In evaluating ways to clean up the mess that the Bush Administration made in Iraq, too little attention has been paid to the strategic options presented by the Kurds, who comprise about 25 % of Iraq’s population and now control 10-20 % of its territory under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Regional Government (hereinafter “Kurdistan” or “KRG”).
I was in Kurdistan last week. Its second city, Sulamaniyah, is crowded with traffic, and construction cranes dot the skyline. Civilians rush about, patronizing high-end clothing stores as well as traditional markets. The atmosphere is calm, with few worries about security. Not a single American soldier or marine has been killed, wounded or kidnapped in Kurdistan since the invasion of 2003. Unlike in southern Iraq, Americans are popular.
KRG is guaranteed political autonomy by the Iraqi constitution. The Kurds intend to hold on to the autonomy and, if possible, to expand it, hoping to extend the geographic reach of KRG to the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk. With the revenue from Kirkuk’s energy resources, protection from KRG’s Peshmerga–militia forces estimated to number anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000, and a modicum of support from U.S. forces, the Kurds are well-positioned to play a crucial role in the reshaping of the Middle East.
Five scenarios can be envisioned. The first is least likely: a genuinely unified and democratic Iraq.
Promised their own state after the Ottoman Empire was dismembered at the end of World War I, the Kurds felt betrayed when Mustafa Kemal, popularly known as “Ataturk,” forced a deal on the Allies to include many Kurds in the newly created state of Turkey, leaving others in Iran and Syria, and the Kurd-dominated Mosul Vilayet to be stuffed into the newly created British Mandate of Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds always have resisted being governed from Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, leading revolt after revolt, and engaging in guerrilla warfare through their Peshmergas on a more or less continuing basis. The no-fly zone created by the U.S. and its allies after the Gulf War, and the support provided by the Kurds to Coalition forces during and after the 2003 Invasion, cemented a separate status for the Kurds inside Iraq, long sought by them through political and military means. Memories of poison gas attacks on Kurdish civilians during the Iran-Iraq war and brutal destruction of hundreds of villages and targeting of their civilian populations by Saddam whenever he got the chance are vivid in the Kurdish psyche. Museums to torture by Baathist security forces and to razing of villages proliferate. Iraqi Arabs, whether Shi’ia or Sunni, are viewed with suspicion. The Kurds’ greatest fear is that geopolitics will give the central government in Baghdad the space once again to subjugate them. In this context, the likelihood that the Kurds would willingly give up their autonomy to a centralized Iraq is close to zero.
In the near term, a second scenario is virtually certain: The Kurds will build on their experience in playing off regional and international powers to protect their position. Turkey is crucial in this equation. 20-30 % of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, though the official position of Turkey is that Kurds do not exist in Turkey; they are merely Turks who lost their identities and unaccountably took up a different language, which Turkey forbade them to speak. Turkey’s rigidity in closing off legal pathways for Turkish Kurds to realize their political, economic, and cultural ambitions led to the creation of a guerrilla insurgency, the PKK, which, over the last four decades gradually squeezed out other Kurdish political movements, aided by a Turkish policy of routinely arresting any Kurd who expressed support for Kurdish national identity and routinely abolishing every political party that attracted significant popular support among the Kurds. Determination to stamp out the PKK focused attention on its bases in what is now the KRG, resulting in periodic incursions by the Turkish military into KRG to attack the bases, never however, entirely stamping out the insurgency.
Now, Turkey is schizophrenic about the creation of a Kurdish quasi-state next door in Iraq. Conservative forces in Turkey, including the military, view the establishment of KRG with horror. They fear that the KRG will provide support for the PKK, or at least give it space to operate. They also fear that the emergence of a quasi-Kurdish state in Iraq will fuel secessionist ambitions by Turkey’s Kurds. But other centers of political power in Turkey, anchored in the current government of Recep Erdogan, have more enlightened views. They recognize that the existence and development of KRG provides an opening for a fundamental realignment of Turkish policy toward the Kurds.
Turkey and the KRG have mutual incentives to form an alliance that will alter the politics of the region. Indeed both have already taken significant steps in that direction. Turkish investment, courted energetically by the KRG, is pouring into Kurdistan. Trade between Kurdistan and Turkey flourishes, fueling the economic boom in Kurdistan and a more muted prosperity in Kurdish areas of Turkey. Both of the major factions in KRG, Mamoud Barzani’s KDP and Jamal Talabani’s PUK, have responded to Turkey’s demands that open recruiting operations by the PKK and its affiliated KRG political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (“KDSP”), be shut down, although the KRG has done little to disarm the PKK or to dismantle its bases along the border between KRG and Turkey.
KRG leaders have a dual incentive to forge links with Turkey. First, signs of a relaxation of Turkey’s oppression of its Kurds dilutes a willingness by Iraqi Kurds to sacrifice their own interests to support resistance by the Turkish Kurds. Second, KRG desperately needs Turkey’s military power to protect it from Baghdad, more so as U.S. forces are drawn down. In the meantime, the Iraqi Kurds intend to beef up their Peshmergas and to keep the PKK in ready reserve, both to strengthen their bargaining power with Turkey and to allow for a defense if things go badly awry.
Turkey’s interests also are served by strengthening ties with the KRG. In reality, the PKK is a spent force, ruined by the pathological egomania of its creator, Abdullah Ocalan, now in prison in Turkey, but still influential enough as a symbol to drive the better political strategists and military tacticians out of the rump PKK. The PKK remains capable of launching occasional raids into Turkey, targeting military personnel, and represents a continuing source of military support for the KDP and PUK Peshmergas if either Baghdad or Turkey try to intervene militarily in Kurdistan.
Turkey can take the steam out of its own Kurdish secessionists, and dry up support for the PKK further by continuing to relax its bans on Kurdish culture and political participation in a more democratic Turkey. The alternative is to reignite support for the PKK and other guerrilla insurgencies both inside Turkey and in KRG by pursuing a policy like that of Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo, which eventually led to Kosovo’s independence. Historically, Turkey’s policy against its Kurds strongly resembled Serbia’s policy toward its Albanians, but the Erdogan government seems to recognize the costs of such a policy. Turkish Kurds, further inflamed by a resumption of oppression and cultural denial, would be in the same position as Kosovo’s Albanians, with KRG just across the border representing a haven for recruitment, training, and supply, much as the state of Albania was for the Kosovar Albanian insurgents in the Kosovo Liberation Army (although Kurdistan, unlike Albania, has no port).
A strengthening of the alliance between Turkey and Kurdistan also serves U.S. interests. It cements Kurdistan as a stalwart U.S. ally in the rubble of Iraq, serving as a counterpoise to anti-U.S. sentiments and politics among the Sunni and Shia Arabs in southern Iraq. It removes a major irritant to U.S. Turkish relations, which are important strategically, given Turkey’s military power and symbolism as a moderate Islamic democracy.
In the long term–over a period of ten or twenty years–a third scenario is conceivable: the region could see a partial reemergence of the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Turkey would extend its influence through a philosophy that, like the Ottomans, respects different cultures within the Empire and allows a considerable measure of self-governance. Iran would continue to extend its regional influence through its already strong affinity with the Iraqi Shias, and its manipulation of political relations with Syria and the Palestinian territories through its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. The West and Israel, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, would welcome Turkey’s emergence as a counterpoise to Iranian hegemony over the region.
Such a strategic realignment is fraught with risks, however, giving rise to a fourth scenario. Kurdistan is determined to get Kirkuk and its oil resources. The central government of Iraq is equally determined to keep it out of Kurdish hands. Turkey, so far, has sided with the central government, fearing that a Kurdistan with oil wealth would be less dependent on cooperation with Turkey. If the Kurds are too assertive with respect to Kirkuk, or if Baghdad is too assertive in an effort to reduce KRG autonomy, large scale military conflict could easily break out between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga, with the likelihood of involvement by the PKK and the possibility of military intervention by Turkey and Iran. Whether the U.S. would have the stomach to get in the middle is doubtful.
So far, the U.S. has managed a fifth scenario: policing a frozen conflict, with the failed state of Iraq to the south, and a confident, assertive Kurdistan to the north, held back by its strengthening relationship with Turkey as well as by the U.S. But as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, the frozen conflict is certain to melt. Channeling the runoff into a strengthened Kurdistan, backed up by Turkey, is in everyone’s interest.