For many decades now, those states whose borders include and divide Kurdistan have alternatively tried to ignore, deny, manipulate and suppress widespread Kurdish demands for political rights. In this, the rulers have enjoyed the unstinting support of their great power patrons, the broad support of the majority communities, and often enough support as well among different Kurdish communities and social strata. These policies comprise a disastrous record that has exacted a horrible price in blood, treasure and democratic rights — of Arabs, Iranians and Turks as well as of Kurds themselves. These policies have failed miserably in their repressive goals, and yet they continue as the order of the day.
We have tried to highlight here several aspects of the Kurdish experience. One is the tremendous changes over the last two decades, as new economic and social forces, as well as armies, have penetrated and altered Kurdish societies. Another is the persistence of traditional political leaderships and rivalries. As Amir Hassanpour points out, the serious clashes in May 1994 between the two dominant parties of the Kurdish Regional Government, the KDP and the PUK, have similarities with the territorially based opposition in South Africa of Inkatha to the African National Congress. What is crucially missing, though, is a regional equivalent to the ANC. While the main responsibility for this lies with the Kurdish leadership, other factors play a role — the recentness and unevenness of social transformations, the meddling of neighboring rivals Iran and Turkey, and, not least, the punishing economic embargo and political isolation imposed by the United States and other powers as well as by Baghdad.
The US remains, for the moment, a most reluctant “protector” of this experiment in Kurdish self-rule, forced by Turkey’s need to stem the refugee crisis that would come with Iraq’s reconquest. Here is where we see how little has changed: Western complicity and silence in the face of Baghdad’s war of extermination in 1987-88 is reprised, as we write, in the studious inattention to the latest Turkish “final offensive” to crush Kurdish political militancy within its borders. The dimensions of this current campaign are staggering: Some 400,000 Turkish troops are deployed against 30,000 guerrillas; nearly a thousand villages have been depopulated since 1993; tens of thousands of Kurds in Turkey now seek refuge in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced within the country. The economic and political crisis which this war has exacerbated may well trigger a military coup. It is a war that Ankara cannot win, though everyone can lose.
What happens in Turkey — where two thirds of the Kurds live — and in the self-rule area of Iraq over the coming months and years is likely to determine the political contours of this region for a long time to come. It is a matter to which we will return.