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A state in the making: Kurdistan

A state in the making: Kurdistan
By İHSAN DAĞI for Today's Zaman

Kurds are known as a nation without a state. This is now changing. It is not a full-fledged sovereign state, but something very close to it. I am talking about the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.

Last week I participated in the Sulaimani Forum, a two-day conference, organized by the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, on the changing geopolitics of the Middle East. The forum brought together academics and journalists from different parts of the world on the one hand and the Kurdish politicians on the other. It was certainly a success in terms of intellectual debates and a sincere exchange of views.

My primary observation at the forum and in Sulaimaniya is that the Kurds are happy and proud within the newly established state of the KRG. They regard it a major success won by the sacrifices of the Kurdish people.

Kamran Karadaghi, a veteran Kurdish journalist, made it plain by saying that the “Kurds have been successful. Twenty-five years ago they were poisoned by chemical weapons in Iraq, their villages were set on fire and bulldozed in Turkey, and their existence was not known in Syria. Now in Iraq they have the KRG, in Turkey they are negotiating with the state, and in Syria they are in the position of a power broker.”

This is a shared analysis that underlines the Kurds' rising presence and power in the region. I found the Kurds confident. Yet they are not dreaming. After decades of suppression, the Kurds are realistic about their objectives. Their primary concern is to maintain the gains they have achieved at such a high cost.

This does not mean that the Kurds of Iraq are indifferent to the fates of the Kurds in neighboring countries, but that after years of conflict they want to build a country. For this they have the means and vision. Aware that wasting such a historic opportunity will be an injustice to the struggle of their people for many decades, in Iraq the Kurdish leaders are cautious, and pledging caution to the Kurds of Turkey and Syria, too. What I see is the rise of “territorial” nationalism of the Kurds in Iraq at the expense of “pan-Kurdish” nationalism.

It seems that the Kurds of Iraq need peace in the region in order to build their country, peace with neighboring countries and with the central government in Baghdad.

They thus value Turkey's friendship enormously, happy that at a political level the KRG has emerged as an ally after decades of hot conflict and cold war between the two sides. As mutual interest is developing between the sides, trust is also being built. The presence of Turkey via Turkish companies, Turkish schools of the Hizmet movement and Turkish goods and products is impossible to ignore. As political relations have smoothed in the past couple of years, economic and social interactions have boomed. Iraq has become Turkey's second-largest export destination; two-thirds of this is with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, described the change in the relationship with Turkey as “revolutionary,” while Fuad Hussein, the spokesperson of the KRG, referred to a “special relationship” between Turkey and the KRG.

To sustain the intensity of interactions at all levels, Turkey should resolve its Kurdish question and remove the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as a source of irritation before cooperating with the KRG. Only this, in the long term, will eliminate mutual suspicion and build trust and confidence among the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey.

Notwithstanding regional and international circumstances, a Kurdish state is in the making, and Kurds seem prepared to put off all differences among them in this process. Yet the dual structure of power in Kurdistan is still a problem, with the potential to destabilize and even divide Kurdistan. On the surface they seem to have learned from the past mistakes and are unlikely to repeat them. But it is nevertheless a challenge.

Second, the thorny relationship with Baghdad is continuing. If Baghdad does not want the Kurds to drift apart towards an independent Kurdistan, it should stick to the principles of federalism and democracy. Otherwise, the Kurds, with their growing confidence and with a balancing role in regional diplomacy, may say farewell to Iraq sooner or later.

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