Needed in Iraqi Kurdistan: Charm offensive
By Henri J Barkey
Northern Iraq, aka Kurdistan, has represented the one success of the US
occupation of Iraq. It is quiet and prosperous, and US troops are welcomed by
the population there. But this can all crumble in the next six to nine months
if Washington is not careful.
Neighboring Turkey, alarmed at the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern
Iraq and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) there, may throw
caution to the wind by engaging in a
cross-border military operation. Such an event is likely to pit Ankara, a North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, against both the United States and
its Kurdish allies.
Fighting between Turks and Kurds in Iraq could spread to Turkey itself and, in
the end, lead to a severe rupture in US-Turkish relations. An unstable and
violent northern Iraq would deal a fatal blow to the United States' Iraq
project by accelerating, widening and deepening the current inter-communal
Turkey, which has a sizable and restive Kurdish minority of its own, is fearful
of the demonstration effect of the gains achieved by Iraqi Kurds. It has tried
to resist not only Kurdish independence but also Kurds' attempts at
incorporating the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into their area, thereby facilitating
any future bid for independence. Renewed confrontations with the PKK in Turkey
with concomitant increases in casualties have further soured the Turkish mood
and have contributed to the rise of xenophobic nationalism and political
instability in that country.
The Turks blame the Iraq war for creating the conditions that have given rise
to a potential independent Kurdish state. They also accuse the US of ignoring
Turkish red lines on Kirkuk and federalism and demands to take action against
the PKK. In fact, Turks are convinced that the US prefers its newfound Kurdish
friends to its old NATO ally. Widespread disaffection with the US - exacerbated
by politicians, pundits and generals - has translated into increasing public
pressure for a unilateral Turkish move into Iraq.
Ankara has also stepped up its attacks on the approach of Iraqi Kurds to
Kirkuk, accusing them of forcibly changing the demographics of the city and
mistreating the Turkoman population, with whom Turkey has cultivated ties. It
wants Washington to use its influence to prevent Iraqi Kurds from incorporating
Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) through a referendum
mandated by the Iraqi constitution to take place by the end of this year.
Last August, with Turkish patience waning, a move into northern Iraq was
averted by last-minute diplomacy and the appointment of a special US
negotiator, retired General Joseph Ralston, to work with the Turks on the PKK.
Although both the United States and Turkey are well aware of the stakes
involved, the fact remains that the continued stalemate is hostage to a
flare-up of violence, a miscalculation or even an accident, especially now that
Turkey will be beset with uncertainty as it struggles with its constitutional
crisis after last month's failed presidential election.
If current trends hold, Iraq's future will be determined by the separation of
its three communities - whether this is within a loose federation or through
three independent states. No amount of threats will alter a final outcome that
may not be to the liking of either Washington or Ankara.
Ankara's options are quite limited. Turkey can actively align itself with Iran
and Syria, two other neighboring countries with sizable and restless Kurdish
populations of their own, to prevent the Kurds from achieving their goals. Such
an alignment, however, would seriously undermine Iraq's already tenuous future
and run afoul of the Americans and the Europeans.
A large anti-PKK cross-border military intervention risks embroiling the Turks
in a guerrilla campaign with Iraqi Kurds that, as the Americans have
discovered, they cannot win. Such an action would have extremely serious
ramifications for Ankara's standing with the United States and the European
Moreover, Turkey's Kurdish regions would erupt in violence were the Turks to
intervene against their Iraqi brethren. Finally, Ankara has also closed the
door on prospective amnesty for PKK fighters other than the leadership cadres
for fear of appearing irresolute.
Today, domestic-nationalist considerations drive a war of words between Ankara
and Iraq's Kurds over Kirkuk.
Nevertheless, the Turks' fear of their own Kurdish minority - estimated at 20%
of their population - is as neuralgic as it is existential. Since the inception
of the Turkish republic in 1923, Turkish Kurds, in one form or another, have
agitated for greater rights and recognition.
These efforts at times assumed a violent character, as with the PKK-led
insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, or more often than not have followed a path
of increased political mobilization. Either form of activity has been seen as
dangerous by the Turkish state, which until a little more than a decade ago had
refused to acknowledge the Kurds' existence.
The fear of further Kurdish mobilization in Turkey has hampered Ankara's
cooperation with the KRG. Ankara has tried its best to ignore the KRG's
existence on the grounds that the Iraqi constitution has yet to assume its
final and definitive shape. Outgoing Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer,
despite his government's entreaties, has obstinately refused to invite Iraqi
President Jalal Talabani to Ankara simply because the latter is a Kurd from
The Turkish chief of the General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, forced the
cancellation of an unofficial meeting between the Turkish foreign minister and
KRG Prime Minister Nechrivan Barzani by publicly admonishing his government for
meeting with people he claimed were "supporting the PKK militarily".
For the civilian and military establishment and its allies, Turkey's ruling
Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kurds represent the most pressing
dangers facing the republic - Islamic fundamentalism and separatism. These
domestic tensions are being played out against the backdrop of a nationalist
revival, increasing xenophobia and anti-Western feelings. Turks are being fed a
daily barrage of news that not only accentuates these sentiments but recounts
and warns of massacres of Turkomans in Iraq, whether in Kirkuk or Tal Afar.
For all these reasons, the Iraq dossier has come to represent the Turkish
government's Achilles' heel. It is vulnerable to accusations of being soft on
Iraqi Kurds, the US and the PKK presence in Iraq. Unable to undermine its
overwhelming parliamentary majority, the anti-AKP establishment has tried to
force the government's hand to initiate some kind of cross-border military
operation against the express will of the US military in Iraq and Iraqi Kurds.
The Turkish government - especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - has
contributed to these tensions by adopting a combative stance of its own.
Erdogan, to protect his nationalist flank, has publicly said Turkey will not
remain a spectator to events in Kirkuk, thereby raising the specter of an
intervention and outpacing the military.
The Kurds have assumed erroneously that their privileged position in Iraq
protects them from the vagaries of both US and Turkish policies. Barzani's
discourse has had an inflammatory impact on the Turkish domestic political
scene, and Washington not only has to impress on the Kurds the precariousness
of their current situation but also make use of its considerable influence with
the KRG to change its tactics.
The KRG's strategic imperative requires it to get along with Ankara, and it is
in serious need of a "charm offensive" there.