Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Kurdistan... the next new nation?

H/T to ALD once more.

From New York Review comes this fairly lengthy (and full) discussion on the history, present and future of the Kurdistan region.

Catching the eye...
Turkey's longstanding fear, that the Kurdish federal region in Iraq will declare independence, adding to nationalist passions among its own Kurds, is shared by Iran and Syria, the other countries that have divided up the ancient region of Kurdistan.[4] Shortly before the US invaded Iraq, Iran started to change its former policy of helping PKK militants as a means of exerting pressure on Turkey. Murat Karayilan complains that the Iranians and the Syrians—who, under Turkish pressure, had already reversed their own pro-PKK policy—frequently now capture PKK militants and hand them over to Turkey. Last summer, Iran and Turkey bombed camps in the Kandil Mountains belonging to the PKK and the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a PKK affiliate dominated by Kurds from Iran, which started launching attacks in 2004 on Iran's security forces. Turkey's army massed menacingly on the Iraqi border. In fear of a land invasion of their territory, and encouraged, perhaps, by the US, the northern Iraqi Kurds persuaded the PKK to announce its current ceasefire, which is only partially observed.

The Turkish government's decision not to enter Iraq shows how constrained it feels in comparison with the final years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, when it mounted large-scale annual operations in the Kandil Mountains. Turkey is still feeling the effects of its parliament's decision in 2003 to refuse a US request to use Turkey as a launch pad for the Iraq invasion. This decision infuriated the Bush administration and limited Turkey's ability to influence postwar Iraq. America's occupation of Iraq has curtailed Turkey's freedom to move forces in and out of Iraq when it likes; but the Americans have not themselves taken action against the PKK in Iraq, as Turkey has demanded.

It is not surprising that the US, engaged in a demoralizing struggle against insurgents in Iraq's Arab regions, has balked at starting a new offensive in Kurdistan, the calmest part of the country, against an organization that has never attacked it and at the behest of a country that refused its request for help three years ago. Turkey suspects that Bush's appointment of Joseph Ralston, a retired general, to come up with an anti-PKK policy acceptable to the Iraqi and Turkish governments is a smokescreen. More than four months have passed since Ralston was named to his post, but a specially formed contact group, with Turkish and Iraqi representatives, has yet to meet.

If you visit the Kurdish federal region in Iraq, with its own president, parliament, and flag, you may come away, as I did, with the impression that it is on the way to independence. "At this stage," Massoud Barzani, the region's president, told The Wall Street Journal recently, "the parliament of Kurdistan has decided to remain within a federal, democratic Iraq."[5] How long will that decision last? Most Iraqis, and many outsiders, are suspicious of the Kurds' determination to gain ownership of the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk—a territory with a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians—whose status, according to the constitution, is to be decided by a referendum before the end of 2007. In the words of a recent report by the International Crisis Group, "Kirkuk's oil wealth would enable Kurdish independence.... [The Kurds] know that without Kirkuk, they would govern at most a rump state profoundly dependent on neighbours."[6]

Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq, and a longtime sparring partner of Barzani, is regarded as a restraining influence on the Kurds' irredentist ambitions. In a recent profile of him in The New Yorker, he described the suggestion of Peter Galbraith, a former State Department official, that Iraq should be partitioned, as "wishful thinking.... There is not, I think, a realistic Kurdish leader who would say, 'We want independence.' Why? Because it is impossible."[7]

Some Turkish officials believe that the American government might be protecting the PKK, in order to give its Iranian affiliate, the PJAK, a better chance of destabilizing the Iranian government in the Kurd-dominated areas of northwest Iran. Since the election last year of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad it has become harder to discern what is happening in Iranian Kurdistan. According to Murat Karayilan, the PJAK has slowed its attacks on Iran since the Iranian bombardments this summer, but he says that the attacks are still taking place. It is harder still to gauge the support that the PJAK has, though, in the words of one recent visitor to the region, Iran's Kurds are "transfixed by what is happening in northern Iraq, and the local newspapers report on Barzani as much as they do on Ahmadinejad." Several towns in Iraqi Kurdistan have growing populations of migrants from the Kurdish regions of Iran.

An independent Kurdistan, even if it includes Kirkuk, would still need the goodwill of its neighbors. The Kurds of northern Iraq are already economically dependent on Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Iran. The head of Diyarbakir's chamber of commerce predicts that by the end of this year, Turkey's exports to the Kurdish federal region in Iraq, particularly of food and building supplies, may total as much as $5 billion. Kirkuk's oil flows to the Mediterranean via Turkey—when the pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged, is able to carry it. Once the US starts withdrawing from Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds will once again feel vulnerable to pressures from Turkey and Iran. Barzani told The Wall Street Journal that he would welcome a deployment of American troops to Iraqi Kurdistan—there are none at present. "It would," he said, "be a "deterrent to intervention by the neighbouring countries."

The US remains officially committed to Iraq's unity, but that could change even before George Bush leaves office. From an American perspective, a new Kurdish state would have much to recommend it. It would be friendly to the US, and as much of a democracy as you are likely to find in the Middle East. But an independent Kurdistan would probably cause Turkey to be even more repressive of its own Kurds, and as a result its chances of entering Europe, which the US has encouraged, will become dimmer. Iran would feel more threatened if there is an independent Kurdistan and would be more likely to intervene secretly and openly in Kurdish affairs. Even if they get hold of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Kurds may find that they have much to gain by putting off their dream of statehood for more than a few years to come.

That last para is a real mixture of ideas - tempting the thought that an independant Kurdistan is not viable but with the hint that Bush might be tempted to make it so.

Feet on the ground suggests that nothing much will change in the short term. Where the greatest opportunity/danger exists is in who actually moves first to get the support of the Kurds.

Will it be an increasingly overt Iran attewmpting to gain protection from the increasingly bellicose US?

Will it be an increasingly concerned US seeking to retain or gain "friends" in the Middle East against foes real and imagined?

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