How the Kurds are shaking up the Middle East

Ocalan’s statement was celebrated by Turkish Kurds.
Ocalan’s statement was celebrated by Turkish Kurds.
Image: AP Photo
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In Turkey, imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has roiled the Middle East playing field by ordering his fighters to disarm, and shift their attention to politics. Coupled with the oil-led autonomy movement in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ocalan’s blockbuster announcement threatens the integrity of three nations that lack Turkey’s political nimbleness—Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The Kurds are some 30 million people spread in towns and villages across these four Middle East countries. Repeatedly through history, one group or the other has risen up with the aim of defending their distinctive culture. The most active has been the PKK, Ocalan’s group in Turkey.

Ocalan (pronounced oh’-jah-lahn) made his announcement March 21 from the island prison in the Sea of Marmara where he has been held since 1999. As of now, the order appears to be embraced (paywall) by on-the-ground PKK leaders. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who along with Ocalan has brokered the breakthrough, must also make sure he carries the support of Turkish nationalists.

But the geopolitical potency of the move is its convergence with politics in neighboring Iraq. There, oil deals signed by foreign companies led by ExxonMobil have carved out significantly more autonomy for Iraqi Kurds.

Baghdad already fears that Turkey’s friendship with Iraq’s Kurds is leading to a splitup of the country. Turkey and Iraqi Kurds are planning pipelines that would directly ship oil and gas from the region to the market, independent from Baghdad’s control. “If oil from Kurdistan goes through Turkey directly, that will be like dividing Iraq,” Iraq’s Deputy National Security Adviser, Safa al-Sheikh Hussein, told Reuters. The Kurds, he said, “are a little over-confident and overly ambitious.”

In December, Baghdad threatened military action against any drilling in disputed territory, a prospect that analysts have dismissed as bluster. ExxonMobil itself seems unimpressed—it has drilled three water wells in one disputed block, a first step toward possible oil drilling later this year. But, even though there probably would be no military assault, Hussain said that, if such drilling takes place, “there will be a legal response … to end all (of Exxon’s) work in the rest of Iraq.” Baghdad will find a legal, sovereign argument around which to halt the work, an approach that seems solidly grounded. Governments do have the long-recognized right to exercise control over their own territory.

Iran is also worried about the Kurdish events. It has its own Kurdish population, and dissatisfied strands of the PKK could decide to help their Iranian kin. In Syria, too, Kurdish rebels for whom Ocalan is a hero have taken control of numerous towns, including around the city of Aleppo.

The best but also least likely outcome is that Turkey’s neighbors adopt Erdogan’s approach of accepting a robust Kurdish political and economic autonomy. The next domino to fall is likely to be a more formalized Syrian-Kurdish initiative.