The spike in terrorist activity may be linked to the August 15th anniversary of its 28-year-old armed campaign for Kurdish independence (the PKK says it would now settle for autonomy). Yet Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, puts the blame on Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. Mr Erdogan says Mr Assad has resumed the support for the PKK that ended when Turkey threatened to go to war against his father in 1998. Mr Erdogan’s critics retort that he is himself to blame. Turkey’s firm support for Syria’s rebels has won Mr Assad’s enmity along with that of Iran, home to several PKK camps.Last month Mr Assad ceded control of a string of mainly Kurdish towns, prompting Turkey to send more troops to the border. Whether he acted out of spite or necessity, the effect has been the same. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK offshoot, promptly established control, hoisting the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings along with large posters of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Perhaps a third of the PKK’s fighters are Syrian Kurds, whose hawkish commander, code-named Bahoz Erdal, is thought to have masterminded the recent attacks.
Of course, Kurdish separatism is nothing knew, and has been a focal point of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi policy for decades. Yet it seems that things have changed a bit in recent months; surely the Kurds are closely watching the success uprisings of the Arabs living among them:
If Turkey would only grant its 14m Kurds some of the rights enjoyed by their cousins in Iraq, the PKK’s terrorist tactics and antediluvian Marxist doctrine would surely lose its appeal. The trouble is that, buoyed by the Arab spring, the region’s 30m Kurds are increasingly looking beyond their own borders towards an independent state uniting them all.
Increasingly, what’s happening in the Middle East begins to look like a challenge to the territorial order that followed the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France in 1915. That agreement, as refined in the early 1920s, divided the Middle East according to boundary lines that persist today, dividing formerly Ottoman territory into such countries as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and drawing modern Turkey’s frontiers.That 90 year old political settlement was a mess from the beginning. The Kurdish hope for self determination was denied, leading to intermittent rounds of guerrilla warfare and confrontation ever since. Lebanon was an artificial entity that became increasingly war torn and fragile. Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan have all had tumultuous and often unhappy histories. Syria resented the loss of Lebanon and its mix of religious and ethnic groups never generated a healthy political or civil society. Iraq — is what we see.Incoherent societies within artificial borders held together by authoritarian rule — either by colonial powers or by local despots: this has been the formula that held the Levant together for much of the last 90 years. Now that formula doesn’t seem to work anymore. Foreign powers lost the ability to prop up local governments in the 1950s, and now the domestic despots have failed. (The king in Jordan, the least despotic of the bunch, presides gingerly over a fragile polity, hoping that events in the neighborhood won’t destroy the delicate equilibrium the dynasty has painstakingly built.)Now the question is whether the Sykes-Picot states (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) can long survive in their present boundaries. During this time of uncertainty, the sectarian divisions among the Arabs in the general political crisis have allowed Kurds to grasp unprecedented autonomy — in Iraq and now in Syria. Kurds cannot help but hope that the crisis of the Sykes-Picot states (and the equally profound changes in Turkey) offer them new hope for a state of their own — if not the full Greater Kurdistan of which they dream, at least a small state with ties to Turkey in northern Iraq and Syria. Then, who knows, the confrontation between Iran and the West offers hope for expansion into Iranian Kurdistan.The Kurds have been disappointed many times before, but they will surely hope that this time will be different. The experience of self government in northern Iraq, where first the no-fly zone and then the weakness of central government in Iraq since 2003 have given Kurds their longest and most successful experience with power in modern times, has increased Kurdish capacity for political action and whetted the appetite of many Kurds for freedom.Nobody knows where the Middle East is heading today, but even if the Kurds are ultimately disappointed once again, their quest for a state of their own will play a significant role in the quest for a new system in the lands between the Mediterranean and Iran.