November Issue 2007
Fuel to the Fire
There is one part of Iraq that has largely been spared the agony that has engulfed the remainder of the country in recent years: the northern area known as the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR). The KAR did not face an American invasion in 2003 chiefly because it was effectively removed from Baghdad’s sphere of influence in the wake of the first Gulf war 12 years earlier.
Since the early 1990s, no-fly zones policed by US and British forces prevented Saddam Hussein from having his way with Iraq’s hitherto beleaguered Kurdish minority. Needless to say, the Kurds were profoundly grateful. And, not surprisingly, they are the only segment of Iraq’s population that has collaborated wholeheartedly with the occupying armies. The quid pro quo has included Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), being ensconced as the president of Iraq, while his formal rival Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), leads the KAR regional government.
It may be an exaggeration to suggest that the KAR has thrived in the past four years, but it has undoubtedly been far better off than the rest of Iraq in economic terms and, above all, it has enjoyed peace. Last month it became clear that this peace was unlikely to last much longer, after the Turkish parliament overwhelmingly authorised the government in Ankara to invade northern Iraq.
The provocation took the shape of increased attacks by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkey-based rebel organisation, some of whose fighters have taken refuge in mountains across the border. This isn’t by any means a novelty: the PKK has been a thorn in Turkey’s side for at least 20 years, and in the past, hot pursuit has often involved incursions by Turkish troops into Iraqi terrain. However, similar action today could have more serious connotations, not least because Iraq is under US occupation.
Although the US, like Turkey (and, for that matter, the European Union), has designated the PKK a terrorist organisation, Kurds of the Talabani-Barzani variety are among the Americans’ closest allies in a generally hostile part of the world. So are, for that matter, the Turks. Turkey is considered a crucial member of NATO and, perhaps even more significantly, serves as the conduit for logistical support to the occupation forces in Iraq.
Even a restricted regional war on the northern periphery of Iraq would be a severe embarrassment for the US. Hence the concerted efforts by the State Department and other sections of the Bush administration to stave off an armed confrontation. The attempt to appease Turkey included the demise of a congressional resolution aimed at recognising genocide against Armenians by the Ottoman empire in 1915, an extraordinarily sensitive issue among Turkish nationalists.
In an echo of that attitude, most Turks are in denial about the crimes committed in recent decades by their state against the Kurds. The focus is entirely on violent activities — including terrorist attacks on civilians — by outfits such as the PKK, but there is almost no acknowledgement of the repression against Kurds and their culture, which elicited such a response. There is a parallel here with the Israeli attitude towards Palestinians. And, not surprisingly, ties between the Israeli and Turkish states have long been cordial, and on occasion collaborative. It has strongly been rumoured, for instance, that Mossad helped Turkish military intelligence in capturing PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya in 1999.
Ocalan was condemned to death by a Turkish court, but the sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment — chiefly because Turkey is keen to be accepted as a member by the European Union (EU) and could ill afford further blemishes on its chequered human rights record. The EU attraction may also play a role in averting a serious conflagration this time around.
There were also indications that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wasn’t particularly keen on a military adventure, but came under strong pressure from public opinion as well as the nation’s powerful army, which has always detested Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) because of their Islamist past. It is therefore possible that the vituperative rhetoric from Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul — another AKP stalwart — was intended in part to gain themselves some breathing space. Although they frequently threatened war, they simultaneously made an effort to give diplomacy a chance, and this included a vigorous dialogue with Baghdad and Washington.
The trouble is, neither Baghdad nor Washington is in a position to do much about the PKK. There are no Iraqi government forces in the KAR, and any influx would be deeply resented and quite possibly resisted by all Kurds. The US can hardly afford to deploy troops from other parts of Iraq to the Kurdish border region, given the security situation in the rest of the country. Nor does it have any inclination to alienate the Kurds. It has leaned on Talabani and Barzani to take action against the PKK, but neither of them has an appetite for internecine Kurdish strife. And doubts were anyhow expressed about the ability of their peshmerga forces to take on the PKK. Hence the two presidents issued appeals requesting the PKK to give up violence and abandon its bases, but also insisted that the question of handing over any rebels — “or even a Kurdish cat” — to Turkey did not arise.
On the face of it, there is little love lost between the PUK and the KDP on the one hand and the PKK on the other: the latter’s propaganda, for instance, contains references to scientific socialism and derides those who have chosen to collaborate with the world’s largest capitalist power. On the other hand, most Kurds, regardless of their ideological bent or alliances of convenience, continue to nurture dreams of an independent Kurdistan. This is by no means an unjust aspiration: at 45 million, they constitute the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation-state. Although the PKK is purportedly no longer a separatist organisation and seeks no more than equal rights within Turkey for its Kurdish population, there can be little question that Kurds everywhere have been enormously buoyed by the establishment of the KAR and look upon it as the nucleus of a future Kurdistan.
Turkey, which does not recognise the autonomous region yet has invested heavily in its infrastructure, is well aware of the dilemma posed by the possible disintegration of Iraq. Its concerns are shared to some extent by Iran and Syria, both of which host Kurdish minorities.
There is, in this context, an interesting anomaly that deserves at least mention. The Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the similarities of whose platform with the PKK extend to its allegiance to Ocalan, happens also to be engaged in very similar activities. Yet not only has the PJAK failed to attract the terrorist tag, it also keeps in touch with US officials, and its leader is said to have visited Washington. It owes these privileges to the simple fact that its operations are directed against a different Iraqi neighbour, namely Iran.
Such double standards are, of course, all too common in US foreign policy. At the same time, the Americans ought to be well aware that in the wake of extended Turkish incursions into Iraq, Iran may well be tempted to follow suit. In which case, would Syria stay out of the fray?
The Kurdish question has rarely attracted much attention on the international level, even though it’s not hard to see that, whatever one’s opinion of their methods, the various Kurdish groups that have engaged over the decades in a struggle for autonomy or independence have shared a broad cause that is neither unnatural nor particularly unreasonable. In an ideal world, it would have been possible for the four states with Kurdish minorities to agree on ceding appropriate proportions of their territory to contribute towards the creation of a coherent Kurdistan, thereby righting one of the innumerable wrongs perpetrated by colonial mapmakers.
Unfortunately, that is not how nation-states behave in the real world. Instead, each of the countries, under various regimes, has exploited the Kurds for its own purposes while steadily denying their aspirations towards independent nationhood and, in the process, often resorting to outrageous levels of repression. Saddam Hussein was a major culprit in this respect, but by no means the only one. It would, meanwhile, also be unwise to overlook the fact that the American alliance with Iraqi Kurds is, from Washington’s point of view, intended primarily to serve strategic US interests. Had it not been for Turkey’s inflexibility, the US may actually have been inclined towards supporting the establishment of Kurdistan in some form, provided the dominant Kurdish leadership was willing to pledge its allegiance and to keep at bay the semi-Marxist tendencies of the various groups that have over the decades spearheaded the Kurds’ struggle for self-determination.
It has hitherto been argued, however, that a potential Kurdistan, inevitably landlocked, would be economically unviable. The KAR administration is currently seeking to redress this problem: it has pinned its hopes on incorporating into the autonomous entity the neighbouring region of Kirkuk, which holds about 40% of Iraq’s crude oil reserves. The area is said to have been depopulated of Kurds under Saddam, who encouraged Arabs from central and southern Iraq to settle there. The trend is now being reversed, with monetary incentives, by the KAR regime, ahead of a referendum on the future of Kirkuk that has been written into occupied Iraq’s constitution.
The prospect of Kirkuk’s incorporation into the KAR is likely to be opposed, and quite possibly resisted, by Iraqi Arabs. The opposition from Turkey will be no less vehement: Ankara is disinclined to endorse any development that contributes to the viability of an independent Kurdish state.
Turkey, of course, faces many problems of its own, not the least of which is a legacy of nationalism that all too frequently manifests itself in unpalatable forms. Somewhat ironically, the ex-Islamists under Erdogan represent a relatively moderate trend in this respect, and it is not surprising that the AKP’s comfortable majority is based in part on a substantial Kurdish vote. However, the influence of the secular but profoundly nationalistic military on political affairs has not so far diminished appreciably. This appears to be one of the main driving forces between the government’s belligerent rhetoric, and by the end of October, there were an estimated 100,000 Turkish troops amassed on the border with Iraq, ostensibly preparing to take on no more than 3,000 PKK guerrillas.
This is clearly a case of a historically complex situation being further complicated by the overwhelmingly disastrous US occupation of Iraq. Whatever shape events may take in the short term, it is extremely difficult, in the given circumstances, to envisage a happy ending for any of the parties concerned.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.