A protester at the funeral of Vedat Kutluca, killed by Kurdish rebels. For Turkey, independence would deter PKK insurgents. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty
I was surprised to read an article in the Baghdad newspaper al-Sabah <http://www.alsabaah.com/> , by its editor Abd al-Jabbar Shabbout, suggesting it was time to settle the “age-old problem” between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds by establishing a “Kurdish state”. I had never heard a formerly so heretical view expressed in any Arab quarter so publicly. And this was no ordinary quarter: al-Sabah is the mouthpiece of the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/nouri-al-maliki>  himself. Shabbout went on to suggest a negotiated “ending of the Arab-Kurdish partnership in a peaceful way”.

He called his proposal plan B, plan A being what was already in train: that is, a continuous dialogue between central government and the Kurdish regional government conducted within the framework of the “new Iraq” which emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But plan A, he said, was getting nowhere. Differences – over power and authority, oil and natural resources, territory and borders – were so deep that the dialogue had repeatedly failed. And in recent weeks it almost came to war instead. For a while the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/14/iraq-kurdistan-maliki-barzani>  faced each other across the frontiers between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq in an atmosphere so tense, said Shabbout, that hostilities could have broken out at any moment. And it wasn’t only Shabbout but Maliki himself who warned that if war did break out, it wouldn’t be just a war between Kurdish rebels and a dictatorial regime in Baghdad, as it used to be under Saddam, but an “ethnic war between Arabs and Kurds”.

Be it plan A or plan B – war or diplomacy – the latest, dangerous stand-off has made one thing clear: the “Kurdish question” has now reached another critical stage, and it is intimately bound up with the region-wide cataclysm that is the Arab spring.

It was ever thus for the Kurds, their destiny as a people shaped less by their own struggles than by the vagaries of regional and international politics, particularly the great Middle Eastern upheavals they periodically produce. These began, in modern times, with the first world war and the fall of the Ottoman empire <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/ottomanempire_1.shtml> . In the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/middle_east/2001/israel_and_the_palestinians/key_documents/1681362.stm>  Britain and France promised them a state of their own, but then reneged, and they ended up as minorities, more or less severely repressed, in the four countries – Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria – among which their vast domains were divided.

They repeatedly rebelled against this new order, especially in Iraq. But their landlocked location and the wider geopolitical environment were always against them. Their rebellions were always crushed – the last one, under Saddam, with the genocidal use of gas <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/16/newsid_4304000/4304853.stm> .

But they never ceased to dream of independent statehood. And the first of two great breakthroughs in the road towards an independent Kurdish state grew out of the megalomaniac folly of Saddam himself, with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/2/newsid_2526000/2526937.stm> , and one of its entirely unforeseeable consequences, the establishment of the internationally protected “safe haven” in northern Iraq.

The second breakthrough grew out of the new constitutional order ushered in by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Under it, the Kurds consolidated their autonomy with broad new legislative powers, control of their own armed forces, and some authority over that mainstay of the Iraqi economy: oil.

But from the outset they had made it clear that they would only remain committed to the “new Iraq” if it treated them as an equal partner. It wasn’t long before this ethno-sectarian, power-sharing democracy began to malfunction, intensifying the Kurds’ yearning for independence. Openly or surreptitiously, they began accumulating constitutional, political, territorial, economic and security “facts on the ground”, designed to ensure that, if and when they proclaimed their newborn state, it would have the ability to stand on its own feet.

So are the Iraqi Kurds now on the brink of their third, perhaps final, breakthrough, and the great losers of Sykes-Picot about to become, 90 years on, the great winners of the Arab spring?

It seems that they await one last thing – another of those game-changing events, such as the break-up of Syria – that can transform the whole geopolitical environment in the Kurds’ favour. But the quarter in which they are actively looking to bring it about is Turkey. That they should even think of this is, historically speaking, extraordinary. Turkey probably has most to lose from independence-seeking Kurdish nationalism, and has been brutal as any in its repression of it. Ever afraid of Kurdish gains in another country as a progenitor of them in Turkey, it has long set great store on Iraq remaining a united country.

But since 2008, in a complete reversal of earlier policy, which had once been to boycott Kurdistan altogether, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/recep-tayyip-erdogan>  has been pursuing “full economic integration” with it. Meanwhile its relations with the Iraqi government have been deteriorating, with the two now on opposite sides in the great Middle Eastern power struggle that pits Shia Iran, Maliki’s Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah against the Syrian revolutionaries, most Sunni Arab states and Turkey itself. Turkey’s courtship with Iraqi Kurds has moved so far, the Kurds believe, that Turkey might soon break with Maliki’s essentially Shia regime and deal separately with the other main components of a fragmenting Iraqi state, its Arab Sunnis and its Kurds.

In return, an independent Kurdistan could be a source of abundant and reliable oil supplies, a stable ally and buffer against a hostile Iraq and Iran, and even, in a policy option as extraordinary as Turkey’s own, a collaborator in containing or combating fellow Kurds in the shape of the PKK – who, having established a strong presence in “liberated” Syrian Kurdistan, are seeking to turn it into a platform for a reviving insurgency in Turkey itself.

It is even said that Erdogan has gone so far as to promise Massoud Barazani, the Iraqi Kurd president, that Turkey would protect his would-be state in the event of an Iraqi military onslaught – though presumably that would never come to pass if, adopting plan B, the Maliki regime really is contemplating the seismic step of letting the Kurds go of their own free will.
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David Hirst <http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/davidhirst>
Wednesday 9 January 2013