Unraveling the Kurdish Conundrum

The U.S. must understand the complex dynamics of the issue before it can begin to formulate a policy on the Kurds.

If Assad continues to hang on, division among Kurds will harden and diminish the more moderate Kurdish parties. KRG prime minister Barzani has tried to be a political broker for the fractured Syrian Kurds, but his first attempt at a council failed to produce any common approach. A planned meeting in June to bring together Kurds from the major parties in the region will be important symbolically if not determinative politically.

Turks and increasingly the Turkish press closely follow the Kurdish scene in Syria. They remain concerned over PKK activity in the country and their collaboration with Assad, but so far little has happened. The PKK is probably more useful to Assad as a threat against Turkey than serious military efforts, which could bring in the Turkish military. More fundamentally there are latent fears in Turkey regarding the creation of another autonomous Kurdish region or, worse, calls for an independent Kurdish state should Assad leave the scene. (If the truce brokered by Kofi Annan holds, it will be a serious setback for an autonomous Kurdish zone. It could also close the window of opportunity for the Kurds to play a larger political role, as they would remain outside both the government and the opposition.)

Iran currently has perhaps the fewest issues with its Kurdish population. After a recent truce with the PJAK, the PKK-affiliated terrorist group that has been fighting the Iranian state since the late 1990s, the Iranian government has kept its Kurds quiet by giving them nominal participation in elections and government, while periodically executing Kurds who step out of line.

Iranian Kurds’ own fractured political parties make the government’s job easier. Despite previous support for the PKK and links between the PKK and PJAK, there does not seem to be Iranian or Kurdish interest in violence against Turkey. The Kurdish dimension is seemingly less important for the Iranian government given its other problems. And the Kurds themselves are probably waiting to see what happens between Washington and Tehran.

Searching for a Kurdish Policy

All this complexity makes it difficult for United States to formulate any approach toward the regional Kurdish issue. Washington has no Kurdish policy, only an Iraqi policy in which Kurds are not front and center. The United States remains close to the Iraqi Kurds but refused to give them security assurances when American forces departed. While keeping Iraq united remains the administration’s line to Iraqi Kurds, Barzani’s recent visit to Washington was tinged with references to independence even as he received a greeting fit for a head of state.

Given the close relationship between President Obama and Turkish prime minister Erdogan on Middle East issues, U.S. and Turkish policies toward Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are being carefully coordinated. But as turbulence continues to shake the region, Turkey’s policy toward its own Kurds now has serious implications for the regional Kurdish issue. The Obama administration has stayed quiet on Turkey’s domestic Kurdish policy because of long-standing, lingering Turkish fears that the United States is intent on dismembering Turkey for the Kurds. It supports Turkey’s efforts against the PKK and provides important intelligence support for fighting the PKK in northern Iraq. It is time, however, for Washington to remind Ankara, at least privately, that failure to address its domestic Kurdish situation harms Turkey’s ability to help shape broader Middle East outcomes.

In the near term, both Washington and Ankara want to see Syrian Kurds become part of the government-in-exile Syrian National Council (SNC). This would make the opposition more representative of the Syrian population, deliver a blow to the Syrian regime, and isolate the PYD and PKK, who still support Assad. The United States and Turkey would need to convince the SNC and other opposition that minority rights are in the long-term interest of a future Syrian state and that international support will depend on whether they keep these promises. Turkey will want to be reassured that U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds will not result in a de facto Syrian version of the KRG—a second autonomous area would be a strong inducement to many Turkish Kurds.

The Kurds have so far benefitted little from the Arab Spring, certainly not yet in Iran. The Kurds are the largest minority in the Middle East, making them the natural beneficiaries of the emergence of more democratic states. But the Kurdish populations in each country remain fractured with no apparent vision for their place in the region and no consensus on whether there should be one.

The United States will need to continue to weigh in with Iraqi Kurds, ensuring their aspirations do not get out of hand while encouraging efforts at mediation among Arab Sunnis and Shiites within Iraq and the Kurds in Syria. Once again, Ankara remains critical: if Turkey can consolidate its growing democracy by making progress with its own Kurds, it will create the basis for a better region, hopefully including a recovering Syria and a more stable Iraq. Washington should support Turkey in such efforts. Time may be growing short.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member ofThe National Interest's Advisory Council. Jessica Sims is a research associate at The Century Foundation.

Image: James (Jim) Gordon