THEWORLDTODAY.ORG DECEMBER 2007
THE KURDISH QUESTION Robert Lowe and Gareth Stansfield
Raısıng the Stakes
The Kurdish people are an awkward presence in the complicated and tense geopolitics of the Middle East. Whether in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, or Syria, they are in the midst of highly unstable situations. There is turmoil in Iraq; the possibility of a military attack on Iran; uncertainty over Turkey’s political direction; and the continuing problem of the treatment of Kurds in Syria. Each country has a significant Kurdish population which, for all the diversity, poses related questions for these states and international policy. Increasingly vigorous Kurdish nationalism is raising the stakes. This has been strengthened by the firm establishment of the effectively autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
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tHECOMPLEXMOUNTAIN borderlands between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey are mainly populated by Kurds. This greatly complicates the relationships between them. Recent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacks in Turkey have raised the tension to its highest level since the late 1990s. Iranian forces have also suffered at the hands of the Freedom and Life Party (PJAK). Most of the incidents occurred in areas bordering the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Both the region and its administration are recognised by the Iraqi constitution and government – much to the chagrin of Ankara. The killing of forty Turkish soliders and civilians has produced an intensely nationalist public mood and the government has been under enormous pressure to deliver a robust response, to destroy the PKK and send a message to the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Turks demand firm action to show the country is not weak, even though a military solution is unrealistic. The struggle between the PKK and Turkey has killed 37,000 people since 1984. A five-year PKK ceasefire ended in 2004. While exact figures are hard to come by, perhaps three thousand of its five thousand active fighters THEWORLDTODAY.ORG DECEMBER 2007
ROBERT LOWEis Manager of the Middle East Programme at Chatham House. GARETH STANSFIELDis Professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter and Associate Fellow of the Middle East Programme at Chatham House. He is currently finalising A History of Kurdistan for Cambridge University Press.
operate from the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, this threat is not new. In the 1990s Turkey frequently carried out operations against the PKK inside Iraq and the military detachments it left behind to monitor PKK and, perhaps Iraqi Kurdish activities, are still there. Turkey’s current threat to invade Iraqi Kurdistan should be seen as a development of its established posture and deployment, rather than anything particularly radical.
BRAVADO The Turkish bark may be worse than its bite. Although Turkey’s forces number half a million and the PKK is much smaller than in the 1990s, difficult terrain, guerrilla tactics and popular support across all of Kurdistan, will ultimately ensure its survival. Recognising this, Turkey has heaped pressure on Iraq’s Kurdish regional government to deal with PKK fighters and again threatened to use force against their positions in Iraq. Sabres have also been rattled against Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani – the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). But they seem to be made of sterner stuff than in the 1990s, particularly as they now have unparalleled international legitimacy since Barzani is President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Talabani, President of Iraq. Turkey would no longer be invading a rebel province with the tacit approval of Baghdad – it would be intruding on a legal region of a sovereign country headed by a Kurd. The chutzpah of the Kurdish leadership is clear. When Turkey demanded that Iraqi Kurdistan extradite PKK members to Turkey, Talabani said, ‘We will not hand any Kurd over to Turkey, not even a Kurdish cat.’ Bravado aside, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, well aware of the dangers, continues to appeal for calm. Temperatures among the military high command in Turkey are running high, with key figures keen for the military to reassert itself over the governing Justice and Development Party as the true national power. While the peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan are more capable than ever, they would still be mauled by the military might of Turkey. Turkey has also considered applying sanctions to Iraqi Kurdistan to prick the bubble of its economic boom. Quite simply, without Turkish investment, good will, and access to markets, the Kurdish success story in Iraq would be doomed. This triangular relationship between Turkey, the PKK, and the Iraqi Kurds has history. Despite
sharing nationalist Kurdish goals, the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish groups do not share an amicable past or present. Differences of ideology, personality and the realpolitik demanded in minority groups’ struggles with larger states have created incompatible movements. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have all played the groups against each other and supported one or another at various times for convenient self-interest. For their part, Kurdish parties have made some unholy alliances when necessary, sometimes specifically against other Kurdish groups. In the 1990s, during the repeated Turkish incursions into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Barzani’s KDP provided support to the Turks and fought against the PKK. Similarly, in 1999, the PUK attempted and failed to push the PKK out of their seemingly impregnable mountain stronghold. Now, Barzani is extremely reluctant to take up arms again against the PKK. The reasons relate not only to the tenacity of the PKK guerrillas and the likely losses. Barzani and Talabani are now symbols of pan-Kurdish nationalism – a position last claimed by Abdullah ÖÖcalan of the PKK presently in a Turkish prison. It would now be deeply problematic for them to engage in intra-Kurdish warfare on behalf of Turkey. The two doughty leaders are also aware that, while the PKK are troublesome cousins, their presence in the high mountains is immensely preferable to that of radical Islamists. In these murky geopolitical games, the relationship between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds has some positive aspects. and business is very important to both. Indeed, the level of investment in construction in Erbil and Dohuk is clearly apparent. There is also a small but noticeable trend in Turkish leftist and intellectual circles calling for a review of the country’s position towards the Iraqi Kurds – perhaps seeing them more as partners than enemies. However, serious problems undoubtedly influence the current crisis. Aside from the PKK issue, tensions exist over the fate of Kirkuk with its oil reserves, of the Turkmen community in northern Iraq, and the prospect of Iraqi Kurdistan moving further towards formal separation from Baghdad. In the longer term, Turkey might accept an independent Kurdistan splitting from Iraq, but only if its move for European Union (EU) membership is proceeding well. If the relationship between Ankara and its own Kurds is much improved, and if Turkey very clearly has a ‘big-brother’ relationship with any independent Kurdish state that may emerge from the ashes of Iraq. These are conditions which, even in the best circumstances, are difficult to imagine in the near future.