July 29, 2009

The Iron's Hot

As close-up objects appear focused and blur the background, so too have the Kurds faded behind Palestinian and Kashmiri aspirations of statehood. Regional elections in northern Iraq brought Kurdistan slightly back into focus, but the image must extend to its ultimate end: the PKK.

Luckily the story is unraveling right across the border in Turkey.

Whether planned or by accident, imprisoned PKK chief Abdullah Öcalan has spurred the Turkish government into action by promising a “road map for a democratic solution” by August. His organization already renewed its ceasefire with the government, which expired in July, until the end of September to promote the “spirit of peace.” PKK official Murat Karayılan claims the group, “places great importance on the road map and already officially declares that it will stand behind it.”

Taken at face value, an enormous window has opened in the Middle East. Turkish officials likely began drafting proposals the instant they received the information on Öcalan, a wise strategy but one without choice. An anomaly in America, the “terrorists” are playing nice and government officials can’t deride them. The result has been a series of high profile statements for peace.

To his credit President Abdullah Gül has been advocating a peaceful resolution to the conflict for months. This weekend, on the eve of the debate in Parliament, Gül reiterated, “Problems will be automatically solved once the democratic standards are raised. What’s important is to strengthen every citizen’s belonging to the Turkish Republic.”

Glowing terms were reciprocated from Iraq. Safin Dizayee, spokesman for Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), told the Hürriyet, “This era is giving me very much hope. I should be able to visit Turkey just as citizens of European Union member states. Turkish citizens should be able to visit here whenever they want. We are directly extending our hand to Turkey. Turkey is an indispensable part of our future.”

Now everything is sounding too good to be true. Even without Iranian support, which could come at any moment, the random cries from and around Kurdistan are becoming harmonious. But underneath opportunity lies risk. How much change does the region want, and how much can it handle? Is the answer political and social rights, regional autonomy, or secession?

At first the Kurds have little incentive to stop at legal rights. They’ve historically demonstrated their desire for self rule, whether in Iraqi and Turkish politics or mountain warfare. But Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have a low tolerance for regional autonomy and outright secession. Settling for equal rights in their respective states is the most practical solution, though it may not satisfy Kurdish desire.

Regional autonomy would shake the grounds of the Middle East; examined closer and this may not be the case. If political and cultural equality could be granted, self-governing is a natural progression. Economic factors would stay in the respective states and allow Kurds to contribute the overall society while keeping their culture intact. Now the advantage turns to the Kurds. Turkey, Iraq, and Iran would be wise to choose regional autonomy over secession.

The dream is not dead, and may never be completely. The call for a Kurdistan will never die so long as it doesn’t exist. Respective governments have few options aside from placating separatists with regional autonomy if they want to lay a Kurdistan to rest. Turkey won the tactical battle against the PKK in 2007-08, but did no damage strategically.

The PKK isn’t going away by force. Murat Karayılan warned that if the Turkish and Iraqi governments, “insist on policies of annihilation, I would like to emphasize that our movement is stronger than ever and in a position to defend itself.”

Whether Abdullah Öcalan is bluffing on peace will be revealed in time. He’s released similar statements before, though his movement is acting convincingly enough to sway the Turkish government. Not only should his proposal be seriously considered if it’s reasonable, he must be deeply involved in the process to ensure he doesn’t backtrack. The PKK must be heard or it will return to militancy and fight harder than ever.

Resolution to the Kurdish plight would soothe countless tensions in the Middle East. While Kurdistan lacks the profile of Palestine or Kashmir, the dividends of inspiration could spread to other regions. Now is the time to strike.

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