OFRA BENGIO ( MOSHE DAYAN CENTER) – Will the Kurds Get Their Way?


November/December 2012 issue “AMERICAN INTEREST “ – By  Ofra Bengio

The turn of the 21st century marks a definite period of Kurdish awakening. This social revolution is occurring separately within each of the four communities, but also through trans-border activities that are increasingly bringing the groups’ political consciousness together. It is a revolution that is very likely to shake the geostrategic pillars of the Middle East to their foundations.

In some ways, the rising Kurdish wave resembles the somewhat more advanced Tuareg wave in North Africa and the western Sahel. The Tuareg rising has already destroyed the territorial integrity and political order of one state, Mali, and threatens others. The Kurdish rising may very well do the same.The signs are not hard to read.

Most dramatically, the traditionally marginalized Kurds of Syria have found new energy in the cauldron of the Syrian uprising and are now demanding a federal system in which they would gain significant autonomy in a post-Assad Syria. The extremely restive Kurds of Turkey are pressing for what they call democratic autonomy. The Kurds of Iran, typically unremarked upon in the media, are stirring beneath their blanket of obscurity. But most important of all these are the Kurds of Iraq. Iraq was the epicenter of the Kurds’ great leap forward in the early 1990s: the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is a euphemism for a de facto Kurdish state. It is to the KRG experience that Iranian, Syrian and Turkish Kurds increasingly look for lessons and guidance, and rightly so.

The fascinating story of the Kurdish revival in Iraq in the 1990s resembles in some ways that of the Jews in the 1940s. Four years after a genocidal war waged against them by the Ba‘athi regime of Saddam Hussein in 1988–89, the Kurds, who account for about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, managed to launch an ambitious project for Kurdish nation- and state-building that now competes favorably with the Iraqi one. Just as a particular and even peculiar juxtaposition of various domestic, regional and international factors made possible the rise and defense of the State of Israel a mere three or four years after the Holocaust, so too has Kurdish success in Iraq been favored by a perfect conjugation of factors. Yet, as with the Jews, the relative internal cohesion of the Kurdish ethnie into a nation, despite territorial division, political squabbling and second-tier cultural differences, is the key to understanding what has occurred. That said, factors well beyond Kurdish influence have been important. The collapse of the Iraqi state model and the shift of emphasis from the 20th-century struggle between Arab and Kurdish nationalisms to the Sunni-Shi‘a struggle at the beginning of the 21st century have been most significant. Kurdish strength rose against the backdrop of Arab weakness and sectarian division in Iraq. That circumstance spared the Kurdish region from the civil war that ravaged the rest of the country, and it helped tame long-standing political rivalries within Iraqi Kurdistan between the Barzani- and Talabani-led factions. It also eventually gave the Kurds outsized influence in the state-building processes of post-Ba‘athi Iraq even as they developed their own internal regional institutions. This enabled the KRG to become a model of stability and success for the rest of Iraq—a most unusual turn of events by the measure of modern Iraqi history.

The consolidation of the KRG and its considerable clout within the reconstructed, if still fragile, Iraqi state has also made it a model for Kurds in the three surrounding countries. That fact, in turn, changed the political and psychological geometry of the region, leading the Turkish, Syrian and Iranian regimes to see the KRG and its relationship with Baghdad in a new, more serious, more complicated and generally more suspicious light. Stripped down to the basics, leaderships in Ankara, Damascus and Tehran see the KRG as an agent that will weaken, for a relatively long time, their regional competitor in Baghdad. But this same agent may, by example if not active policy, incite serious trouble within these countries’ own borders. This dynamic gives KRG leaders both natural adversaries and leverage to use against them in the multi-dimensional competition underway both inside Iraq and all around it.

This is the defining circumstance for the Iraqi Kurds’ decision either to cross the Rubicon and declare outright independence or not. If they do cross it, the decision will touch off a new level of intermeshed and probably very intense political maneuvering within Iraq, within the Kurdish ethnie, and within the matrix of balanced-opposition relationships that have evolved over many years between Kurds, Persians, Arabs and Turks within Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Kurdish Nation-Building and State-Making

Will the KRG take the plunge? Let’s begin an answer by assessing where the Kurds stand now.

 Domestically, the KRG has managed to establish a Kurdish national entity functionally separated, at least in part, from the Iraqi state. As it has developed these institutions, it has inched ever closer to formal separation. Indeed, while the Iraqi constitution approved in October 2005 speaks of a federal arrangement between the Kurdish region and the rest of the country, in practice, a quasi-state structure has arisen rather than a more limited federative one.1

The autonomous prerogatives of the KRG cover a wide range of areas. For instance, it holds elections to the Kurdish parliament independently of the central government. (From 2005, the central government became known as the federal government.) It has a draft constitution, endorsed by the Kurdish parliament in June 2009 (but not yet by a referendum), as well as a President, Mas‘ud Barzani—the first Kurdish leader ever to have been elected to this post. In addition the Kurds have national symbols of identity such as an anthem, a national day (Nowruz) and a flag. Politically speaking, the KRG prides itself on being a model of democracy for Iraq and even for the Arab world. Although the government does suffer from nepotism, corruption and a lack of transparency, its democratization process seems less fragile than the one in Baghdad.

The Kurds have also taken strides toward economic independence. While reconstruction of the economy and infrastructure in the Arab part of Iraq has been slow, development in the Kurdish region has proceeded apace. For the first time in their history, the Kurds now have two airports, in Erbil and Sulaymaniyya. These facilities enable them to overcome, partially at least, their dependence on Baghdad, which is a consequence of their lack of access to the sea. The airports have also enabled the Kurds to broaden their foreign ties in an unprecedented fashion. The relatively quiet Kurdistan region is attracting entrepreneurial investment, mostly in oil exploration and extraction. (Reserves within the KRG are estimated at 45 billion barrels.) By 2012, forty contracts had been signed with international oil companies over Baghdad’s objections, including a breakthrough agreement with Exxon Mobil.

The value of KRG oil for financing Kurdish independence has fueled the stubborn Kurdish struggle to include the oil-rich district of Kirkuk in the zone under Kurdish rule. But Kirkuk, which has always been the major bone of contention between various Iraqi regimes and the Kurds, remains just beyond reach for now. Kirkuk clearly might cause renewed tensions between the KRG and Baghdad. Indeed, since a viable independent state without Kirkuk is a riskier proposition, one can imagine scenarios in which a declaration of independence and an attempt to seize the district might occur together.

The Kurdish residents of the KRG sense the wider space that has opened between the Kurdish areas and the rest of Iraq more than they do the constraints and dangers weighing down on them. In an impromptu Kurdish referendum held on the eve of the 2005 elections, the majority voted for Kurdish independence. Nevertheless, the Kurdish leadership has been cautious. It seems more moderate and willing to compromise than the Kurdish public because it understands the damage that aggressive proclamations and extreme demands might cause them as they methodically build up their capacity to sustain eventual independence. At the same time, President Barzani regularly raises the notion of sending the issue of independence to an official referendum by the Kurdish people whenever relations with Baghdad grow tense. Similarly, whether because of internal pressure or because it recognizes the historic importance of this window of opportunity, the Kurdish leadership is taking important steps toward the possible establishment of a Kurdish state. One window on this effort concerns culture policy.

Another way of reinforcing Kurdish autonomous identity is by means of language and education, the twin supports of any culture. The new Iraqi constitution marks a significant achievement for the Kurds because it recognizes Kurdish as an official language alongside Arabic. Accordingly, Kurdish has become the language of education at all school levels, colleges and universities, so much so that a new Kurdish generation is growing up that knows little if any Arabic. Likewise, the Kurdish media have enjoyed unprecedented boom times: A large number of newspapers and periodicals (470 as of March 2012), as well as radio, television stations and satellite broadcasters, have sprung up. All of these media venues contribute to the expansion and strengthening of the Kurdish language in both spoken and written form. If it is indeed true that language is one of the pillars of modern nationalism, then one could say the Kurds in Iraq are building that pillar with alacrity.

Yet another important marker of statehood is the actual border that the Kurds have erected between the KRG and the Arab part of Iraq. The many checkpoints in operation within the Kurdish region itself and along the border with Arab Iraq are meant to imply de facto independence. At the same time, they are aimed at thwarting possible attempts by Baghdad to encroach on the region’s sovereignty, as well as to pre-empt terrorist attacks. Ordinary people from the Arab part of the country who wish to enter KRG-controlled areas must have a Kurdish guarantor and may stay for only ten days. Those who wish to stay for a longer period must carry an “information card” that is, for all practical purposes, a residency permit or a kind of passport. Such individuals are not allowed to buy property.

Perhaps the most important emblem of this newfound Kurdish sovereignty is the strategic target of turning the guerrilla army, the peshmerga, into a conventional army. This process, which started after the 1991 uprising, has gathered momentum in the past few years. The Kurdish army now includes, according to Shaykh Ja‘far Shaykh Mustafa, the Minister of Peshmerga (or defense), 190,000 soldiers, tanks and mortars. Furthermore, this new army in everything but name has a modern organizational structure, rank insignias and standard uniforms. The soldiers are salaried, too, and are no longer employed on a voluntary basis as the peshmerga have invariably been in the past.2

On yet another level of sovereignty, the KRG has developed foreign relations independently from Baghdad, which is obviously a key to explaining the boost in its international standing. The acceptance of a higher KRG political status, especially by the United States, has been crucial for enhancing the Kurdish political and strategic profile. This dovetails with and reinforces the status provided by the heightened activities of international businesses in KRG territory. The KRG leadership has taken advantage by sending commercial representatives and all-but-official ambassadors to various world capitals. Meanwhile, some 25 states have opened consulates in Erbil, where they feel freer and safer to act than they do in Baghdad. They pay lip service to the fiction that Erbil is an Iraqi city in that they call their diplomatic facilities consulates rather than embassies, but this is increasingly a distinction without a difference. Kurdish leaders too, most importantly President Barzani, have essentially became persona grata as Kurdish nationals in many countries, including the United States, Russia, most EU countries, many Arab countries and even Turkey.

Having secured all these achievements, the Kurds now find themselves at the proverbial crossroads: Will they declare independence, or will they wait for a more opportune time, as they have been doing for ages? Having done an excellent job of producing internal coherence both in terms of institutions and popular support, the KRG leadership’s main concerns are now external ones. They are staring into the maw of the great multidimensional competition that characterizes their region—a competition so complex that no one can predict with much confidence how things will play out should the Kurds light the fuse.

One way to think about the geostrategic environment surrounding the KRG is to posit two concentric circles, one of which tends to push it toward independence and the other away. The first circle is defined by Kurds of Greater Kurdistan. Since the 2003 Gulf War, and to an even greater extent since the 2011 upheavals in the Arab world, Kurds everywhere have been noticeably more assertive. Notions of pan-Kurdism, as well as greater solidarity and collaboration among Kurds, are proliferating. At the same time, despite the subterranean animosities that exist among the different parts of the Kurdish whole, the KRG has managed to turn itself into an epicenter for all Kurds, including those of the fairly large diaspora. In short, the Kurdish inner circle provides a kind of strategic depth if the KRG were to drive to independence.

By contrast, the circle defined by the states surrounding the KRG, whose dynamics are far more visible to the naked eye, is pushing against independence. Turkey, Syria and Iran all fear contagion from an independent and presumably irredentist KRG. These fears have been mightily exacerbated in recent years by the evolution of the KRG into a safe haven for the Turkish Kurdish Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) and the Iranian Kurdish Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK). Both groups have established bases in KRG territory from which they have launched attacks against Turkey and Iran.

Back in the 1990s, and even in the early years of the 2000s, the surrounding states attempted to collaborate with each other to prevent Kurdistan from drifting toward independence. But this collaboration has now ended. Turkey and Iran now seem to be on a collision course; a short-lived Turkish-Syrian amity is now nowhere in sight as everyone, not least the jittery regime in Tehran, awaits the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Clearly, too, the capability of each of these three countries to repress its own Kurds has weakened significantly, as at least three of the four states have themselves grown weaker.

For its part, Baghdad still has not recovered from war, incipient civil war and regime change, to the point that the government has dropped the notion of a unitary Iraqi state and acquiesced to the formula of federalism. Tehran has been weakened because of the international response to its nuclear program. Focused intently on enlarging its sphere of influence among the Shi‘a in Iraq, Tehran turned a blind eye to the KRG’s autonomous activities. Furthermore, Tehran and Ankara seem to have reached a tacit understanding with regard to the division of spheres of influence in the Arab and Kurdish parts of Iraq respectively; the Iranians concentrated on Baghdad, the Turks on Erbil. Syria can no longer control its own Kurds, let alone interfere with those in Iraq. But the deepest change tracks to the Turkish stance.

If there is one country that has helped build a strong Kurdish entity in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is Turkey. This seems paradoxical, in view of Ankara’s traditional opposition to autonomous Kurdish power in Iraq and the well-known pressures it exerted on its allies, especially the United States, not to support Iraqi Kurdish aspirations lest success spill over on Turkey’s own restive Kurds. How do we explain Turkish behavior?

Since the 1991 Gulf War, and much more so after the 2003 Gulf War, Turkey has turned itself, slowly but surely, and perhaps against its better judgment, into the lifeline for Iraqi Kurdistan. As such, it has been the KRG’s gateway to the West. The slow change in Ankara’s policy toward the KRG can be described as schizophrenic. On the one hand, Turkey has been apprehensive of contagion from the KRG on its own Kurds; on the other hand, Ankara has done its best to reap the economic fruits of its relations with the emerging entity. The Kurdistan region has hosted many Turkish companies (1,020 of them by 2012), as well as large business, cultural and social ventures, giving many Turks vested interests in the KRG and thus further tightening the connection between Turkey and the KRG.

The Turkish shift, however, isn’t about money in any simple way. Rather, as a species of functionalism, it epitomizes the notion of soft power. The basic idea seems to be that, by giving the KRG something important to lose, Turkish leaders can temper and moderate its behavior. A stunning example of Ankara’s paradoxical policy is the surprising pipeline deal it cut with the KRG on May 20, 2012, without Baghdad’s approval. This agreement envisages two pipelines, one for oil and one for gas, running from KRG territory to Turkey. These pipelines will answer Turkey’s need for oil and gas, but they may also further boost Kurdish aspirations for independence.

At the same time, it may weaken Iraq. This is not an entirely trivial consideration in Turkey’s long-range thinking, but not an obvious one either, since the resurrection of Iraqi power to offset that of Iran may become much more important to Turkey in the future. The agreement, it must be noted, came on top of a bold Kurdish challenge to Baghdad: namely, the KRG stopped its oil exports to Arab Iraq at the beginning of April 2012 to protest Baghdad’s non-payment of the dues of foreign companies operating in the region. In early July, KRG authorities started exporting crude oil to Turkey via tankers, just in case the Maliki government did not get the message. They eventually resumed pumping Iraqi oil in August. The Shi‘a-led government of Iraq clearly has no friends among the pro-Islamist Sunnis who rule Turkey these days—individuals who also stand on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war.

Another important Turkish motivation for engaging the KRG has been the notion that doing so would actually help solve Turkey’s own acute Kurdish domestic problem. Ankara has apparently hoped that establishing cordial and useful relations with the KRG leadership would make that leadership responsive to Turkish entreaties to fight against, or at least contain, PKK operations on KRG territory. This kinder and gentler Turkish approach has not worked, however—at least not yet. But that failure does not override Ankara’s determination to play by the oldest rule in the book: namely, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Apparently, the Turkish leadership is confident that Kurdish power emanating from Iraqi Kurdistan will harm a weakened Iran, Syria and Iraq more than it will a politically stable and economically vibrant Turkey.

This conclusion follows from the major geostrategic changes of recent years, all of which upset Turkey’s foreign policy investments. The Arab upheavals accelerated the collapse of the Turkish-Iranian-Syrian axis. The revolution in Syria not only turned Ankara and Damascus into sworn enemies once again; it also raised the specter of the influx of Syrian refugees. Worse still, it opened the Pandora’s box of Syrian Kurds and their possible collaboration with their brethren in Turkey, not to speak of the PKK card that Damascus once more started to employ against Ankara. Lastly, there is the deteriorating relations between Ankara and Baghdad against the background of the Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry in the region, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s tilt toward Iran and his tacit support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the sharp personal antipathy between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Maliki. All of this weakened Ankara’s “commitment” to the almost sacred notion of Iraqi unity and emboldened it to expand bilateral ties with the KRG.

The withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in November 2011 and the vacuum it left constituted another disturbing development for Turkey. While Turkey did not want U.S. forces in Iraq in the first place, once they were there, their sudden exfiltration caused new problems. It’s harder to imagine the scale and openness of the Assad regime’s brutality, for example, with a huge American army right across the border—and that brutality has caused Turkey many growing problems.

Paradoxically enough, however, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq had the opposite effect on the Kurds. Not only did it not weaken the KRG, as the Kurds feared it would; it actually reinforced its strategic importance. The severe rivalry that developed between Iran and Turkey increased the KRG’s significance in both American and Turkish eyes. Similarly, deteriorating relations between Sunni Ankara and Shi‘a Baghdad, which were accelerated as a result of the American withdrawal, turned the Sunni KRG into a brother-in-arms for Turkey in the region’s sectarian calculus. Also, while the American withdrawal sharpened once again Sunni-Shi‘a cleavages, and thus increased instability in the Arab part of Iraq, it left the Kurdish region unaffected. The KRG thus came to serve as a “safe haven”, more or less, for American activities in the region: namely, deterring Iran and Syria, as well as monitoring developments in the Arab part of Iraq. Not coincidentally, in almost a decade, not one American soldier died in the Kurdish region, compared to more than 4,400 in the Arab part.

Meanwhile, a new virtual tripartite alignment formed that came to include Washington, Ankara and Erbil. As regional instability waxed, and as both Turkish diplomatic investments and American power waned, the more or less stable, economically thriving Kurdish region emerged as a political oasis. Having proved its loyalty to the United States and the West in general, the KRG in effect became the least unreliable partner in sight for both the United States and Turkey. President Barzani’s two-leg visit to Washington and Ankara in the spring of 2012, and the fact that he was afforded a welcome befitting a head of state, indicates the current state of play.

Put simply, things are pretty good right now for Iraqi Kurdistan. All trends are pointing up, the most important one being the fact that the region’s reabsorption into the Iraqi state now looks to be more or less permanently impossible. The question, in essence, is whether now is the time to lock in the achievements of the past twenty years, before something again goes sour for the Kurds. Or would an attempt to do so end up delivering a massive, self-inflicted wound?

The challenge to old colonial borders exemplified by the emergence of South Sudan and Azawad in July 2011 and April 2012, respectively, may embolden the KRG to take a chance. Indeed, former KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih stated: “There is a lot of inspiration from Southern Sudan.”3 But it’s not likely in the near future, or for as long as the KRG can avail itself of two ways for gaining access to the outside world.

The first way is via Turkey. Unless Turkey faces a rapidly growing Kurdish problem on all three relevant borders, it is likely to stick with its flexible policy of recent times: Embrace the KRG as a way to contain its own Kurds and Syria’s as well. These days, however, the definition of a Kurdish problem that could change Turkish views is expanding. If the Syrian state collapses and the KRG makes common cause with its brethren in Syria to form a corridor to the Mediterranean (while far-fetched, this is suddenly thinkable in a way it wasn’t a short year ago), the Turks would almost certainly change their tune.

The second way is the American way. Traditionally, the United States was thoroughly opposed to the notion of a Kurdish state for three main reasons: It didn’t want to antagonize its ally Turkey; it saw post-World War I borders as sacred; and it needed to maintain Iraq as a unified state, lest all territorial hell break lose in the Middle East and beyond. But things have changed. Turkey is not the same kind of ally as it was during the Cold War, and the world has changed too. Some post-World War I boundaries have changed, not least in the Balkans, Central Europe and of course in what used to be “greater” Russia. In all these cases, the sky did not fall. And Iraqi territorial integrity as of 1925 is, for all practical purposes, shattered. Washington therefore might one day change its mind, although the catalyst for this is not clear. If it did change its mind, it might carry with it Turkish assent, since practically speaking a Kurdish state that did not prove irredentist could be a buffer for Turkey against central Iraq and Iran. However, for as long as Washington and Turkey remain opposed to an independent Kurdish state, the likelihood is that the KRG leadership will not trade a tolerable present for an uncertain future.

If so, President Barzani will continue to walk the KRG down a path of “creeping independence”, one that almost certainly will not forsake the future of Kirkuk, the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. It’s much more likely he will stay on that path until such time that either Turkey and the United States change their positions or the Kurdish leadership is sure that Ankara and Washington would accept Kurdish independence as a fait accompli. Right now, as the Arab poet al-Mutanabbi put it: “The winds blow not to the liking of the ships.” But the winds have been known to change.

1For a critical view of this constitution see Andrew Arato, Constitution Making under Occupation: The Politics of Imposed Revolution in Iraq (Columbia University Press, 2009).

2See Dennis P. Chapman, Security Forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (U.S. Army War College, 2009), pp. 96–7.

3Quoted in “Kurdish nationalism rises with Arab unrest, Sudan split”, Kurdnet, July 20, 2011.