Getting it Right in Kurdistan
by Camille Pecastaing


If and when the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq, it will have to consider the future of Kurdistan. While a partition is officially anathema, everyone knows the link between the Kurdish enclave in the north and the rest of Iraq is tenuous. Baghdad’s only hope of preventing hard partition is to provide the Kurds with a path toward the global economy. Kurds might be willing to live with the Iraqi project if the strong federalism protecting their autonomy is constitutionally upheld, and if—IF—the insurgency finally subsides, giving Kurdish businesses access to Basra—Iraq’s only port. Other than that, Iraq has nothing to offer the Kurds, who are naturally more likely to gravitate toward Turkey or Iran. If everyone would smarten up, Kurdistan and Turkey could be the best things to happen to each other.

Kurdistan came into its own in 1991, when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 688 to stop Baghdad’s reprisals against Kurdish insurgents. Enforced by the United States Air Force, UNSC 688 gave Iraqi Kurds 12 years of de facto autonomy under an informal American protectorate. Then, the 2003 regime change in Iraq forced Kurdistan into the federal, democratic Iraq Washington was trying to build in Mesopotamia. Kurds paid lip service to the American agenda, and a long-time Kurdish leader assumed the Iraqi presidency. But all the while, they have been developing regional institutions and infrastructures at a frantic pace, a process that culminated in a 2006 transfer of power to a unified Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. The Kurdistan they envision is economically market-based, bolstered by a democratic polity, and closely allied to the United States. It is also an independent state.

Those intentions should be clear to anyone looking at Kurdish nation-building efforts. The realm of the Kurds (spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) is partitioned by mountain ranges, and each valley has nurtured almost its own people, speakers of dialects that blend a folkish Kurdish language with the lingua franca of the closest empire. The genetics mirror the linguistics. In the West, Kurds could pass for Turks but are not really that and, in the East they could pass for Persians but are not really that either. Kurds are not Arab, and the Kurds of Iraq are probably the least integrated in their host country. The chasm between Kurds and Arabs is widening, as fewer and fewer Kurds are proficient in the language of Baghdad. Kurdish academia is devising an all-English curriculum from primary to tertiary education (to prevent Kurdish children from learning Arabic), and the Kurdish script is in the process of shifting to the Roman alphabet. Moreover, part and parcel of Kurdish identity is the Kurdish martyrdom of the Anfal campaign: the genocide endured in the 1980s at the hands of Arabs. Asking Kurdistan to be part of Iraq is like asking Israel to be a Polish province. For now, the Kurds will stick with Iraq as long as this is what the United States wants and as long as America provides security. In the long-term, all bets are off.

While no one is more vocally against Kurdish independence than Ankara, Turkey is potentially the most promising partner for an independent Kurdistan. Unlike Iran, Turkey is not a pariah state, but rather a NATO member and an economic partner of the European Union. Turkey also qualifies as an emerging economy, and while it does not have oil, Kurdistan does and may have even more of it when a promised referendum over the annexation of oil-rich Kirkuk to the Kurdish Region is held. And, Turkish businessmen are already dominant among the handful of foreign investors doing business in Kurdistan.

Ankara reads the shifting winds of Kurdish nationalism with apprehension. Its concern may be justified, but its response, inspired by a prickly and reactionary nationalism, is inappropriate. The current troop buildup at the border of Iraqi Kurdistan is not the way of the 21st century, and crushing the nationalist aspirations of Iraqi Kurds will only exacerbate ethnic tensions within Turkey itself. What Ankara may never understand is that an independent Kurdistan would relieve, rather than increase, Kurdish nationalist pressure in Turkey. Kurds seeking a deep cultural experience would only have to cross the border and withdraw to Erbil or Sulaimani. Inversely, claustrophobic Kurds longing for a cosmopolitan metropolis (and there are plenty) could join the cohort of their co-nationals already in Istanbul, Zurich or Munich, confident that their identity was sovereign and represented in a corner of the world’s map. As for the area of Turkish Kurdistan, it would be a halfway house, a mixed human buffer between Turks and free Kurds.

The necessity of a human buffer is a lost lesson of the nationalist age. Patriotism inspires seizing the biggest possible piece of the pie, one that encompasses the entire nation and leaves no one out. But a smaller state surrounded by large populations of co-nationals is better shielded from immigration and more ethnically stable. By definition, a larger state would be more mixed and porous. In its current incarnation, Iraqi Kurdistan already has to accommodate small historical minorities of Turkmens and Assyrians. Reversing Saddam’s Arabization program and expatriating Sunni Arabs from Kirkuk—in anticipation of the referendum scheduled for December 2007—has been a tall order for the KRG. Annexing the mixed areas of Mosul, a large Ottoman city and historical home of an urban Kurdish community, would mean absorbing many Arabs and would be as detrimental to the cause of Kurdish nationalism as the Six-Day War was to Zionism. An expansion of Kurdistan beyond the borders of Iraq into Turkey or Syria is an imaginary threat.

Iraqi Kurds have all the reasons in the world to be impatient with Turkey, and one understands why the KRG would look the other way when Congra-Gel fighters—ex–Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) partisans—regroup in the Qandil mountain area in northwest Iraq to mount operations against Turkey. The Kurdish issue resonates across the region in a new way, as Kurdish militias, who often fought one another in the past, are becoming less parochial. The two main Kurdish factions in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have made a historic rapprochement (although much remains to be done). And the new incarnation of the PKK, which traditionally recruited Turkish Kurds, also attracts young fighters from Syria where the Asad regime is now facing a Kurdish political awakening.

Ultimately, the realization of Kurdistan’s economic potential depends on foreign investment. The region has untapped oil and gas reserves, effective security, modern infrastructures, an investment-friendly legal environment—allowing foreign ownership of corporations and real property—and a secular outlook hospitable to foreigners. But all that potential is compromised as long as Kurdish trade remains hostage to the whims of Iranian and Turkish authorities. The local needs for electricity cannot be met by a few hydroelectric dams, and Turkey and Iran refuse to trade electricity. The few border crossings of Kurdistan are made up of an endless line of trucks, which limits the amount of gasoline imported and creates acute shortages. The wait for subsidized gasoline at gas stations takes hours, even days, and Kurds have to turn to the ubiquitous black market that sells poor quality gasoline smuggled over the mountains in cheap plastic containers. In the meantime, Baghdad (and Ankara, and Tehran) are making sure that Kurdistan doesn’t develop the capacity to refine the oil it produces, maintaining the regional dependency.

The emergence of a viable, independent and successful Kurdistan would benefit Turkey. But Ankara may not understand that. Few countries have Turkey’s ability to consistently shoot themselves in the foot. The anachronistic denial of the Armenian genocide, the constitutional harassment of Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan (the only Turkish politician of any value since Turgut Ozal), the lingering Cyprus fiasco, the botched accession negotiations process with the EU; all testify to Turkey’s lack of political vision and maturity, both of which Kurdistan will have to overcome.

Camille Pecastaing is an assistant professor in Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.

More National Interest online coverage of Turkey and Kurdistan:

"Talking Turkey", by Marisa Morrison

"Kurdistandoff", by Henri Barkey

"Turkey-Kurdistan Update", by Wolfango Piccoli