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(Everybody’s) Tricky Kurdish Issue By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 16, 2003


Now that the Baathist regime in Baghdad is gone, the perennial issue of the status of the region’s Kurds reemerges. For some countries in the Middle East and Europe—Turkey has some 12 million Kurds, Iraq and Iran over 4 million each, Syria perhaps 2 million, Armenia some small number, and Western Europe perhaps 1 million or so—the Kurds pose a serious problem: To permit the growth of any sentiment for a Kurdish state, in northern Iraq or elsewhere, would ruin any chance of stability in the Middle East, and further weaken NATO as well.

There is little love lost among Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, but there is one issue that unites them: opposition to any form of Kurdish independence whatsoever and anywhere (well, perhaps they could live with a Kurdish state in Berlin). Their shared antipathy to a Kurdish state has recently led to high-level military and political meetings among Damascus, Ankara, and Teheran—not normally the best of buddies.

On the other hand, many in Western Europe and elsewhere have a strong affinity for the Kurdish cause, being emotionally susceptible to the Kurds’ claims that they are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, who were shortchanged when then-Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill failed to establish a Kurdish state in the aftermath of World War I notwithstanding purported promises of same from U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. It is a romantic view of the Kurds shared by many Europeans (most Americans have no idea who the Kurds are or what to do about them), including Churchill’s own Tory grandson today. Such indulgence of Kurdish grievances, encouraged by a well-educated and non-representative Kurdish intellectual class in the diaspora, made the Western European Left easily manipulable and willing to support one of the most violent terrorist organizations in recent times, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a Stalinist group seeking to establish a "true" communist state in southeastern Turkey as a first step toward a regional bastion of "socialism." The PKK campaign against Turkey (1984–99) left some 30,000 Turkish citizens dead, mostly Kurdish civilians (unfriendly clan and tribal leaders, teachers, policemen, bureaucrats were PKK’s favorite targets).

Is it "undemocratic" and "unfair" (whatever that may mean in international politics) to deny 20 million Kurds statehood? After all, one might reason, both Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are now allies of the coalition forces in northern Iraq, with their pesh mergha ("those who fight to death") irregulars accepting U.S. command in operations there. Might they not reasonably expect a Kurdish state for their trouble?

Not necessarily. Kurdish "national sentiments" are largely a creation of the tiny intellectual elites now active in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. The Kurds are divided along so many lines as to make any serious talk about a past, present, or future "Kurdistan" meaningless. While Kurdish languages are indeed separate and fundamentally distinct from Turkish or Arabic (they are basically related to Iranian Farsi), these are different languages—and not mutually understandable at that. Furthermore, the fundamental loyalty of a Kurd, whether in Iran, Turkey, Iraq or elsewhere, is not to a "Kurdish nation" proclaimed by French- or English-speaking, pseudo-Jeffersonian Kurdish émigrés in Paris or London. A Kurd’s loyalty is to his family, clan, and tribe, in that order.

That explains why our present "staunch" allies against Saddam (one should remember that over the past decade Barzani has been in bed with Saddam and Talabani with the Teheran ayatollahs) fought each other with a determination worthy of a better cause. That also explains why, despite more than a decade of de facto autonomy and economic progress in northern Iraq, protected by U.S. and UK airplanes enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, there are still two Kurdish governments in the region, under PDK and PUK control, respectively.

More disturbing to neighboring Turkey, both the PUK and the PDK tolerate, at least occasionally, the presence of some 7,000 PKK, which reestablished in northern Iraq after their founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and they were finally defeated in 1999. The PKK remnants are rich (mostly from their Western European criminal and racketeering operations) and increasingly well armed—a fact that can only be explained by Iraqi Kurds’ tolerance of arms smuggling into PKK strongholds. If Ankara is often paranoid about the Kurds in general and the PKK in particular, it is not without reason.

Worst still for the U.S., the autonomous Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, despite their media-glorified pesh mergas, said to be as many as 60,000 strong, were for almost two years patently unable to deal with less than 1,000 Ansar al Islam ("followers of Islam")—Al Qaeda’s Arab and Kurdish followers, who are ensconced in a small enclave along the Iranian border. It took U.S. special forces, bombings, and Kurdish ground forces to finish this operation off in three days.

The official U.S. position is that Iraq’s "territorial integrity" should be maintained – a way of saying to Ankara, Teheran & Co. that there will be no independent or autonomous state of Kurdistan in Iraq. And, listening to (English-speaking) Kurdish politicians in Suleymanyia and Irbil, one hears the same liturgy that "We just want a federal Iraq." So far, so good, but "federal" means something different in Washington than it does in Ankara (or for that matter in Damascus or Teheran, or likely in whatever regime is established in Baghdad). "Federal" in the Middle East does not connote as it does to us Hawaiians, Tennesseans, and Mexican-Americans in California being different but equally loyal Americans, swearing allegiance to the same flag; it would be a way-station toward a Kurdish state threatening all the nations’ territorial integrity.

It should be clear that any U.S. support for an independent Kurdistan, implicit or otherwise, whether an autonomous one or some "federal" Iraq giving Kurds control over northern Iraq (including the oil fields of Kirkuk) would sooner or later unite traditional enemies—Turks, Persians and Arabs—militarily.

As to the issue of PKK strongholds in northern Iraq, that organization, leaderless as it is since Ocalan’s capture, has been listed as terrorist by the U.S. State Department since the 1980s, and belatedly so by the EU after 9/11, and simply has to be permanently eliminated. The U.S. forces in northern Iraq simply cannot do it alone, as Turkey’s misguided policies on the war on Iraq have left them. But either Turkey or the Iraqi Kurds must do so soon.

Indeed, Kurdish elements are already reversing Saddam’s ethnic cleansing of their people from Mosul and Kirkuk, by removing the Arab settlers, while the significant Turcoman minority feels unprotected – a situation Turkey is unlikely to accept for long. But if Ankara, in a fit of nationalism and anti – Kurdish paranoia, does invade northern Iraq, the chances of a new conflict would increase exponentially, pitting all Kurds against all of Iraq’s northern neighbors. Furthermore, such unilateral Turkish action would seriously endanger that country’s position within NATO, and thus the alliance itself. Indeed, Germany has already threatened to pull its AWACS crews from Turkey in such an event, and the US has also made it clear that it will not tolerate a massive invasion either.

All this considered, and taking into account European opposition to the war (a contradiction, since Iraqi Kurds have made abundantly clear their virulent anti-Saddam feelings) and romantic tolerance for diaspora Kurds’ claims and PKK terrorism, the coalition now victorious in Iraq must make clear that emotions and vague sentiments will have no part to play in Iraq’s reconstruction. Simply put, the coalition should consider expressions of outsiders’ sentiments about Kurds just as it considered the antiwar demonstrations: politically wrong, irrational, irresponsible, and counterproductive (even if protected as free speech). Westerners should let the Iraqi Kurds live free(r) in a country called Iraq, rather than "feel their pain" and risk havoc throughout the region.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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