Is Kurdistan the Taiwan of the Middle East?
Finding silver linings in the cloudy modern Middle East can at times prove difficult. War in Syria, sectarian standoffs in Iraq and a regional cold war between Iran and Western-aligned Arab regimes make for a pretty ugly map of the region. Ditching the maps could prove helpful.
While several Mideast nations struggle with unrest and war, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is undergoing an economic renaissance, thanks, in part, to a 2006 law allowing up to ten years of tax amnesty for potential investors. Along with its already ample oil wealth -- Iraqi Kurdistan accounts for roughly 20 percent of Iraq's total oil output -- the KRG has been working to grow its domestic industries and expand trade beyond the limits of Iraqi borders and the greater Middle East.
After decades of persecution and genocide, the Kurds have found a way to operate in a neighborhood where clear-cut borders can often be more of a nuisance than a boon. Loosely promised a state by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the Kurdish people have learned the hard way that maps don't necessarily dictate facts on the ground, as any observer of Mideast history and politics can attest. "Though the Kurds are said to be the world's largest stateless people," writes Time contributor Pelin Turgut, "Kurdish leaders ... say they are no longer interested in a single Kurdish state but in a loose federation that spans various national borders." Rather than waiting for Mideast leaders or the international community to make a deal for a state, the Kurds seem to be playing a regional game of "Let's Make A Deal."
One such deal just may have occurred last week, as jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a ceasefire to the armed resistance group's decades-long military struggle against Turkey. With tentative concessions on the table -- the release of political prisoners, possible easing of restrictions on Kurdish culture and language inside Turkish borders -- two war weary parties appear ready to lay down their weapons and get down to business.
And why not? With its own booming economy to feed, Ankara has every reason to set aside its differences with Kurds both in and outside of its own borders. And with Turkish investment in Iraqi Kurdistan at a record high, both sides have good reason to nurture the relationship. "Turkey is in many ways a better option than Baghdad as a gateway to the global economy," note Soner Cagaptay and Tyler Evans of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "At the same time, this commercial relationship underlines the fact that Kurdistan's economic stability and consequent political success are highly contingent on Turkish goodwill. Given this fact and the KRG's perceived threat from Baghdad, it is safe to say that the Iraqi Kurds have more incentive to get along with Turkey than ever."
The same holds true for Turkey. A quick scan of the daily headlines might make the Middle East seem like a rather terrible place for business. As Sunnis and Shias cannibalize themselves in Syria and Iraq, and Arab regimes constellate against Persian Iran, there are few places that make sense for stable trade and investment. One exception to this general Mideast rule is Iraqi Kurdistan. (The other example is Israel -- see Bibi-Erdogan phone call.)
In Syrian Kurdistan, too, an agreement of sorts is in the works, though toward far more cynical ends. Scrambling to maintain a stranglehold over his colonial cookie-cut kingdom, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad -- looking to garner support from Syria's Kurdish minority -- recently overturned long-sanctioned restrictions on Kurdish rights, granting the country's oppressed Kurdish minority greater autonomy. Yet again, the Kurdish people seem to gain from a region with bigger and more immediate fish to fry.
It may be that Mideast Kurds have chosen to take the Taiwanese route. Once insistent on its role as an independent stalwart against Communist China, the Republic of China has in recent years moved to open up trade, tourism and dialogue with its cross-strait rival. Indeed, a recent Mainland Affairs Council poll found that a comfortable majority of Taiwanese support closer ties between the two nations. Peace and prosperity, as it turns out, trump cartographic absolutism.
Recent Kurdish gains reveal a similar strategy. Those gains, however, may prove fleeting, as Iraqi Kurdistan -- rife with corruption and poor planning -- finds itself in a tense standoff with the central government in Baghdad over oil fields and revenue. Syria's Kurds, too, are left in a precarious and volatile spot; stuck between an erratic and brutal Assad regime and a Syrian rebellion tinged with Jihadism.
Still, if recent events serve as an example, one can assume that the region's Kurds have learned to play the Middle East's warring factions and tribes against each other in order to create a haven of their own. In a region where everyone seems to lose, it's sometimes worth highlighting one of its apparent winners -- regardless of what the maps and headlines tell us.