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Will 'Kurdish Spring' redraw Middle East map?

A critic looks at “Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East,” a new book by David Phillips that could become a main reference on the Kurdish struggle.
Syrian ethnic Kurds demonstrate after Friday prayers in the Syrian town of Qamishli May 6, 2011. The banner reads "We call for a new constitution in which all sects and nationalities in the country can participate".   REUTERS/Handout (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTR2M2TY

It was almost three years ago that Barham Salih, then prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), on seeing me for the first time after an unusually long interval, shouted from the distance, even before we greeted each other: “The Kurdish moment has arrived!”

His jubilant mood reflected the sentiments shared by most of the Kurds around the region. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring upheavals that started in North Africa, rapidly moved to the Levant and took a violent turn in Syria, the insurgent organization of the Kurds of Turkey had begun to issue calls to begin a “Kurdish Spring” by the year 2011. The KRG’s self-confidence was boosted by international oil magnates rushing in to explore and produce Kurdistani hydrocarbons, bringing with them not only the technological inputs but also the much-needed legitimacy for the quasi-independent Kurdish entity.

The Syrian Kurds had started to exercise self-rule in the three cantons, though lacking territorial continuity along the long Turkish-Syrian frontier. The one around the largest Syrian Kurdish town, Qamishli, was also at the proximity of the KRG, the other around Kobani at the midpoint of the 911-kilometer (566-mile) Turkish-Syrian border and the third around Afrin, which was also right across the Turkish border, a half-hour drive from the largest city of Syria, Aleppo, where nearly a half-million Kurds lived.

Since then, a new phenomenon was added to the map of the Middle East in the name of the Islamic State (IS), which declared itself a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 29. Controlling large tracts of land in eastern Syria and the western and northwestern parts of Iraq, IS has become the neighbor of the KRG, having the longest frontier, nearly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), which is judged as the line of confrontation. IS emerged as the main threat to Kurdish self-rule in Syria. The siege of Kobani compelled US President Barack Obama's administration to respond, forming an anti-IS coalition and pounding IS positions with US-led coalition aircraft. Kobani was hailed as the “Stalingrad of the Kurds,” adding an epic dimension to Kurdish nation-building that was accelerated on the ashes of the Arab Spring, which is no longer blossoming.

The resistance of Kobani that ended with the withdrawal of IS has become the pride of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Kurdish party of the resistance. It was considered the Syrian affiliate of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was banned and listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department and the European Union since the latter half of the 1990s to appease Turkey, a NATO ally that has become a disappointment for not joining the West’s policies against IS.

The Kurds, ranging from Barzani’s KRG to its main competitor, Turkey’s villain, Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK and its Syrian affiliate, PYD, presented themselves as the most valiant and reliable resistance forces for the Western world’s anti-IS drive

The paradox is that Turkey is engaging the PKK by talking directly with its leader, Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence on Turkey’s prison island, Imrali. Turkey’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has seemingly lost any residue of sympathy in Washington and in most of the EU capitals, has his closest ally in the Middle East as Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG.

Since the inauguration of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and with the removal of President Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt in February 2011, the talk that dominated was whether we would be witnessing the end of the Sykes-Picot order in the region with a new map.

The Arab Spring ultimately produced the human tragedy and carnage in Syria and began to be called “Arab Winter” by some Western pundits. If there is any reference to a new map for the Middle East, it is drawn by IS with unrecognized and illegitimate boundaries.

However, it is still far from certain what history is shaping for the Kurds’ destiny and how a new map might be drawn in the Middle East.

There could be no better timing for a book with the title “Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East.” A 264-page, very reader-friendly book from Transaction Publishers, it was published on Dec. 22, 2014. It has a foreword by Bernard Kouchner, the former French minister of foreign affairs who has a very good reputation in the region, greater than his ministerial title, as the co-founder of Médécins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders), 

Not surprisingly, the author is David Phillips, a Columbia University professor, a former State Department official known for his close relationship with the late US envoy Richard Holbrooke. Kouchner describes him as “The Activist Professor” and defines him in the following lines:

“Political science keeps events at bay and touches upon them with caution. David L. Phillips loves to embrace them. If you get lost in the day-to-day confusion of events, read his book and you will be able to distinguish what is important from the mundane. … Phillips knows how to project the real world into stale lecture rooms. To commentators and diplomats alike, he is a reality detector, and for us all, a lightning rod in times of confusion.”

In Phillips’ own words: The Kurdish Spring draws on my experience as a practitioner and scholar of Kurdish issues for over twenty-five years. I have been engaged in various capacities, working with the US Congress, as a US official, at think tanks, institutes, and universities. Based on my experience, Kurds are one of America’s best and most reliable friends in the Middle East. …

“The Kurds are at a historic crossroads. This book tells their story. There are many scholars knowledgeable about Kurdish issues and the Middle East. However, few have been involved in Kurdish issues for as long as I have. Few have my experience working with Kurds across party lines and in different countries. Few have been engaged as both a scholar, activist and as an official. These pages describe the tragic history of betrayal and abuse experienced by the Kurds. They also tell a hopeful story of progress, with Kurds poised to realize their rights and national aspirations.”

While reading, I came across some minor errors — such as the exact date of the PKK’s declaration of its first cease-fire. There could be some people who might disagree with the analysis of the author on certain issues pertinent to the history of the Kurds and the Kurdish struggle. Nonetheless, nothing prevents the book from being the most concise account on the history of the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran since David McDowall’s seminal book “A Modern History of the Kurds” (I.B. Tauris, 1996).

It is an updated, a very fresh information arsenal on the Kurdish issue and Kurdish history. There is no doubt that it will take its rightful place on the bookshelves of everyone around the world concerned with the issues of the Middle East, despite that its content is less scholarly but more of a “Kurdish issue for Beginners” or “Overall Kurdish History 101” for the English-reading public.

It can be seen as a wake-up call for the US administration from a pro-Kurdish independence pundit implying that it is high time for the United States to assist Kurdish efforts for the eventual independent state of the Kurds in the region, so that the map of the Middle East could change.

It is good for Phillips’ book that he did not elaborate further. The future of the Middle East is so uncertain that even many Kurds would love to consider what is happening or what still may occur as the “Kurdish Spring,” but it is still far from certain what is in store for them.

We should consider “The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East” to be one of the main reference sources that will ably serve all those concerned with the Middle East and the Kurdish issues.

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