Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Kurds: Opportunity and Peril

The Kurds: Opportunity & Peril

Dispatches From The Edge

August 27, 2013

For almost a century, the Kurds—one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without its own state—have been deceived and double-crossed, their language and culture suppressed, their villages burned and bombed, and their people scattered. But because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and Turkish politics, they have been suddenly transformed from pawn to major player in a pivotal part of the Middle East.

The Kurds—who speak a language distantly related to Farsi, the dominant language of Iran—straddle the borders of north eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran, and constitute a local majority in parts of eastern and southern Turkey. At between 25 to 30 million strong, they have long yearned to establish their own state. Now, with their traditional foes weakened by invasion, civil war, and political discord, the Kurds are suddenly in the catbird’s seat.

But in the Middle East that can be a very tricky place to dwell.

The Kurds’ current ascent began when the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. When the Americans invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds saw their opportunity: they seized three oil rich northern provinces, set up a parliament, established a capital at Erbil, and mobilized their formidable militia, the Peshmerga.  Over the past decade, the Kurdish region has gone from one of the poorest regions in Iraq to one of the most affluent, fueled in the main by energy sales to Turkey and Iran.

It is an astounding turn of fate.

Twenty-nine years ago the Turkish government was burning Kurdish villages and scattering refugees throughout the region. Some 45,000 people—mostly Kurds— lost their lives in that long-running conflict. Today, Turkey is negotiating with its traditional nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and trying to cut a peace deal that would deliver Kurdish support to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to amend Turkey’s constitution and give him another decade in power.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Today, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki may be outraged by the Kurds’ seizure of oil assets, but the Baghdad regime is so preoccupied by a sectarian-led bombing campaign against Shiite communities that it is in no position to do more than protest. Last November, the Maliki government backed away from a potential showdown with the Peshmerga in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu.

Fifty years ago the Syrian government stripped citizenship rights from 20 percent of its Kurdish minority—Kurds make up about 10 percent of that country’s population—creating between 300,000 to 500,000 stateless people. Today, Syria’s Kurdish regions are largely independent because the Damascus regime, locked in a life and death struggle with foreign and domestic insurgents, has abandoned the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Only in Iran are Kurds in much the same situation they were a decade ago, but with the Teheran government’s energy focused on its worsening economic situation and avoiding a confrontation with the U.S. over its nuclear program, that, too, could change.

In short, are the Kurds’ stars finally coming into alignment?

Maybe and maybe not. If the invasion, politics, and civil war have created opportunities for the Kurds, they are fragile, relying on the transitory needs or current disarray of their traditional foes, the central governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey is a case in point.

Endogen needs the votes of Kurdish parliamentarians to put a new constitution up for a referendum in time for the 2014 elections. Ending the conflict with the Kurds could also boost Turkey’s application for European Union membership and burnish Ankara’s regional leadership credentials. The latter have been tarnished by a number of Erdogan missteps, including his unpopular support for the Syrian insurgents and his increasingly authoritarian internal policies.

Most Kurds would like to end the fighting as well, but that will require concessions by the Endogen government on the issues of parliamentary representation and the right educate Kurds in their own language.

But Endogen has balked at these two demands, and the Kurds are growing impatient. PKK leader Cemil Bayik recently warned that “September 1 is the deadline” for a deal and a failure to reach an agreement by then “will be understood that the aim [of the Turkish government] is not a solution.” Given the long history of animosity, it would not take much to unravel peace talks between the two parties.

Syria’s Kurds have threaded a hazardous path between their desire for autonomy—some would like full independence—and not taking sides in the current civil war. Indeed, the fighting going on in northern and eastern Syria is not between the insurgents and the Assad government, but Kurds represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union and the combined forces of the extremist al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Most of Syria’s oil reserves are in the Kurdish region and control of them would provide a financial base for whatever side emerges victorious.

The Assad regime may have abandoned the north, but Damascus recently has made headway against the insurgency, gains greatly aided by infighting among its opponents. So far the war is a stalemate, but it might not stay that way forever. Even Syrians opposed to the Assad government are tired of the fighting, and most have no love for the sectarian groups that have increasingly taken over the war against the Damascus regime. In short, the current autonomy of Syria’s Kurds may be a fleeting thing.

Of course, it is possible that the Syrian Kurds might cut a deal with Assad: help drive the insurgents out of the area—maybe in alliance with the Iraqi Kurds—in exchange for greater autonomy. That would enrage both the Turks and the Maliki government, but it is not clear either could do much about it.

Erdogen’s support for the Syrian insurgents is widely unpopular in Turkey, and any direct intervention by the Turks to block autonomy for Syria’s Kurds would put Ankara in the middle of a civil war. With an election looming next year, that is not a move Erdogan wants to make. As for Iraq, thanks to the U.S.’s dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army, Baghdad doesn’t have the capabilities to take on the Peshmerga at this point.

What will finally emerge is hard to predict, except that a return to the past seems unlikely. Iraq’s Kurds can only be dislodged by a major invasion from Turkey in cooperation with the Baghdad government. Given that Kurdish oil and gas are increasingly important to the Turkish economy, and that any invasion would be costly, why would Ankara do that?

And cooperation between Baghdad and Ankara has been soured by Turkey’s willingness to ignore Baghdad’s protests over its exploitation of Kurdish-controlled (but Iraqi owned) oil and Turkish support for the Sunni extremists trying to overthrow Assad. Those same extremists are massacring Shite supporters of the Maliki government in Basra, Baghdad and Karbala.

Turkey’s Kurds—between 20 and 25 million, the largest Kurdish concentration in the world—are on a knife’s edge. There is little doubt that the average Turkish Kurd wants the long-running conflict to end, as do the Turks as well. But Endogen is dragging his feet on the key peace issues, and the PKK may decide it is time to pick up the gun again and return to the old Kurdish adage: trust only the mountains.

The solution to all this is not all that difficult.

For Turkey, granting Kurdish language rights and cultural autonomy, and reducing the minimum percentage of votes to serve in the Turkish parliament from its current 10 percent, would probably do the job.

For Syria, the formula for peace would be much the same, with the added move of restoring citizenship to almost half a million now stateless Kurds. But that is only likely to happen after a ceasefire and a political settlement of the civil war.

The Iraqi government will have to bite the bullet, recognize that an autonomous Kurdish area is a reality, and work out a deal to share oil and gas revenue.

As long as Iran is faced with an attack by the U.S. and/or Israel, that country’s Kurds will be out in the cold. The U.S. and its allies should keep in mind that sanctions and threats of war make a peaceful resolution of long-standing grievances by Iran’s minorities, which also include Azeris, Baluchs, and Arabs, impossible. If the U.S. is truly concerned about minorities in Iran it should find a way to negotiate with the Teheran government over Teheran’s nuclear program.

But the Iranian government, too, would do well to seriously engage with its Kurdish population. Autonomy for the Kurds is out of the bag and not about to go back in, regardless of what the final outcome in Syria and Turkey are. Sooner or later, Iran will have to confront the same issue that governments in Damascus, Ankara and Baghdad now face: recognition and autonomy, or war and instability.

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Boiling a Frog

July 26, 2013

The 15% Solution-

How the Republican Religious Right took Control of the U.S. 1981-2022: A Futuristic Novel

By Steve Jonas

Katz Impact Books, New York, 2013

Amazon $14.50

The “15% Solution” might well be subtitled, “How to boil a frog:” slowly, so he doesn’t notice.

Jonas, a Harvard-trained MD, a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, has conjured up a book that is less fiction than contemporary politics wrapped in the form of a novel. Indeed, time after time, the “fiction” precisely parallels real life developments. While the book was originally written in 1996, a disturbing number of events—like systematic voter disenfranchisement—are now the rule in places like Texas and North Carolina.

In a sense, the “fiction” is a fiction. While the book does examine a supposed 40-year period, during which conservative forces and rightwing Christians take over the United States, many of the speeches, quotes, and statistical materials are real (and meticulously footnoted at the end of each chapter). In short, the only thing made up is the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of four “republics” based on race, and a “new” civil war.

The title comes from a real-life strategy developed by the former Christian Coalition in the late 1980s to take over the country by locking down 15% of the vote. The idea is that many Americans never register to vote and, if they do, don’t turn out on Election Day. Hence, if you can control 15% of the national vote, you can elect presidents and the congress. And in low voter turnout elections, like state and local races, as few as 6% or 7% can end up determining an election outcome. State legislatures, in turn, draw electoral districts, which means that a dedicated minority can end up dominating the majority.

If this sounds familiar it’s because that is exactly that has happened over the past several election cycles, Mitt Romney got swamped in the general election, but Republican hold power in the House of Representatives and in a majority of state houses. There is nothing “fictional” about the 15% solution as an electoral strategy.

The form for the novel is a chronicle of the events that lead up to the establishment of fascism in the U.S., some of which are established history, others of which are projections from 1996 into the future. One of the devices Jonas uses are fictional interviews, speeches and letters from key characters in the novel. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to separate out what is real and what is invented, which, one suspects, is exactly what the author wants the reader to struggle with.

While using “grim” to describe “The 15% Solution” is probably an understatement, some of the book is good fun. Like when the New American Republic allies itself with the Republic of Quebec to dismantle Canada (that’ll learn ‘em to be so polite up there). Some of it may appear silly, like abolishing the national forests and parks, until the author reminds the reader that in 1995 U.S. Rep. James Hansen (R-Ut) led a campaign to do exactly that.

What’s the old line about truth and fiction?

The book examines race, class, gender, ethnicity, and inequality, and none of the disturbing trends concerning these issues are made up. In some ways, Jonas’s book feels a little like some of the writings of the sociologist C. Northcote Parkinson, who writes fiction in a way that reads like history.

The 15% Solution is enjoyable and instructive, a good read, if a tad depressing on occasion. But Jonas is hardly a gloom and doom sort. He is an activist author, writing for Buzzflash, Truthout, and innumerable media outlets, and he is the editorial director of The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy. He has also authored, co-authored and edited more than 30 books and hundreds of articles.

In his conclusion, Jonas examines how to avoid the road to perdition and, while measured and realistic, is also upbeat. Bad things happen, but people are hardly helpless in the face of history. And if the frog knows the burner is on he can get the damn hell out of the pot.

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