Could a Kurdish State Be Set Up in Iraq?

Could a Kurdish State Be Set Up in Iraq?

Ozcan, Nihat Ali

We can theoretically respond to this question with an immediate “yes.” Kurds, like most other ethnic groups, may set up their own state. It would be plausible to assert, particularly after the recent operation of the coalition forces in Iraq, that the Kurds are much closer to this goal than ever. However, a closer look at the Middle East would reveal that there are serious practical difficulties to the setting up of a Kurdish state, and overcoming them would be extremely difficult and costly.

The first of these difficulties arises from the fact that Kurdish leaders have strong tendencies to cast their energies in favor of the divided local governments that they represent, rather than in favor of an independent state. Indeed leadership derives its legitimacy not from personal qualities and political institutions, but from the tribe-based social fabric prevalent in the region. Thus, neither Jalal Talabani nor Massoud Barzani is the leader of the most populous Kurdish tribes in their region; they are simply the leaders of the alliances of the best-organized tribes that managed to hold control by relying on the force of money and armaments. Tribal membership provides people living in this region with economic advantages, political power, social status and individual security. The establishment of an independent state may rapidly change the existing social order and power relations. Therefore, in the discussions over the feasibility of an independent state it should always be kept in mind that the social and political divisions between the Iraqi Kurds themselves constitute the main dynamic affecting the final outcome. Consequently, attention at this stage must be directed inside rather than outside because this division and competition could make an armed conflict inevitable.

Competition in the Kurdish region may occur either in the form of one Kurdish group against the other or of counteralliances. At this junction, it does not seem possible that local Kurdish governments could establish superiority through peaceful competition without resorting to arms. If division and competition were coupled with the culture of violence prevalent in the region, tribal interactions would likely take the form of armed conflict. It is because of the high potential for armed conflict that the current lack of trust in the region is getting deeper and each group is focusing its attention on the region it controls. Therefore, the primary issue of the Kurdish groups is to preserve the status quo rather than to set up an independent state. The main reason there is not an armed struggle now is that both Kurdish groups have turned their eyes to Mosul and Kirkuk rather than each other.

It is almost inevitable that free elections will cause military confrontations among the Kurds. The only possibility that might prevent this would be the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. However, not only does this possibility appear to be problematic, but the countries in the region are also aware of the structural weaknesses of the Kurdish cause and tend to manipulate them in their favor.

The second difficulty in regard to the establishment of a Kurdish state will likely emanate from controversy over its borders. Particularly, the Mosul and Kirkuk regions will engender serious problems, since this region is not only home to rich oil fields, but also to various ethnic communities. Arabs and Kurds would likely be concerned with the situation of Arabs and Turkomans who might reside in a Kurdish state. While the Arab population of an independent Kurdish state would try to form alliances with other Arabs to the South and West, the Turkoman community of 700,000-2.3 million will continue to look to Turkey. On the other hand, the Kurds would likely try to expel the Arabs and the Turkomans from their region in parallel with their effort to establish their state. Therefore, the possibility of armed conflict might be so high that it would eventually result in ethnic cleansing.

The third difficulty is that neighboring countries will view such a possibility with alarm. Not only Iraq, but also Turkey, Iran and Syria would perceive the same kind of threat stemming from an independent Kurdish state. Such a state might provoke the Kurds of neighboring countries and in the long run create serious security problems. It would be futile to expect cordial relations.

The fourth reason is that an independent Kurdish state would face the serious problem of its landlocked geography. Under the conditions of failed integration with the world economy and territorial entrapment, an independent Kurdish state could come into being only if an outside power such as the United States offered support and protection, or a special relationship were established with a neighboring country. In fact, Turkey played such a role between 1992 and 2003. However, the changing political conditions in the region, particularly the Kurdish attempts at state building, would prevent any regional country from performing the “big brother” role.

The fifth difficulty relates to cost. Would the Americans be willing to pay for the process of changing political boundaries in the Middle East? If the Americans support border changes, anti-American feeling in the region would abound. To what extent would such a situation serve U.S. global interests? If the Americans are committed to the goal of rooting out the sources of terrorism, favoring border changes might increase the cost by limiting the number of its allies. Neither the wider Arab community nor Turkey and Iran would be willing to cooperate with the United States if the latter had helped the Kurds establish their state against the wishes of former.

Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdish groups in Iraq can be analyzed in three different periods. From 1959 to 1983, Turkey preferred to ignore the existence of a Kurdish reality in Iraq. Constrained by Cold War geopolitical realities, Turkey mainly considered the Kurds an internal affair of Iraq and not a threat. The second period lasted from 1983 to 1986, when Turkey started to perceive threats coming form the region. The Partiye Karkaren Kurdistane (PKK) was taking root in northern Iraq with the support of Iran and Syria and was allied with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). During this period, Turkey directed its military power against the KDP.

The third period covers 1986 to date, the period of interdependent alliances with the KDP against the PKK. Turkey has protected the KDP by the direct use of force against the PKK and the PUK. It has also armed, trained and organized the military arm of the KDP. In the same process, Turkey has given aid to the KDP in sizable amounts of armaments, money, trucks and technical equipment. The KDP, by its control of the Iraqi side of the Habur customs gate at the border with Turkey, has had an important source of revenue, and Turkey has in turn acquired cheap oil from Iraq. Through its alliance with Turkey, the KDP on the one hand outrivaled other tribes in the region, while on the other it established economic and military superiority over the PUK. When disputes arose between the KDP and Turkey, the customs revenues of the KDP decreased dramatically, which caused discord in the region. In return for all these gains, the KDP participated, though not voluntarily, alongside the operations of the Turkish armed forces against the PKK. The relations between the KDP and Turkey started to weaken from late 2002 to June 2003, and the parties have attempted to form new policies in light of the dismantling of Saddam’s government by the United States. Turkey, rather than directly targeting the Kurdish groups, has started to develop its relations with them in parallel to its efforts to contribute to the diminution of regional tension.

Of all the Kurdish groups, the KDP has always been in the foreground relating to Turkey, as it is composed of tribes living along the Turkish border. Talabani had to remain in the background due to the geographical distance of his tribes from Turkey. Nevertheless he intended to develop closer relations with Turkey by the leverage of a tactical relationship with the PKK. Upset by the growing ties between Turkey and the PUK, the KDP tried to contribute to the formation of an image of “Talabani the untrustworthy” in Turkish public opinion. Talabani on the other hand, due to the strategic isolation of the region under his control, made efforts to develop multifaceted relations.

Turkey at this point appears to have signed on to the idea that a federation in Iraq would be inevitable. However, Turkey considers that a federation along ethnic lines would lead to grave security concerns in the region.

Developments in northern Iraq affect Turkey in a multitude of ways. Turkey’s southeast has important economic relations with Iraq. Many people earn their living through transportation and small-scale trade activities. The Kirkuk-Yumurtalik oil pipeline is an important source of revenue for Turkey. The second is that developments in northern Iraq affect Turkey’s security within the context of its citizens of Kurdish origin. Turkey has been particularly concerned with the fact that the PKK/KADEK use northern Iraq as a base for their operations and that the KDP and the PUK try to recruit supporters among the Kurds in Turkey. Furthermore, the existence of a significant number of deputies of Kurdish origin in the Turkish Grand National Assembly factors in to the formulation of Turkey’s policies towards the region. The third is that Turkey, which shapes its political stance out of these concerns, might be charged by the international community with pursuing aggressive policies in the region. This might spoil Turkey’s international image. The fourth is that, the Kurdish question affects Turkey’s relations with both the United States and the European Union. The fifth is that the Kurdish question has long curtailed Turkey’s maneuvering capability in foreign policy and led it to adopt more irrational and reactive stances. In this context Turkey concedes considerable economic and political concessions to countries it thinks are relevant to the question.

In today’s Turkey, the issue of “an independent Kurdish state” is perceived as a matter of survival. The Turkish stance against the declaration of an independent Kurdish state, which might come into being as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from the region as well as the failure of the new Iraqi state to deliver peace and hope, will be affected by the following concerns: (1) the conditions under which an independent Kurdish state might come into being; (2) the kind of political environment in Turkey at the time of the declaration of Kurdish independence; (3) the attitude of the United States. If the establishment process of the Kurdish state evolves in a peaceful way, Turkey should not be expected to intervene. However, if an ethnic-cleansing attempt adversely affects the Turkomans, Turkey may not stay out of the conflict. Further, Turkey’s attention to developments in Iraq may wane if EU membership becomes more attainable. In such a Turkey, in which the influence of the military on political decision makers diminishes, it would be more difficult to decide in favor of using force and intervening militarily. In this process, since Turkey’s policies regarding its own Kurds will likely change; its threat perception in regard to the Kurds of northern Iraq may change accordingly. However, if Turkey is excluded from the EU process, then it would likely view the developments in the region through a hard-core, security-first perspective. In such a case, northern Iraq will continue to occupy Turkey’s agenda. Since it would likely perceive developments regarding Kurds as direct threats, it may also develop alliances with Syria and Iran. It may be more willing to resort to force. Finally, the U.S. stance will be decisive. If Washington stays indifferent to further developments in Iraq, Turkey may feel more obliged to intervene in the region.

Nihat Ali Ozean, author of PKK (Kurdistan Yþci Partisi) Tarihi, Ideolojisi ve Yonetimi (Ankara: Asam, 1999)

Copyright Middle East Policy Council Spring 2004

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