Across the Middle East, Kurdish politics are growing more assertive and self-confident. The status quo is increasingly untenable, but the United States appears to have no game plan.
In recent months, owing in part to the fallout from the Syrian civil war, belated signs ofintellectual movement regarding the future of Kurdish politics have emerged from some Western analysts. We need a deeper understanding of history and context to evaluate this movement, however, because the role of U.S. policy will be crucial in whatever the future brings.
For the greater part of the 20th century American foreign policy and national security officials kept a studied distance from the Kurdish issue as such. The main reason is that U.S. administrations have evinced a strong Westphalian bias, always prioritizing the integrity of the territorial states that had emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In this the United States followed in the Mideastern footsteps of Great Britain, which had prioritized the integrity of the Iraqi state it had created over earlier British promises concerning the establishment of a Kurdish state. After World War II and the Truman Doctrine, U.S. policymakers also had to take into consideration the sensitivities of its two major allies with large Kurdish minorities: Iran (an ally before the 1978 Islamic revolution) and Turkey. U.S. policymakers were extremely sensitive to Ankara’s apprehensions of the Kurdish issue not just at home, but in the neighboring countries as well. Additionally, in the early years of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers tended to identify the Kurds with the Soviet Union and Communism. American suspicions were fed by the fact that Mulla Mustafa Barzani and some 700 Kurdish fighters accepted asylum in the Soviet Union for an entire decade following the collapse of the short-lived, Soviet-abetted Republic of Mahabad in 1947. Nor was the Marxist-Leninist ideology of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiye Karkeren Kurdistan, PKK) in Turkey more palatable to the United States. In short, from any point of view, association with the Kurds or support for them was out of the question. The only exception was the limited, secret support the United States granted the Kurds in 1972–75, when two allies of the time, Israel and Iran, prevailed over it to supply such support.
Developments on the ground in more recent years have forced U.S. policymakers to change their policies, if not their thinking. From the 1990s onward the Kurds began to play a growing role in regional politics, starting with the Kurds of Iraq and continuing with the rising prominence of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, and most recently with the Kurdish dimension of internal tumult in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iran as well.
Moreover, the rise of Kurdish issues in all four states has changed the internal dynamics of Kurdish nationalism. An evolving trans-border current has produced a de facto Kurdish regional subsystem whose manifestations are several. First, the Kurds now imagine themselves to be one nation deserving to live on one united territory; this is new. Thus, the new mind’s-eye Kurdistan is portrayed as one unit divided into four parts: north Kurdistan (bakur) corresponding to the Kurdish region in Turkey, south Kurdistan (bashur) to that in Iraq, east Kurdistan (rojhelat) to that in Iran, and west Kurdistan (rojava) to that in Syria. No one should discount the power of having a common geopolitical language in a nationalist ambition.
As things stand, the KRG in northern Iraq is the center of gravity of this new subsystem. It functions simultaneously as a quasi-state and as a political center for the other three parts of Kurdistan, as well as for the large number of Kurds in the diaspora.1 Despite a strong legacy of civil war, jealousy and rivalry, most Kurds now look upon the KRG with great pride and view it as a model. For many Kurds, too, the KRG also provides safe haven from persecution and hardship in their own countries. For example, as of September 2013 more than 200,000 Kurds from Syria have found refuge in the KRG. Similarly, Kurds from all parts of “Greater Kurdistan” come to the KRG to consult with the government and, at times, to forge common policies.2
That goes for the military-security level, among others. The KRG has turned its guerrilla force, thepeshmerga, into an army of some 200,000 soldiers with heavy arms, including “a large fleet of Russian-made warplanes left over from the Saddam era” as well as tanks taken as booty from the two wars of 1991 and 2003. Furthermore, in September 2013 the KRG approached an American company to purchase 12 new helicopters. Concurrently, the KRG has been providing bases for all the Kurdish guerrilla forces from the other parts of Kurdistan. These include bases for the PKK from Turkey, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane, PJAK) and other groupings from Iran, as well as an umbrella organization from Syria. The KRG has of late even started to train Syrian Kurds with a view to sending them back to the Kurdish autonomous region in Syria. This means, among other things, that the borders between all parts of Kurdistan will no longer be sealed as the KRG devises ways to have a say throughout all of Kurdistan.
Kurdish collective identity has also received a significant boost in recent years as the Kurdish language, which had been outlawed by the four host states for the greater part of the 20th century, has begun to flourish.the Kurdish language, which had been outlawed by the four host states for the greater part of the 20th century, has begun to flourish. One cannot overestimate this development, because for the Kurds the most important symbol of nationhood is the Kurdish language, alongside that of a common conception of Kurdish territory.3 The Kurds also have common symbols such as the colors of the flag, which has the yellow in its midst symbolizing the sun; a common anthem and a common ethos built around the epos of Mem u Zin, written by Ahmed Xani at the end of the 17th century.
On the international organizational level there is now an all-Kurdish umbrella organization based in Brussels. The Kurdistan National Congress (Kongra Netewiya Kurdistan, KNK) is a coalition of Kurdish organizations from across Europe whose main purpose is “to lobby national governments, the EU, the UN and other international organizations [and] raise awareness of the situation in Kurdistan through the media and in public forums.” No doubt its lobbying campaign has brought about the Europeanization of the Kurdish issue; Kurds are in the European press as never before. At the same time the new media, the new social networks and the opening of new channels of transborder interaction have fostered greater cooperation between the diaspora and the homeland.
The sweeping changes in the Kurdish subsystem, together with the geopolitical changes in the region during the past decade, have forced the host states to change their approach toward the Kurds. Iraq started the chain reaction when, for the first time in the modern history of the Middle East, Baghdad in 2005 acquiesced to a federal system. This in turn helped trigger dramatic changes in Turkey’s stance both with respect to its own Kurds as well as those of the KRG in Iraq. The changing paradigm of Turkey’s approach to the KRG can be summarized as follows: While in the past the KRG was perceived as part of Turkey’s internal Kurdish problem, in the past few years the KRG came to be perceived as a partner to the solution. (The Turkish National Intelligence Organization began secret contact with the KRG in 2006, but this came to fruition in 2009.)
Economic interests helped catalyze the change: The rich oil and gas resources in the Kurdistan region proved so attractive to the Turkish government that it agreed to the building of two oil pipelines and one gas pipeline from the KRG passing through Turkey, over strong objections from Baghdad. When completed these pipelines may enable the KRG to achieve economic independence, which is key to sustaining future political independence. Thus, within a few years Turkey became the main player in Iraqi Kurdistan by using soft power as its main tool.
Nonetheless, geopolitics is still trump. Turks see the stable and prosperous Kurdistan region as a benign buffer between Turkey and the turbulent Arab part of Iraq. It is also a safety valve against the spread of Shi‘a influence into Turkey. No less important, the fact that Irbil, not Baghdad, controls the border turns the KRG into a more important partner for security cooperation. Similarly, the latent and sometimes open competition between Turkey and Iran for spheres of influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region make the contiguous KRG a natural choice for Turkish influence.
Still, it is Turkey’s internal Kurdish portfolio that tipped the balance in Ankara’s decision to befriend the KRG. The fact that Ankara initiated simultaneously the opening toward its own Kurds and the KRG in 2008 speaks for itself. It has been clear from the start that Turkish leaders saw the KRG and its leader, Masud Barzani, as a means to help contain or pacify Turkey’s own Kurds. Cengiz Aktar, director of the EU Center at Bahcesehir University, aptly described the shift as an effort to “to subcontract the solution of its own Kurdish problem to him.” Indeed, the KRG, especially President Barzani, has assumed an important role in the mediation between Ankara and the PKK in the new phase of the peace process that started in early 2013. Furthermore, contributing its own crucial part to the AKP-PKK deal, the KRG agreed to the withdrawal of PKK militants to its own region.
Map by Lindsey Burrows
The third state forced to change policies toward its Kurdish population is Syria. The upheavals that began in March 2011 created a political vacuum in Syria’s Kurdish region, and Syria’s Kurds rushed in the summer of 2012 to fill it with an autonomous region for themselves. The Ba‘athi regime, then struggling for survival, accepted this as a fait accompli at least, or may even have backed it tacitly as part of a longstanding policy to ally with non-Sunni Arab elements in the population. Turkey viewed the development of Kurdish autonomy in Syria with great anxiety, however, not least because Syrian Kurds, insofar as they are organized and politicized, seem to be more or less aligned with traditional PKK-style thinking. The AKP leadership worried about a spillover effect on its own Kurds, and that no doubt played a role in Ankara’s opening toward the Kurds in March 2013. Meanwhile, too, Turkey began to perceive the KRG as a possible pacifier of the Kurdish region in Syria, and a balance against PKK influence there (though the PKK has retained the upper hand).
Last of the four, but not necessarily least in the fullness of time, is Iran. Tehran has not changed its policies toward its Kurds as dramatically as have its three neighbors, but the rising wave of Kurdish nationalism within Iran may soon force a change. That is because, on balance, old ways of managing the Kurds have become ineffective and obsolete as an integral Kurdish national movement has gained traction. The geopolitical map of the region in the early 21st century is completely different from the 20th-century version. Moreover, if new leadership in Iran is serious about relaxing regime constraints, the wave of Kurdish energy manifest in Iraq, Syria and Turkey is bound to flow into Iran. There is no practical way to stop it.
In light of all this, the American approach to Kurdish issues is utterly bewildering. The U.S. policy “brain” seems somehow stuck in amber, this despite the fact that it has been U.S. behavior, more than anything else, that has propelled Kurdish dynamics over the past twenty-some years. It was the two American-led wars of 1991 and 2003 that inadvertently enabled the establishment of the KRG and its flourishing, yet Washington has not adapted its policies to a changing situation largely of its own making.
The erosion of America’s non-engagement policy with the Kurds of Iraq started in the 1991 Gulf War when the George H.W. Bush Administration decided to establish a “safe haven” for the Kurds—from which Kurdish autonomy rather predictably emerged. From that time U.S. policy has been enmeshed in the Kurdish issue in Iraq, the main inflection point coming in the aftermath of the 2003 war. Since the Kurds played a pivotal positive role in that war, U.S. policy in effect “rewarded” them by granting them a leading role in the formation of post-Saddam Iraqi state. That role also presumed a more entrenched Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, and that obviously meant a shakeup of Kurdish relations with the Turkish, Syrian and Iranian states.
This policy conflicted with two other principles: preserving the integrity of the Iraqi state and assuaging Turkish concerns about Kurdish power. Amazingly, no senior official in Washington seemed to notice the contradiction, or at any rate to care much about it. Thus in his first visit to Turkey in April 2009, President Obama called for closer Turkish cooperation not only with the central government in Baghdad but also with the Kurds. He evinced not the slightest sense of irony. So Washington continued to advocate the integrity of Iraq even while further empowering the KRG. It then found itself, not surprisingly, having to play pacifier between the KRG and Turkey, until Turkish policy finally shifted and made the U.S. role (at least temporarily) marginally unnecessary.
Now, in a policy that was self-aware and well-connected to its own parts, this development, particularly the Ankara-based part of it, could easily be viewed as a signal success. Moving the Turks off their ultimately self-defeating nihilism regarding the Kurds is a good thing for all concerned. Even the ambiguity and internal contradictions in the U.S. policy could be seen as a shrewd way to gain leverage over all parties, even though that isn’t at all what motivated it. So imagine the astonishment in the region when, in just the past few years, Washington made a 180 degree turn, trying to no avail to limit the developing relationship between Ankara and Irbil.
Contrary to Obama’s April 2009 declaration, when Ankara and Irbil decided to build direct oil and gas pipelines that could enhance the KRG’s economic independence, Washington opposed it. Washington was reportedly “gravely concerned that any deal could undo Iraq.” Indeed, during his March visit to Iraq Secretary of State John Kerry called Masud Barzani and told him “to give up attempts to export oil from the region to Turkey via pipelines without Baghdad’s consent.” To no avail. As the joke in Turkish diplomatic circles has gone, “the United States wanted Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds to become friends, not to get married.”As the joke in Turkish diplomatic circles has gone, “the United States wanted Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds to become friends, not to get married.”
The simplest way to explain the American shift is that in the aftermath of the full withdrawal of American forces in 2011, the Obama Administration does not want to be held responsible for destroying the territorial integrity of Iraq, and by so doing risk shattering the Westphalian façade imposed on the region in the early 1920s. But that may happen anyway as a spillover from its passivity in Syria. Thanks in large part to the new freedom seized by Syria’s Kurds, the Turks are also having second thoughts about their peace process with the PKK, which was a bold and somewhat risky policy, but not enough second thoughts, apparently, to reverse the momentum of the economic relationship. Ankara and Irbil are still building the pipelines that might change the geopolitical map of the region, and, in a sure sign of the times, neither is paying the slightest attention to U.S. warnings to desist.
We must be careful about assessing what U.S. policy can and cannot accomplish in the region. It was never in the power of American decision-makers to micromanage any aspect of regional politics, and certainly not, for example, to spread liberal democracy over a vast region that was a stranger to democratic habits of the heart. By the same token, it is an exaggeration to claim that American power in the region is now nil. Since the end of Ottoman times, there has been no hegemon in control of regional dynamics. Britain and France together came close to such a position before World War II, and the bipolarity of the Cold War subsequently constrained choices both within and outside the region to some degree. But today even those constraints are gone, subsumed by powerful social changes from beneath the political line of sight. As a consequence no one is “in change”, and no one can be. That is what gives national initiatives, such as the Turkish one toward the Kurds, their risk quotients, and it is what makes the tensions between national integrities and ethno-linguistic “identity politics” a virtually permanent feature of the region’s political environment today and into the foreseeable future.
This general situation of inconclusive fluidity is not going to change anytime soon. No regional hegemon will emerge over all, and no order-giving imperial power entering the region from outside is in the offing. Rather, regional dynamics will acquire their own logic—such as, for example, the likely re-establishment of a very old rivalry between Iran and Turkey—even as other outside actors (China, India and again perhaps Russia) impinge at the margins. In that light, what options are open to the United States?
Any analysis of policy options is a function of a clearheaded assessment of interests—or at least it should be. (These days, it seems, one can take nothing for granted about U.S. politics, domestic or foreign.) But for the sake of parsimony, if not also our sanity, let us assume that we know what basic U.S. interests in the Middle East are: the prevention of a hostile hegemon from suborning all or major parts of the region and its resources; the minimization of violence within and among state units, not least the minimization of arms races and WMD proliferation; the minimization of ungoverned zones liable to be exploited by terrorists; and the gradual but steady economic, social and political development of the region toward shared prosperity and pluralist norms. These four interests are generally considered to be mutually reinforcing, and rightly so; but at the tactical level at any given moment they may portend tradeoffs.
With this in mind, what alternatives does the U.S. government have in dealing with the Kurds? There are three main options: continue the status quo; formally recognize and support the KRG as an independent sovereign entity; or support the accession to the KRG/Kurdistan of Kurdish-majority areas in Syria and Iran (but not Turkey). How do these options look in light of American interests?
Option I. The easiest approach lies in perpetuating the ambiguous status quo because it forces no difficult decisions yet seems to carry no major short-term risks. It is a passive option in an Administration that is prone to foreign policy passivity for a variety of reasons, some justifiable and some perhaps not. This option is thus nearly over-determined, but it is nonetheless shortsighted in many ways.
Above all, a status quo policy is prone to being steamrolled by events. The U.S. commitment to the “integrity” of the Iraqi state already spites reality, and the distance between pretense and the real world is growing sharply. That could have severe negative consequences for U.S. standing in the longer run as both regional and international players actively try to carve off a slice of the Kurdistani pie. Consider the warming of relations between Russia and the KRG, evidenced by President Barzani’s three visits to Russia in the past year. Russia wants to do business with the KRG, especially in the field of oil and gas, and it is vying to fill the vacuum left by the United States following the withdrawal of all its forces at the end of 2011. Russia’s effort fits with its other regional exertions to restore its former USSR-era standing in the region.
American inaction in Syria might have even more severe consequences. Right now a struggle for preeminence is taking place in the Kurdish area of Syria. It pits the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat, PYD), a Kurdish group linked to the PKK, and various mainly non-Kurdish jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Dawlat al-‘Iraq wal-Sham al-Islamiyya, the latter being an outgrowth of Dawlat al-Islam al-‘Iraqiyya. U.S. interests lie in the Kurds, who are mainly secular and Western oriented, gaining and keeping the upper hand. Note too that, unlike the PKK, the PYD has never been listed as a terrorist group. Moreover, even Turkey, which at one point supported Jabhat al-Nusra against the PYD, reportedly via the ministrations of Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, has sent feelers toward the PYD. Turkish officials met its leader, Salih Muslim, twice, in July and August 2013. Obviously, the mess in Syria presents the Turks with a dilemma. They have to decide who threatens them more: Syrian Kurds who might crush their initiative toward the PKK, or radical salafis who might infect home-grown Turkish radicals for whom the AKP’s Islamic credentials are too weak. For the time being anyway, Ankara seems stuck..
Clearly, if Washington does not back the Kurds against the jihadists the latter might gain the upper hand, with the likely result being the Afghanization of this part of Syria—unless some other actor decides to intervene to prevent it. And U.S. passivity could also put its policy out of step with Turkish policy, which now seems aimed at associating with and taming Syrian Kurdish energies. Ultimately, the U.S. interest is to encourage Turkish liberality toward the Kurds within Turkey and thus suppress tendencies that might one day threaten the integrity of the Turkish state. So as long as Turkey is more an ally than not, despite changes within its domestic political culture away from secular republican attitudes, the current Turkish approach aligns with U.S. interests. A passive status quo policy is thus simply incoherent as a response to change.
Option II. Several considerations support U.S. recognition of the KRG as an independent Kurdish state. First, the Kurds have proven to be much better and more reliable allies over an extended period than any Iraqi government, including the Iran-friendly Maliki one, or even than the Turkish AKP government. So there is little to be lost by irritating the current Iraqi leadership, which, for sectarian reasons, has even opposed U.S. interests in Syria. By contrast, the KRG is likely to provide strategic support to the United States and accommodate American needs, up to and including military basing facilities in its territory. Moreover, recognizing the KRG solves the clash of interests between American oil companies and the American Administration. Exxon Mobil wants to do business with Irbil at the expense of Baghdad, but the Administration is loath to let it. It is foolish to swim against the tide.
Second, the Kurds are not only friendly to the United States; they seem competent state-builders as well. Within a short period the Kurds have built a strong entity with all the trappings of an independent state, including a parliament and cabinet, an army, separate elections, a flag and an anthem.Within a short period the Kurds have built a strong entity with all the trappings of an independent state, including a parliament and cabinet, an army, separate elections, a flag and an anthem. A thumbnail comparison between the Kurdish and Arab parts of Iraq produces a vivid contrast. The KRG is stable; Iraqi Arabs are falling into a new iteration of a civil war—which is reflected in the fact that not even one American soldier has lost his life in the KRG since March 2003 compared to more than 4,400 in the Arab parts of the country. The KRG has always abjured terrorism; Iraqi Arabs of both Sunni and Shi‘a persuasion often seem to prefer it. The political ethos of the KRG is secular and at least proto-democratic; the Arab parts of Iraq are truly neither. The KRG economy is flourishing; the rest of Iraq is an economic mess. The Turks have obviously figured all this out; why can’t the Americans?
Moral considerations and historical justice are worth at least a footnote. The United States owes the Kurds a debt for their support during the 2003 war, if not also for abandoning them and the Shi‘a to Saddam Hussein’s brutality after the 1991 war. Then there is the consideration that if the KRG is ever amalgamated back into an administratively competent Iraqi state, its people might be subject to murderous treatment. The Kurds of Iraq were on the verge of annihilation after the Halabja and Anfal chemical attacks and the destruction of thousands of villages in 1988 and 1989. Does the U.S. government want to risk being responsible for a replay?
Then there is the matter of double standards—not that there is anything necessarily wrong with double standards inasmuch as no two situations are really equivalent. But consider: The U.S. government lent support to the establishment of South Sudan in 2011, had no problems with the birth of an independent Eritrea in 1991, and has expended enormous effort over decades now to bring about an independent Palestinian state. Yet the Kurds of Iraq started their struggle long before the South Sudanese or the Eritreans, and the Kurdish entity is more prosperous, more viable and stable, than either South Sudan or Eritrea. The KRG is also much more viable economically, politically and militarily, than any imaginable Palestinian state.
The disadvantages of American support for an independent Kurdistan are not to be dismissed, however. It would likely set much of the Arab world against the United States, but the attitudes of only a few of these states should really matter to Washington. It might end up putting more pressure on Washington to produce an independent Palestine, even one that would be a prelude to war or state failure or both. It might antagonize Iran, which is a good thing or not depending on the state of play in that bilateral relationship. And the same may be said for relations with Turkey, suggesting that a unilateral American policy shift would be inferior to one that is coordinated with Turkey—again, depending on the state of play in that relationship.
Option III. U.S. support for bringing the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iran into the KRG could follow a formal recognition of an independent KRG, or it could proceed in lieu of it. Such a policy appears revolutionary, but the Kurds themselves have been moving in that direction. Assuming the Turks do not stop them, the Kurds are growing stronger than both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes and may soon be in a position to impose a fait accompli on those states. Most likely, such an expansion of the KRG would take place in phases, beginning with Syria, which would enable the Kurdish entity to reach out toward the sea nearest the ancient city of Antioch. This would turn it into a still more viable entity, able then to claim its currently Iranian region.
There is plenty to be gained for the United States in being, and being seen as, a founding ally of such a “greater” Kurdish state. If one likes an historical analogy, the French project of creating a unified Italy in order to keep the Hapsburgs north of the Alps comes to mind—and a brilliant strategic project it was, too. But there is no point going into detail about the advantages of such an approach because such an American policy is inconceivable at the present time. Not only is it much too bold, and demanding of greater patience and perseverance than Americans can typically summon in foreign policy except sometimes during a shooting war, but it is simply beyond the strategic imagination of the present Administration.
Option II thus commends itself as the most advisable and realistic choice for the United States. The Kurds would be better, more useful and more democratic allies than the Iraqis, and the Turks are arguably amendable to the shift so long as the United States acknowledges their interests and concerns. Given the all-too-chummy state of Iraq-Iran relations, the regional state that would stand to suffer most from all this would be Iran, which is good and which would help ameliorate whatever Saudi misgivings might emerge over such a U.S. policy shift. Such a shift might also give Washington more leverage when the time comes (if it ever does) to reconstitute some semblance of a Syrian state. Right now Washington has about none.
Finally, Option II makes sense if only because the status quo is no longer very “quo.” Things are changing rapidly on the ground; all the other actors are adjusting, but U.S. policy is atavistically frozen somewhere in the past century. The Americans can do better than that, can’t they?
- 1 Out of a total Kurdish population of about 24 million, there are 850,000 Kurds in Europe, about 20,000 in the United States and 6,000 in Canada; there are also Kurds in Central Asia, Australia and other states as well.
- 2 On 22 July 2013, for example, Masud Barzani convened an all-Kurdish conference in Irbil with the participation of 39 Kurdish parties from all parts of Kurdistan as well as the Diaspora. On 16 November 2013 he concluded an historical visit to Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in Turkey, where he met with Turkish PM Erdoğan and Kurdish leaders from that city.
- 3 See Martin van Bruinessen, Transnational Aspects of the Kurdish Question, Working paper, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence, 2000.