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A Kurdish Mold for the Tuareg | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Malian Tuareg soldiers patrol in the streets of Gao on February 3. Source: 2013SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

Malian Tuareg soldiers patrol in the streets of Gao on February 3. Source: 2013SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

Malian Tuareg soldiers patrol in the streets of Gao on February 3. Source: 2013SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

Recently, the world was surprised by yet another nasty consequence of the Arab Spring: instability in the Sahel. The price for overnight regime change was chaos. Gaddafi’s former regime in Libya had never been the greatest promoter of geopolitical stability, but it had become an important piece of the North African puzzle. For decades, Libyan oil had served to spread Tripoli’s influence in African politics and create a status quo which spread the interests of the Gaddafi regime.
Fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda—too fanatic even for the Libyan leader’s own taste—had been chased into obscurity, and destabilizing national liberation struggles had been put on standby. These policies went down with the removal of the brother leader and his clan. Not only did the patient bribery of the Tuareg cease, but so did the constraints on the Salafists with connections to Al-Qaeda, who would go on to found Ansar Dine in Mali.

Little is known about the intentions of the forces that took over northern Mali last April and declared the independent state of Azawad. Of their stated goals, two stand out: independence and the establishment fundamentalist Shari’a rule. If, however, the former is more important to them than the latter, the path they have taken so far will go down in history as having been very much counter-productive. Coming to self-determination is not an easy undertaking, and while the post-modern world offers many a forum for the expression of grievances—and the Western world has a soft spot for the underdog in national liberation struggles—few ethnic groups have managed to make the jump to self-rule. The Tuareg, however, may have reasons to be optimistic because they share many of the same predicaments of the Kurds, who are now more autonomous than they have ever been. What, then, is the recipe?

1) Make the best of difficult borders

Like the Kurds, the Tuareg have one major problem: borders. In a world where international law and its institutions are averse to inter-state war, it can be quite difficult to change borders. Sadly for both Kurds and the Tuareg, many borders would have to be changed were they to attain self-determination, especially given that both these peoples’ numbers span through territory controlled by multiple sovereign states. The Kurds have consequently faced repression campaigns carried out by Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey alike. In turn, the Tuareg have been viewed with deep suspicion by Mali, Nigeria, Libya and Algeria. It is one thing to rebel against the rule of one sovereign state; it is another altogether to rebel against the rule of four of them. On this issue, though, there may be good news, since one of the advantages of such a wide front is that one can choose where to make a stand.

Kurdish uprisings have been repressed in all states with a Kurdish minority and the Kurds have long given up on confronting Iran, for instance. Instead, they have focused on Iraq and Turkey, Iraq because it is a multi-ethnic state with territorially defined ethnic lines and Turkey because its democratic government offers more legal ways to fight for independence. As with the Kurds, Tuareg fighting in Mali and Niger has been recurrent. Although Algeria has never had to face that contingency, the prospect of fierce Tuareg resistance against French colonization, as well as ongoing Tuareg smuggling operations in its territory, is deeply concerning for Algiers.

2) Co-opt regional stakeholders

Like Turkey, Algeria is the regional power—and as the Kurds have learned, going up against the region’s hegemon leads nowhere. This is why the Iraqi Kurdistan regional authorities have sought for some time now to distance themselves from the active Turkish Kurdish guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and why such a policy is now bearing fruit. Instead of being part of the problem, Kurds have realized that being part of the solution goes a long way. By choosing to limit their struggle to Iraq, the Kurdish leadership in Erbil has been able to style itself as a check on Iranian influence in Iraq and a facilitator of energy security in oil supplies to Turkey. The Tuareg in Mali, on the other hand, are seen by Algiers as irredentist smugglers and accomplices of Saharan Salafism; political confidence is thus in short supply and economic cooperation out of consideration.

3) Use natural resources as leverage

Economy is a key word for both Kurds and the Tuareg, since both peoples sit on strategic resources: the Kurds control oil reserves and pipelines, and the Tuareg sit on oil in Mali and uranium in Niger, and stand right in the path of a potential gas pipeline linking Nigeria to Europe. In addition, both the Kurds and the Tuareg possess the geostrategic advantage of harsh terrain and thus cannot be easily subdued: the Kurds have used their mountainous territory to draw both Turks and Iraqis into never-ending pacification campaigns and the Tuareg know the Sahara desert better than anyone sitting in Bamako, Niamey or Algiers. These are powerful reasons for keeping the Tuareg down, but equally powerful motivators to count them as allies if possible; the Tuareg, like the Kurds, would then do well to present themselves as pragmatic businessmen rather than unreasonable extremists.

4) Lobby the big powers

If and when their aspirations are met by international recognition, the ‘big five’ is the place to go. The UN Security Council’s five permanent members have the last word when it comes to legitimizing nationhood and awarding lost causes wide media attention. To appeal to Western electorates, for example, the Kurds have long portrayed themselves as a modern people of moderate religious beliefs. They have also kept lobbying operations in Washington, Berlin and Paris—be these through professional lobbying firms or diaspora-linked NGOs—and forged ties with Israel, thus distinguishing themselves from other prejudiced Middle Eastern and North African states, as well as gaining the favor of an important regional stakeholder.

The Tuareg could easily follow suit, as they have a large immigrant community in France. They could also use their US connections, which were forged during the Pan-Sahel Initiative: After 9/11, American personnel trained military forces from the Sahel countries, many of them comprised of Tuareg soldiers, to keep terrorist movements from making use of ungoverned spaces such as the Sahara desert.

Enjoying good faith in the world’s capitals can also allow for a revamp in the media narrative, from being portrayed as terrorists like the PKK and Ansar Dine to being seen as victims of tyranny. Moreover, it is possible to turn a negative connotation into an argument for self-determination, given that just like the Kurds, the Tuareg too could present themselves as a local asset for world powers in the fight against international terrorism.

5) The path to fait accompli is gradual

Of course, the Tuareg face difficulties that the Kurds do not, and vice-versa. One of the main hindrances for the Sahara dwellers is that changing colonial borders in Africa has been taboo since the end of decolonization. Among African elites, the consensus is that it is actually preferable to live with the distortions created by artificial borders inherited from European empires than to open a can of worms and put the whole continent up for grabs for every single ethnic group and tribe that aims for autonomy. Hence, new countries have been something of a rarity in post colonial Africa. Independence wars in Biafra, Katanga and the Western Sahara were aborted in bloodbaths; Eritrea, South Sudan and Somaliland took advantage of their respective central governments’ difficulties in waging wars on several fronts to press for their own secession—although unrecognized in Somaliland’s case.

Yet, in all these cases, as well as in Kurdistan’s, sovereignty passes first through autonomy and de facto self-rule. Equally pertinent is that it passes through limited ambitions, which, as Iraqi Kurdistan discovered, implies caving in on some fronts (Turkey) in order to gain in others (Iraq). In Mali, the Tuareg jumped the gun in more ways than one and if independence is truly what matters to them, then considerable patience, cunning and tact can be learned from the Kurdish liberation struggle in such a way that may yet award these tribal nomads their day in the sun.