A Kurdish State Within Iraq Would Benefit the Region

Henri J. Barkey, chairman of the international relations department at Lehigh University, was on the State Department's policy planning staff (1998-2000).

The United States prefers a unified, democratic Iraq organized along federal lines after sovereignty is transferred on June 30. But one likely outcome could be a country split into two, with Sunni and Shiite Arabs coalescing against the Kurds, whom they increasingly see as U.S. collaborators. Already the Kurds have threatened to quit the new caretaker government if it alters the interim constitution’s provisions on Kurdish autonomy. Yet a strong federal Kurdish state in northern Iraq could be a significant plus for U.S. -- and Turkish -- interests, especially if it developed in an environment of improving U.S.-Turkey relations.

Turkey is deeply mistrustful of U.S. intentions in northern Iraq, where Kurds operate autonomously. Turks in general and the Turkish media are convinced that the U.S. is on the verge of sponsoring an independent Kurdistan for the explicit purpose of dividing Turkey, where Kurds amount to 20% of the population. Turkish officials fear that an independent Kurdish state, even a federal one, in northern Iraq would encourage Turkish Kurds to revive their secession campaign.

Conspiracy theories abound. One has it that thousands of Israelis are buying up chunks of northern Iraq to establish a self-ruling Kurdish entity or just to control the area’s oil resources. The currency given such theories is odd but telling, because Washington is Turkey’s most ardent supporter on many fronts, including its quest to become a member of the European Union.

Turkish displeasure over U.S. policy goes back to the eve of the Iraq war. One Turkish official recently complained to me that Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan had been informed of the plan to attack Iraq but that Turkey was left in the dark. Similarly, he said, Washington has been stingy about the details of the June 30 transition. The U.S. is withholding information, he said, “because the U.S. thinks we have an agenda in Iraq.”

The truth is, the Turks do have an agenda in Iraq: no federal or independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. That forces the U.S. to choose between not riling Turkish sensitivities and its moral commitment to the Kurds. Turks also complain that the U.S. administrators of Iraq have ignored the Turkmens, a Turkish-speaking minority that, along with the Kurds, claims the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.


Interestingly, Turkish support for the Turkmens is new. When they were uprooted by Saddam Hussein or when their rights were trampled, Ankara did not so much as whimper. Turkey’s sudden affection for Turkmens has raised suspicions in Washington and Iraq, which led last year to a raid by U.S. troops in which a number of non-uniformed Turkish special forces were arrested and hooded. The Turks have not forgotten this humiliation.

Still, both countries have an immense incentive to work together and overcome mutual suspicions. U.S. failure in Iraq would be disastrous for Turkey, which would directly experience the aftershocks of any radical regime in Iraq. If the U.S. is to rely on Turkey to bolster its Iraq policy, it has to address the question of the Kurds.

Turkey has to be helped out of its Kurdish neuralgia. A Kurdish federal entity on its borders would be unlikely to lead to further violence inside Turkey. Most Iraqi Kurds understand that Turkey is their best potential ally and thus would welcome their Turkish brethren’s renouncement of secessionist goals. Turkey’s new reform-oriented government understands that improving conditions for its Kurdish minority would facilitate its entry into the European Union. A Turkish appeals court recently released four Kurdish members of parliament convicted 10 years ago of belonging to an outlawed separatist party. Last week, Turkey’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, received the four in his office, a sign that the government was willing to consider alternative policies vis-a-vis the Kurdish minority. For Iraqi Kurds who are Western-oriented, Ankara, because it wants to be a part of Europe, is their best conduit to the West. They have already gone out of their way to invite Turkish business groups to invest in their region, hoping that economic ties will lead to stronger political bonds down the line.

A robust, autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq is in Ankara’s interests for two simple reasons. As counterintuitive as it may seem to the Turkish establishment, a strong friendship with such a federal state would go a long way toward diffusing Turkish Kurds’ anger at Ankara. Turkish Kurds care a great deal about their brethren across the border and would not do anything to endanger a state that would serve as a buffer against Hussein-like regimes in Baghdad. Ironically, the late Turkish President Turgut Ozal had figured this out and was maneuvering to help support Iraqi Kurds when he died in office in 1993.

Moreover, the Kurds are unlike the Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq. They are much more secular and, after 12 years of quasi-independence under U.S. protection, they have made tremendous progress toward democracy and responsible self-government.

The U.S. still has work to do for this Kurdish federal entity to be a success for all concerned. First and foremost, it has to deal with the remnants of the Turkish Kurdish insurgent group holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq near the Iranian border, something it has promised Ankara to do. It also must convince the more nationalistic Iraqi Kurds to abandon their Kurdistan rhetoric, which upsets Turks. Finally, the U.S. has to demonstrate to Ankara that Turkey counts.

One major obstacle is Ankara’s dysfunctional national security system. The powerful military establishment fears both Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, as well as its own pro-Islam government. Yet the U.S. has good relations with all sides in Turkey and with northern Iraq, which enables it to go the extra mile in productively reengaging the Turks in Iraq. Toward this end, John Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, should begin his trip to his new post by stopping over in Ankara for a chat. He should not be bashful about discussing a joint U.S.-Turkish umbrella over a democratically ruled northern Iraq. Paradoxically, it is only such reassurance that would convince the Iraqi Kurds not to seek complete independence any time soon.