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Kurds Gain New Power Even as ISIS Threatens

For the Kurds, spread across Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, the present must seem as Dickens described the French Revolution: “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” Never before have hopes for an independent Kurdistan seemed closer at hand—but the same factors raising those hopes have raised the stakes, and so never before have the Kurds and their leaders had such a chance to fail.

Stealing the headlines recently is the stunning success of the Kurdish HDP in the Turkish parliamentary elections, which was particularly notable given the previous support for President Erdogan among the Kurds. A substantial proportion of Turkey’s Kurds had until this election voted AKP, in part because of Erdogan had opened peace dialogues with the ethnic group. But the faltering of those talks and Turkish inaction when ISIS threatened Kurd-dominated Kobani seemed to many Kurds proof that the President was not sincere. The resulting wave of Kurds turning from the AKP to the Kurdish HD Party deprived Erdogan of his majority. (Keep an eye out all this week for articles at TAI from Henri Barkey, Svante E. Cornell, and Steve Cook on the Turkish elections and the position the HDP and Turkey’s Kurds now find themselves in.)

Perhaps just as importantly, if not quite so widely remarked upon, Saudi Arabia has come out in favor of an independent Kurdistan. The announcement came at the same press conference on Friday at which a Saudi General, Anwar Majed Eshki, appeared onstage with an Israeli official to acknowledge unprecedented joint cooperation between the two former foes, and so to a certain extent was overlooked. But as Eli Lake reported:

[Gen. Eshki] ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East […including] a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Since the ascension of King Salman, the Saudis have cast aside a historically cautious foreign policy, becoming dramatically more muscular in the region. Supporting the kind of Kurdish republic described above would deal blows to Iran, both its own country and in Iraq and Syria, which Riyadh sees as Shi’a client states. But it’s interesting that the Saudis included Turkey, too, suggesting that the recent cooperation between the two rivals to take down the Assad regime only goes so far.

All of this gives the Kurds a lot of options. It means there are at least three regional or international hegemonic powers the Kurds can play off one another for support, if you include the U.S. It also gives them multiple ‘seats at the table’, in the form of the new HDP in Ankara and the involvement of the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil in coalition war-planning against ISIS. But there are also a lot of challenges still ahead for the Kurds. Turkish nationalist parties may well wind up in the next Ankara government. Foreign support from Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—beyond words and small gestures—is far from guaranteed. And, of course, there’s still the menace of ISIS.

But peril is, in this case, the price of opportunity. What the various factions of Kurds do next—either united or divided—could have a more momentous impact on their chances for independence and survival in a troubled region than anything else in a generation.

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