World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.
I posted earlier regarding the possibility that Iraqi Kurds may soon declare their formal independence, a move with which even Iraqi Arabs have grown ambivalent. After all, Iraq’s real oil wealth is in southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Arabs would be fine keeping that for themselves.
Syrian Kurds have been coy about their future. The Kurdish administration in “Rojava,” an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, is relatively secure, organized, and functioning. Kurds there say they will settle for federalism within the confines of Syria, although the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in the areas surrounding Rojava suggests that events outside their region may ultimately determine the outcome, much as it has in Iraq.
For Kurds, however, Turkey is the real prize. That is where the bulk of Kurds live, and southeastern Turkey remains an incubator of Kurdish culture. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which once waged an insurgency and terror campaign against the Turkish state. The PKK has accepted a ceasefire and temporarily laid down their arms. While Erdoğan has hinted that he will offer the Kurds a reform package ahead of the August presidential elections (for which he wants Kurdish support), history should not give the Kurds much confidence: every outreach Erdoğan has made to the Kurds has come against the backdrop of elections, and after elections have passed, Erdoğan reneges on his promises. Fool me once, fool me twice, but few Kurds are prepared to be fooled a third time, except perhaps against the backdrop of a fight.
Herein lies the problem: If Erdoğan makes good on his reforms to the Kurds, then it sets Turkey down the path toward federalism, the way-point for independence. Turks must also prepare for Öcalan’s release. They may consider Öcalan a terrorist, but Erdoğan has made him the indispensable man. There is simply no outcome that won’t see Öcalan released first from isolation, and then from prison entirely, at which point Kurds and many others will celebrate him as a Kurdish Mandela.
Demography, too, is in the Kurds’ favor. Erdoğan may hope that religious solidarity will trump nationalism, but this is a naïve hope. Turkish Kurds can smell a state, and with Iraqi Kurds on the verge of achieving that dream, there will be no denying Anatolian Kurds the same outcome. The map is changing. Turkey is celebrating its 90th anniversary. When it marks its centennial, however, expect the map of Turkey to be much different. When that happens, perhaps Turks can celebrate Erdoğan as their Sultan. The new Kurdistan, however, should put Erdoğan on their currency alongside Öcalan and Barzani as a man who made it happen.