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. However, the quarter in which they are 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. 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.
Since 2008, in a complete reversal of earlier policy, which had been to boycott Kurdistan, the government of Turkish Prime Minister 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 Shiite Iran, al-Maliki’s Iraq, President 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 that Turkey might soon break with al-Maliki’s essentially Shiite 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 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 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 al-Maliki regime really is contemplating the seismic step of letting the Kurds go of their own free will.