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Enabling Kurdish Illusions By: Michael Rubin
Weekly Standard | Thursday, March 15, 2007


Speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 27, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped into a diplomatic minefield when she referred to the Iraqi-Turkish frontier as "the border between Turkey and Kurdistan." Turkish newspapers and television across the political spectrum condemned her remarks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized her statement as "wrong" and said that Turkey, at least, remains committed to Iraq's territorial integrity.

While the State Department said Rice simply misspoke, Turkish officials have reason to be concerned. In a plan coauthored with former Council on Foreign Relations president Les Gelb, Senator Joe Biden, the Democratic chairman of the foreign relations committee, urges ethnic and sectarian federalism in Iraq, in effect breaking the country into autonomous Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish units. Biden claims endorsement of a bipartisan group of heavyweights including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and James Baker; former senior State Department officials Dennis Ross, Richard Haass, and Richard Holbrooke; and a number of senators and congressmen.

The same day as Rice's gaffe, Biden published an op-ed in the Boston Globe saying his plan "offers a roadmap to a political settlement in Iraq that gives its warring factions a way to share power peacefully and us a chance to leave with our interests intact." He is wrong. As French diplomat François Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Mark Sykes discovered after World War I, boundaries drawn in a boardroom have unintended consequences. And even as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sought to rectify Rice's error, Kurdistan Democratic party leader Massoud Barzani commented, "Turkey, Syria, and Iran should get used to the idea of an independent Kurdistan." Barzani's confidence is understandable. Iraqi Kurdish autonomy already far exceeds his wildest pre-war expectations.

Ankara's decision not to participate in Iraq's liberation lessened Turkish influence in postwar arrangements. Many U.S. officials assigned to northern Iraq were unapologetic in their sympathy for Kurdish nationalism. Col. Dick Nabb (Ret.), for example, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority office in Erbil, printed business cards with the Kurdish flag. U.S. military officers stationed in Erbil accepted gifts from Barzani. One, facing corruption charges in the United States, chose to remain in Erbil, where he now serves as an adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Rice's inattention to symbolism further bolstered the Iraqi Kurds' nationalist drive. Rather than reinforce Iraqi unity and demand that Barzani meet her in Baghdad, during her first trip to Iraq as secretary of state, Rice flew directly to Barzani's mountaintop compound at Sari Rash. Kurdish officials painted her decision as an endorsement of their national aspirations.

Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader (and current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani deserve credit for being tough negotiators. As Iraqi politicians debated the constitution, Barzani and Talabani won the right both to preserve their own party's militias and to veto the deployment of the Iraqi army into the Kurdish region.

But the State Department has been unwilling to meet toughness with toughness. By restricting freedom of movement on the basis of ethnicity, Kurdish authorities have violated the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Foggy Bottom nonetheless refused to make U.S. aid conditional on better behavior of the Kurds. On June 23, 2004, U.S. authorities transferred $1.4 billion to Kurdish leaders. Less than a week after receiving that windfall, the Kurdistan Regional Government signed its own oil-prospecting agreement with the Norwegian company DNO, a slap in the face to Iraqi unity.

Once the Iraqi Kurds were flush with cash, U.S. leverage eroded. Iraqi Kurdistan now issues its own visas. The Kurdistan Region maintains separate representation overseas. The Kurdistan Development Corporation competes with Iraq for investment. Barzani's nephew Sirwan runs Korek, the local cell phone company, which for nationalist reasons refuses to cooperate with the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission, in effect keeping the Kurdistan Regional Government's capital cut off from the rest of the country. On September 1, 2006, acting by decree, Barzani outlawed display of the Iraqi flag.

Biden is correct that federalism cannot be avoided. However, he is incorrect to assume that federalism should be based on ethnic and sectarian division rather than on Iraq's existing geographical provinces. Ethnic division will not bring security. Rather than embrace peace with his neighbors, Barzani now mimics the strategy of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat--seeking diplomatic legitimacy while refusing to renounce violence.

Kurdish television and newspapers are rife with incitements to unrest, often referring to Iraqi Kurdistan as "South Kurdistan," thereby implying that large chunks of Turkey must be "North Kurdistan." Likewise, they place the eastern Syrian city of Qamishli in "West Kurdistan." The Kurdish flag adopted by Barzani is that of the short-lived, separatist Mahabad Republic, which, with Soviet backing, declared its independence from Iran in 1946. Maps printed on Iraqi Kurdish presses and sold in the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah markets show a Greater Kurdistan stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

Just as Arafat transformed the Palestinian Authority into a safe haven for terrorists, so too does Barzani. His administration provides safe haven and supplies to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists who have been responsible for approximately 30,000 deaths in Turkey since 1984. The Turkish government accuses the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government of furnishing passports to PKK terrorists on Turkey's most wanted list. Turkish officials complain there are six PKK bases operating in territory controlled by Barzani's party. Just as weapons supplied by the Clinton administration to Palestinian security forces ended up in the hands of terrorists, so too have arms supplied by the U.S. government to Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, found their way into PKK hands.

Barzani places little restriction on PKK travel within northern Iraq. In October 2006, two PKK leaders received treatment in an Erbil hospital; three months later they were photographed in an Erbil restaurant. Meanwhile, the PKK continues to smuggle explosives and carry out attacks in Turkey. Barzani refuses to stop weapons trafficking across the border with his own peshmerga militia, and refuses the Iraqi army permission to do so.

Turkish authorities have made countering the PKK their top priority. At the June 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul, President Bush promised Turkish officials a U.S. crackdown on the PKK. The next year, Rice repeated the pledge. But only in September 2006, after Kurdish terrorists detonated bombs in Istanbul and several Mediterranean resorts, killing not only Turks but also wounding more than a dozen European tourists, did the State Department appoint Gen. Joseph Ralston as special envoy to counter the PKK. His appointment has so far been more symbolic than effective. Last month, Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gül and military chief of staff Yasar Büyükanit met with national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Vice President Dick Cheney to demand real action against the terror group. Privately, Ralston told journalists he does not believe Washington will respond. Turkish leaders rightly ask why Washington can cross borders to chase terrorists, but they should not.

They may very well begin doing so, especially if the Biden plan gains traction. A perfect storm is gathering: For the first time since 1973, Turks face selection of a president and election of a parliament in the same year. Election year nationalism is incendiary. Barzani's rhetoric and PKK terror add fuel. Meanwhile, according to the Iraqi constitution, there must be a referendum by the end of this year on whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should become part of Kurdistan. Both Barzani and Talabani call Kirkuk the Kurdish "Jerusalem," but it is an ethnically mixed city with deteriorating security.

Asked during a February 27 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether Turkey would "stand on the sidelines and watch an independent Kurdistan be formed in the north [of Iraq] without going to war," Director of National Intelligence Vice Admiral J. Michael McConnell said, flatly, no.

The Kurds underestimate Turkish resolve. Many Iraqi Kurds say the peshmerga can defeat the Turkish army in the mountains of northern Iraq--and believe that, in any case, it won't come to that. But in 1998, a similar standoff occurred when the Syrian government ignored Turkish demands that Damascus stop sheltering the PKK. The Turkish army mobilized. The late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad had a more sober view of the Turks and expelled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who now serves a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Those in Turkey's political and military decision-making circles from the time said they planned to enter Syria, with or without a green light from Washington.

Barzani also overestimates the meaning of U.S. sympathy for the Kurds. He may believe Kurdish leaders' friendship with Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, will pay off. Galbraith, who has testified repeatedly in Congress on behalf of his Kurdish clients, seeks redeployment of U.S. forces to bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, in effect shielding Barzani from the consequence of his actions. But the fact is, while Washington would not bless a Turkish operation to attack PKK camps in northern Iraq, it would understand one.

Nor would fear of European disapproval deter Ankara from attacking PKK bases. Too many European leaders have already made clear that Turkey has no hope of entering the European Union. And polls show the Turkish public no longer looks favorably upon E.U. membership. Turkish officials understand that even if they receive no green light from Washington, the only consequence of a cross-border raid would be to force Iraqi officials to seal their northern border.

It would be ironic if, while the surge is beginning to show success in Baghdad, Senate leaders undercut Iraq's integrity. The Biden-Gelb plan may look good on paper. So did the Oslo Accords and, for that matter, the Bush administration's emphasis on holding free elections where they had never before been held. But in each case, good intentions were undermined by the same Achilles' heel: the unwillingness of U.S. officials to adopt a zero tolerance policy toward incitement and terrorism.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders continue to shelter the PKK. Whether their support is active or passive is irrelevant, for there are no acceptable levels of support for terror. Nor is it responsible to undercut the security of a long-term NATO ally like Turkey. Until Iraqi Kurdish leaders expel terrorists in their midst and renounce interests beyond Iraq's border, any congressional encouragement of ethnic federalism risks plunging the region into chaos.

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Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was an Iran country director at the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004.


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