6 September 2006
The Kurds in Iraq, like other Iraqi citizens, have suffered heavily from the Saddam Hussein’s regime. When Saddam was toppled with the invasion of coalition troops, Iraqi Kurds were among the ones who were pleased the most. However, the secessionist Kurds were not only glad with this, but also thought that they had a great historical opportunity to achieve an independent Kurdish state. Trying to form a de facto independence beginning from the Gulf War (1991) until the invasion of Iraq (2003), Barzani and Talabani first resolved their conflict with each other thanks to their good relations with the US, Britain and Israel. Afterwards, they tried to establish an army made up of only Kurds. This army, named “Pashmarga”, is still being armed and trained by the US and some other states. Barzani’s closest military consultants are Israeli officers. The influence of the US and Britain is clearly noticed in the training of pashmargas. The recent expenditures on heavy weapons and air force clearly suggest that Iraqi Kurds don’t want to remain as part of an Iraqi state.
The armament of a community which has been used to the attacks of Baghdad and trying to curb Baghdad’s influence on them are understandable to some extent. There is even no problem for Kurdish independence if the conditions are met. After all, if millions of people are unable get services from Baghdad, they can naturally decide to establish their own state. In contrast to general belief, the most troublesome issue for Turkey and other regional states is not the foundation of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. This state may even get the support of neighboring states. However, the Iraqi Kurds are making vital mistakes and these mistakes may not only harm them, but also the region:
Even if we trust the sincerity of the US, Israel and Britain and assume that their support to Iraqi Kurds is long-lasting; it is still easy to predict how difficult it is to survive for this entity. Israel case is evident. If Iraqi Kurds wants to establish a second Israel, there is no problem. But the Kurds should keep in mind that the US will not support any other country as much as it does Israel.
- They want to found a state without achieving consensus: Their first critical mistake is that they are trying to achieve what they want by fait accompli. The Iraqi Kurds are taking steps without getting the consent of the neighboring countries and, more importantly, other communities in Northern Iraq. They are even taking these steps by defying the demands of these elements. They are trying to make gains by fait accompli and by relying on the regional and international balances. However, Kurds are not the only community living in the North. Moreover, the Kurds are not even the majority in most places. The Northern Iraq accommodates many other ethnic groups, most prominent of which are Turcomans and Arabs. The Kurds in Iraq take the past as a model to expand their territories and authority by changing the demographic structure of the towns. They hamper other groups to vote in the elections and commit fraud by opening some ballot boxes. Kirkuk is the number one place of these frauds. The Turcomans and Arabs are oppressed in Kirkuk, a city which historically is known to be a Turcoman settlement. These communities either have to pretend like they are Kurds, or live under oppression. There are similar situations in other parts of Northern Iraq but Kirkuk is the main target. For the Kurdish leaders think that an independence without Kirkuk will be short-lived. The oil-wealthy Kirkuk will finance the dream of an independent Kurdish state. But usurping other communities’ rights and freedoms are not enough to realize this dream. If the Kurds make the same mistake the Arabs did in Saddam period, the fate of Northern Iraq will not change. A Kurdish state established by usurping the rights of Turcomans cannot be a stable one. On the contrary, a Northern Iraq having achieved a fair representation of Arabs and Turcomans and acting with consensus over essential issues can be stable and wealthy as a separate state or as part of Iraq. In other words, the Iraqi Kurds should consider a Kurdish-Turkish-Arab federation rather than an independent Kurdish state. Otherwise, any other political entity is doomed to be short-lived and weak.
- They are making politics by relying on external powers: The second vital mistake of Iraqi Kurds is that they are making politics based on the external actors and particularly, by relying on these actors. The support of the US, Israel and Britain is obvious and it is also obvious that this support is given despite the opposition of regional countries. Syria and Iran see the Kurds as spies of the US and Israel. For example, Tehran thinks that the Kurds will assist the US in an operation against Iran. Who can say that the pashmargas helping the US in Fellujah will not help the US in Iran? Same concerns also exist in Syria. The armament of Kurds by Israel particularly raises concerns in these countries. Syria, whose Golan Heights are under Israeli occupation, knows that it will weaken against Israel in its border and Lebanon if it clashes with Kurds. Moreover, if the Kurds in Syria revolt for secessionism, this will give Israel the chance to hit Syria from inside, which is a nightmare for Syria. It is also clear that a campaign of hatred is also taking place in Iraq against the Kurds. The involvement of Kurds in massacres committed by the US against the Sunnis may lead to a lasting animosity. Along with Syria, Iraq and Iran, Turkey is also discontent about the armament of a Kurdish political entity in its proximity. Ankara’s discontent is intensified by the US’ and Israel’s armament of this entity without informing Turkey. In short, the Kurds are confronting the three main groups in the region, namely the Turks, the Arabs and the Iranians. Unfortunately, the Kurds’ fellows substituted for these groups, that is, the US, Britain and Israel, don’t have good reputations in the region. The US is infamous with giving promises to ethnic groups but leaving them in the lurch. As a matter of fact, it was the US which abandoned the Kurds in the half way, leaving them to Saddam’s mercy in 1970s. It was again the US which gave promises and encouraged the Kurds to revolt against Saddam after the Gulf War and then leaving them alone at the end. When Saddam attacked hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians, they took shelter in Turkey. Similarly, the current situation of Israel’s allies in Lebanon doesn’t need explanation. There is no need to discuss Britain’s image in the region. When Iraq was under British mandate, the Royal Air Forces (RAF) was carrying out trainings in Kurdish regions and the British aircrafts were frequently hunting Kurds.
Shortly, having close ties with the US has no disadvantage. Turkey is also an ally of the US. It also has good relations with Israel and Britain. It is a member of the NATO and a candidate for full EU membership. Despite all of these, Ankara doesn’t base its regional policy on external powers. For it is quiet difficult to survive in the Middle East or somewhere else by solely relying on external powers. The biggest mistake is relying on someone else’s powers instead of yours. This mistake was made by some groups in the Middle East. Armenians were one these. They ignored the rights of their Muslim neighbors and assumed that they could set up a large and independent state by counting on the great powers of the period. They killed hundreds of thousands of Turks, Kurds and other people and hundreds of thousands of Armenians lost their lives for this case. At the end, many people have died and hundreds of thousands of Armenians had to leave their homelands. These events must be an example for Kurds.
- Apart from separatism, they are also irredentist: It is well-known to many that there is a strong historical separatist movement among the Iraqi Kurds. The Barzani family has carried out armed struggle for decades in order to establish an independent state by breaking up from Iraq. The US, Israel and Iran supported this idea in the 1970s. The number of the supporters of the idea that the Kurds must found an independent state in the north of Iraq has increased in the aftermath of the Iraq War. However, the ambition of some Kurdish groups is not confined to a small Kurdish state. With the existence of Kurds in Syria, Iran and Turkey, these groups think that a greater Kurdistan is not merely a utopia. Hence, the irredentist ambitions towards the neighboring countries are felt more than ever. The Kurdish groups in Turkey, which benefit from the democratic structure of the country, are trying to display Barzani as the leader of a pan-Kurd movement. Syria also blames Barzani for Kurdist movements in the country. More important than all of these, PKK, one of the bloodiest terrorist organizations in the world, gets the covert support of Barzani and Talabani just because of its Kurdist discourse. The PKK is included in the terrorist organizations lists of the EU, Britain and the US, but the organization has many offices and armed camps in the Barzani- and Talabani-controlled Northern Iraq. It is so important for the Turkish state and public to eliminate PKK terror that it is almost impossible for others to understand this thoroughly. PKK terror has claimed 37.000 lives so far and Turkish people are still suffering from the continuing killings. In such a circumstance, the relations between Turkey and Kurdish groups (or Iraqi state) supporting this terrorism will surely deteriorate. Nowadays, Syria and Iran are on the same side with Turkey on combating PKK terrorism. Both countries arrest PKK militants and prevent them to use their territories. Iran has been bombing the PKK camps since the last spring. The number of PKK militants arrested or killed by Syrian and Iranian forces in one year has exceeded 1200. However, there is not even one PKK militant detained or arrested by Barzani or Talabani. PKK opens up offices in the streets of big cities, uses its flag and PKK terrorists walk around as they like in Northern Iraq. This picture naturally raises questions whether Barzani and Talabani have irredentist goals. As long as the Iraqi Kurds maintain their attitude of backing PKK, it is impossible for them to get Turkey’s support and satisfy other countries in denouncing their irredentist ambition.
Turkey and the Kurdish State
Contrary to the general belief, there is no fear of the establishment of a Kurdish state among Turkish public opinion. The premise that a possible Kurdish state in Northern Iraq will threaten Turkey is not a majority view in Turkey. On the contrary, a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq may have some advantages for Turkey:
- A Northern Iraq having a developing economy and a relatively good democracy will contribute both to Turkey’s security and economy.
- As the civil war spreads and intensifies in Central and Southern Iraq, the formation of a relatively stable region between Turkey and these zones will have a protective role as a buffer.
- A rapidly developing economy in Northern Iraq will accelerate the development of Turkey’s relatively less-developed Southeastern region.
- The foundation of a Kurdish state will show the conditions of Kurds in Turkey better to the outside world. Those preferring to live in Turkey and immigrating to Turkish cities such as Istanbul from Iraq will strengthen the claim that Turkey is the best country to live for Kurds. If we take into consideration that almost half of the MPs in Turkish Parliament are of Kurdish origin and keep the anti-democratic practices in Barzani- and Talabani-controlled region in mind, the true dimensions of “Kurdish problem” in Turkey will be understood better.
As a result of all these advantages, many circles in Turkey are quiet content with the rapid development process in Northern Iraq. As a matter of fact, Turkey gives the biggest support for this development. For some sources, the amount of Turkey’s investments and bids taken in this region has already exceeded $5 billion. The Turkish-Northern Iraqi border crossing is always active and it is the most important source of income for the Kurdish region. The Turkish entrepreneurs invest and make deals in every field from construction to education in the Kurdish region. All this evidence shows that Turkey has no problem with the strengthening of Kurds in Northern Iraq. However, the PKK problem and the unilateral fait accompli of Iraqi Kurds negatively influence the Turkish views on them. It is clear that as the PKK stays in Northern Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds tolerate it, Turkish military operations in Iraqi border will continue. And as long as these operations continue, full support from Turkey to Iraqi Kurds is impossible. Similarly, if the policies excluding Turcomans continue, anti-Iraqi Kurd campaigns in Turkey will not end.
Turks and Kurds achieved the “miracle” of the Middle East in Turkey. There is no reason for this not to happen in Northern Iraq. But miracles don’t happen easily.
Sedat LACINER: Director of the USAK and a Davos Economic Forum 2006 Young Global Leader
Translated by: A. Noyan Ozkaya