in the Wall Street Journal, Thursday, September 5, 1996, p. A12.
The Iraqi army's invasion this week of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq is likely to put Kurdish hopes for an independent state even further out of reach. But for most of the Middle East's minority groups, such setbacks are par for the course.
The 22 million Kurds are the region's largest ethnic minority group without a country of their own, but in the Middle East they are not alone. The 15 million Berbers in Algeria and Morocco, the 10 million Copts in Egypt, the 1.3 million Maronites in Lebanon, the 1.7 million Alawites in Syria: The list goes on and on of religious or ethnic minority groupos in this region that have sought or continue to seek political sovereignty. Few of them ever succeed.
The situation in northern Iraq illustrates the problems that bedevil these minorities. No major power has ben willing to lend the Kurdish cause sustained support. Other countries in the region view the Kurdish effort to establish an autonomous zone as having the potential to stir up their own minorities, and so they tacitly back Saddam Hussein's attempts to crush the Kurds.
Political No-Man's Land
Iraq's Kurds also lack the cultural cohesiveness that comes of having one common language, speaking three different dialects. They remain wracked by internal differences: The leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud barzani, touched off the current crisis by asking Saddam Hussein's military help in fighting his long-time Kurdish rivals, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Like the Kurds, many of the region's minorities remain caught in a political no-man's land. "They are powerless to achieve their dream of self-determination," says Raad Alkadiri, a Middle East analyst at Oxford Analytica Ltd. in Ocford, England, "yet powerful enough to remain an ongoing source of instability in the region."
The biggest obstacle facing these groups is their small populations, says Mordechai Nisan, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who published a study of the phenomenon recently in the Middle East Quarterly, a political journal. Mr. Nisan estimates that there are about 50 million members of various minority groups in the region, versus more than 200 million Arab Muslims. Relatively low birthrates and heavy emigration are taking their toll. Even the Kurds, who at 22 million are by far the largest minority group in the region, are scattered across six different states, the power of their numbers diminished by geographic dispersion. "The future of minorities in the Middle East looks dim," says Mr. Nisan.'
Jews, Palestinians and Alawites
The region does have its success stories. The Jews succeeded in establishing the state of Israel in 1948. After years of conflict, the Palestinians now have self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. The Alawites, a religious group that broke away from Shiite Islam and comprises 12% of Syria's population, control the Syrian state, thanks to the fact that the country's leader, Hafez Assad, is a member of the sect.
But Middle East analysts say these groups might not serve as models for the Kurds or the region's other minorities. The Zionist movement benefited from strong links with the colonial powers that controlled the Middle East at the beginning of the century and were able to redraw the region's map. Those powers are now gone, pushed out by local independence movements. The Palestinians are a minority inside Israel, but as Arab Muslims they are part of the region's demographic majority, and that status helped keep their cause in the public eye as being at the heart of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. The Alawites' current dominance of Syria's political system is likely to be transient. "After Assad is gone, it will be hard for the Alawites to maintain exclusive power. Their fate is still uncertain," says Zuhair Daib, a London-based Syria analyst.
Hebrew University's Mr. Nisan contends that the minorities' only chance for success may be for them to forge closer ties with each other. For a while, Mr. Nisan says, Israel pursued such a strategy. It provided aid to the Kurdish resistance in northern iraq during the 1960s and to Christian groups in southern Sudan fighting Islamic domination by Khartoum. Israel also gave arms and funds to the South Lebanese Army, which even today fights alongside Israelis against Shiite militant groups in israel's self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon. But even Mr. Nisan concedes that for the most part, Israel has been unable to turn such cooperation into long-term political gains, either for itself or for its minority alies.
The reason for this, says Dilip Hiro, a London-based Middle East analyst, gets to the heart of why the Kurds, despite their half century of nationalist aspirations, seem farther away than ever from achieving real political autonomy. It's easy to say the Kurds should have their own country. It's like saying we love our mothers, cherry pie, and the Fourth of July," says Mr. Hiro. "But deep in their hearts, no one either inside or outside the region wants to back the creation of something that is likely to overturn the existing order in the Middle East."