The following article is derived from "Kurdistandoff" by Henri J. Barkey, which will appear in the upcoming Jul./Aug. 2007 (#90) issue of The National Interest.
NORTHERN IRAQ has represented the one success of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It is quiet and prosperous, and American troops are welcomed by the population there. 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 NATO ally, against both the U.S. military 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 U.S.-Turkish relations. An unstable and violent northern Iraq would deal a fatal blow to the United States's Iraq project by accelerating, widening and deepening the current inter-communal carnage.
Turkey, which has a sizeable 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 Kurdish 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 United States of ignoring Turkish red lines on Kirkuk and federalism, and demands to take action against the PKK. In fact, Turks are convinced that the United States prefers its newfound Kurdish allies to its old NATO ally. . . . Widespread disaffection with the United States-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 Iraqi Kurds of forcibly changing the demographics of the city and mistreating the Turkmen population, with whom Turkey has cultivated ties. It wants the United States 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 2007.
In August 2006, with Turkish patience waning, a Turkish move into northern Iraq was averted by last-minute diplomacy and the appointment of a special U.S. 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 following the failed May presidential election. . . .
. . . [I]f 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 United States and the Europeans. A large anti-PKK cross-border military intervention risks embroiling the Turks in a guerrilla campaign with Iraqi Kurds which, 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 EU. 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 percent of their population-is as neuralgic as it is existential. Since the inception of the Turkish republic in 1923, Turkish Kurds, in one form of upheaval 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 state, which until a little more than a decade ago had refused to acknowledge the Kurds' existence.