil and gas reserves, and a strong business partner in former enemy Turkey, the city looks set to shine in the coming years. Politically, with the Middle East becoming increasingly polarised in the wake of the on-going sectarian civil war in Syria, the KRG has managed to maintain good ties with Iran, Turkey, Israel and the West all at the same time. Given all this, one could reasonably conclude that Kurdistan is booming. But is Iraqi Kurdistan facing an upcoming fall?
Everything that has so far been achieved is as fragile as the region’s uncertain political future. The relationship between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government changes on a daily basis due to the deep levels of mistrust between the two parties, and the interference of both regional and international powers.
Although the Kurds have complained that the dictatorial tendencies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threaten the unity of Iraq, they recently welcomed him on a visit to the region with a lavish ceremony at Erbil International Airport. Nevertheless, it seems certain that relations between the KRG and Baghdad will remain unsettled for the foreseeable future. Indeed, due to the accumulation of a number of serious and unsolved issues, a likely outcome to the relationship is divorce. But any development of this kind will need a green light from regional and international players, in particular from Turkey, as the KRG has become increasingly dependent economically on its northern neighbour.
While the central government in Baghdad is building stronger ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the KRG has drawn closer to Ankara. Since 2007, cooperation over economic and energy issues has helped to redefine a once combustible relationship. Turkey has become Kurdistan’s top economic partner and, what is more, has signed a strategic energy pact that could remap the region both politically and economically.
The new oil pipelines that connect Kurdistan with Turkey were built without Baghdad’s prior approval, and this has helped to exacerbate the already unsteady relationship between the KRG and Turkey on the one hand, and the Iraqi government on the other. The liberal-oriented Turkish daily Taraf recently reported that Ankara had quietly signed an oil partnership deal with the KRG, despite the objections of the Baghdad government. According to the newspaper, the deal is proof that Turkey is elevating its cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan to the level of an international partnership, meaning that the KRG will eventually be able to gain its economic independence from Baghdad.
According to Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Turkey represents the KRG’s “gate to the world.” This may well be true, but it is worth considering for a moment the nature of the rapidly developing relationship between the two. Turkey has become the KRG’s biggest economic partner, accounting for 70% of all foreign investment in the region, and has recently constructed a series of oil pipelines, despite the objections of the Iraqi federal government. The result is that, while the KRG has been able to reduce its dependence on Baghdad, it has simultaneously become overly reliant on Turkey.
In addition, while it has been busy improving its ties with the Turkish government, the KRG seems to have forgotten Iran’s importance to regional politics and security. The Islamic Republic is the most influential foreign power in Iraq, and its ties to the country’s Shi’a population go well beyond friendship. While the world continues to take note of Turkey’s economic and political dominance in the Middle East, Iran has been silently building a semi-imperial Shi’a region that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, where the sectarian civil war divides regional powers into two opposing blocs, Kurds are unquestioningly – and unwisely – backing the mainly Sunni opposition.
It is important to think about all of this rationally. The KRG can never hope to be fully independent, due to its landlocked geography, and should always keep good ties with at least one or more of the neighbouring countries. Moreover, some of the powers that will play a crucial role in the future of the Middle East are Turkey, Iran, and the United States, and none of these players can hope to dominate the region on their own, so the KRG should keep ties with at least two of them. More crucially, the Middle East is witnessing a very decisive period in its history. New states are expected to emerge in the wake of recent developments in the wider region, and for the Kurds the time has come to translate their decades-long struggle for statehood into a reality.
But the Kurds will not be able to make this happen by being overly dependent on just one country while abandoning the others, just because there is deep mistrust between these countries’ governments and their Kurdish minorities. In Turkey, while a peace process to solve the Kurdish question has been initiated by the government, a lasting solution is still far off on the horizon. If the peace process fails, the new ties between Ankara and Erbil will become severely strained.
The KRG’s problem is that it is too ambitious given its size, history and capabilities. It is a small region that wants to play big games. If Iraqi Kurdistan is to continue its current boom period, the KRG should first balance its relations with both Turkey and Iran, and avoid becoming overly reliant on either. It should also stay away from backing either regime or opposition in Syria, and should encourage Syria’s Kurdish parties to remain neutral. In other words, the KRG should avoid taking sides in Syria as otherwise it will automatically commit itself to one of the two regional blocs, led by Iran and Turkey respectively. Most importantly, consolidating democracy internally remains the most important factor to ensure the KRG remains strong, and continues to attract western support. Otherwise, for the Kurds, the boom may very well turn to doom.

This article first appeared on Your Middle East - here: