Unraveling the Kurdish Conundrum

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.

For the last century, some 30 million Kurds in the Middle East and Turkey got the short end of the stick. They were the unacknowledged, often-persecuted minority in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They had little ability to affect the politics of these countries. But that began to change after the first Gulf War, when the Kurds of northern Iraq gained significant autonomy. And now the Arab uprisings have awakened a Kurdish consciousness throughout the region.

While Kurds have started talking more to each other, there has been no coming together and no unified Kurdish area is remotely in the offing—but as the situations in Syria, Iraq and Iran change, a new status for the region’s Kurds is coming. To understand and protect its interests in the outcome, Washington must pay close attention to the dynamics at work.

The United States has a checkered history with the Kurds, but it has done at least one impressive thing. In 1991, it established a protected area for the Kurds in Iraq that allowed them to create a successful, quasi-independent state after decades of division and oppression. The unexpected result was something of a beacon for all Kurds.

Despite this new model, there is still disunity and disagreement among the various Kurdish groups. But the instability that reigns throughout the region will also transform the Kurdish situation in uncertain ways. Turkey’s continued struggle with its Kurdish population, Iraq’s fracturing political scene and the Syrian upheavals are opening new vistas for the Kurds.

Nobody can easily predict how today’s dust settles. But the United States wants the Kurds to emerge in better shape and not become an issue that further divides countries and the region. That is no easy job in an area that hardly plays to Washington’s strong suit.

Four States, Multiple Divisions

Turkey has the largest Kurdish population in the region but has not resolved its long-standing Kurdish problem. After thirty years of war (recently with significant U.S. help) and forty thousand dead, it has not vanquished the terrorist group PKK, despite the fact that its long-revered leader has languished in jail for thirteen years. The PKK still dominates the Kurdish political consciousness. While the lives of many Kurds have vastly improved with Turkey’s economic growth, Ankara has never delivered much in terms of Kurdish political interests because of Turkish nationalism and deep domestic political divisions within the country on the Kurdish issue.

The ruling AKP party is the first to try to tackle the long-festering Kurdish problem. And the Turkish government may have the opportunity to make real progress on the Kurdish matter this year as it drafts a new constitution that could deal with such major issues as Kurdish identity and education. Unfortunately, major reform presently seems unlikely. Turkey is imprisoning many Kurdish politicians and once again intensifying its war against the PKK, while hoping that Iraq’s Kurds will now do more to control the PKK elements long established in their territory. That is likely to be an uphill battle. Yet many in the Turkish media now recognize and state openly that major change is necessary.

Most Turks strongly opposed the creation of the protected zone in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War, fearing it would lead to an independent Kurdistan and enormously impact Turkey’s Kurds. They were right, but the impact was far less than they feared. Indeed, after a period of isolating the KRG, Ankara changed its approach and established strong trade ties, considerable investment and a degree of political cooperation unthinkable a decade ago.

Iraqi Kurds are by far the most successful and politically stable group, but they have their share of problems. They differ from other major Iraqi groups on a number of important issues, including the status of Kirkuk, and the KRG may have overstepped its bounds by signing oil deals in disputed territories. Tensions are also escalating over sectarian differences and Prime Minister Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. Many Kurds see rising violence in the rest of Iraq sinking the ship of state. If the leaks worsen, independence could well beckon.

KRG relations with Turkey and its inclination toward pragmatism and economic growth seem to mitigate the fear of a unilaterally declared Kurdistan, although some see these factors as generating hopes for independence. Iraqi Kurds, moreover, also know that a call for independence would be met with hostility on all sides, which seems to have led them to the view that greater political and economic autonomy might be the more viable alternative to an independent state. Moreover, the KRG has no security guarantee from Washington and would have to turn to Turkey for help if it got into trouble. Keeping a unified Iraqi state avoids adding fuel to the Kurdish fire in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Syria’s Kurds largely have escaped violence so far. But they are divided over how to proceed in the wake of Syria’s terrible descent. While a majority in the northeast came out against Assad, the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) in central and northwest Syria supports Assad and has strong links with the PKK. Even those who want to see Assad go are skeptical that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition would recognize their ethnic rights—something the opposition so far has failed to do. Kurds are waiting to see how the Syrian situation evolves and how long Assad is likely to be around.

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.