Geopolitical Diary: Iraq, Turkey and the Kurdish Issue
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spent his last few hours in Iraq on Wednesday in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, where he met with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani. Gates urged Barzani to keep a cool head in dealing with his Arab political counterparts, making it clear that the Kurds' ongoing dispute with the central government in Baghdad is one of Washington's major concerns. Arbil's ongoing conflict with Baghdad is based on two competing visions for Iraq. The Kurds, an ethnically distinct population spread across Iraq's rugged north, favor a federalist model of Iraq — one in which the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south largely decide their own rules and regulations on issues like producing and profiting from Iraq's energy resources to provide for their own political and economic security. On the other hand, Iraq's Sunnis and a large portion of Iraqi Shia (who prefer to keep their distance from Iran) promote the centralist vision of Iraq, in which Baghdad holds all the cards. A strongly centralized Iraq — whether led by the likes of Saddam Hussein or Nouri al-Maliki – means that Baghdad has ultimate authority in containing the country's feuding factions and holding the country together. In the interest of territorial integrity, Arbil ultimately will end up on the losing side of this battle. However, with U.S. troops still in the country, the oil industry stumbling and Baghdad struggling to pull itself back up after six years of war, the Kurds feel they have some time left to consolidate the autonomy they have achieved thus far. And as long as the Kurds have some fight left in them, issues such as a national hydrocarbons law will fall to the wayside — and the potential for violent Kurdish-Arab clashes can be expected to intensify in the lead-up to parliamentary elections early next year. Naturally, this is troubling for Washington. But the United States has to move on to more pressing issues further east, in Afghanistan. As Gates hinted Wednesday, the United States might even accelerate the withdrawal of a combat brigade from Iraq this summer. While the Kurds would love to host American troops in Iraq for years to come, as a shield against their more powerful Arab rivals, the dream of having Uncle Sam as the Kurdish security guarantor is rapidly fading. The Kurds might feel victimized, but there is a rescuer in the wings: Turkey. Although Turkey has a reputation for being abusive toward Kurds, it is showing a new attitude these days. In fact, the Turkish government announced Wednesday that it has a new plan for dealing with its Kurdish problem — one that involves granting political and social rights to the country's oppressed Kurdish community. The Turkish strategy is one that we have been tracking for some time now. Turkey, under the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party, has concluded that the Kurdish issue must be addressed if Ankara is to consolidate power at home and project power abroad. But instead of relying purely on military force (though that will remain among its options), Ankara is taking a more nuanced approach — using political and economic links to deny sanctuary to militant groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party and to undermine the notion of a Kurdish struggle for independence. The Turks have been telling Barzani and other Kurdish leaders privately that they cannot trust their Arab rivals in Baghdad. Instead, Ankara has said, the Kurds need to trust Turkey to guarantee their economic future. After all, if the Kurds want to export oil in the north to the global market, they must go through Turkish territory. But there are strings attached. Turkey will take over as the Kurds' security guarantor only if the Iraqi Kurds play by Ankara's rules. That means the Iraqi Kurds must give up their claims to Kirkuk, in the oil-rich region, and steer clear of any moves toward Kurdish independence — both within and beyond Iraq's borders. This is a proposal that the Kurdish leaders in Iraq can live with, mostly because they don't have much choice in the matter. As geopolitical fate would have it, the Kurds lack the political, economic and territorial cohesion to stand on their own two feet. Their mountainous region has provided shelter from occasional annihilative maneuvers by their large and powerful neighbors, but it also has kept the Kurds severely fractured among rival tribes and political groups. And judging from the latest results of the recent KRG polls, those rifts are bound to widen — with the political pendulum swinging strongly toward Barzani at the expense of his chief Kurdish rival, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The United States does not have much attention to spare for the ebb and flow of Kurdish tribal politics, but this is a game that the Turks know well and are already exploiting. Efforts are under way to transform Kurdish leaders like Barzani from longtime foe to new best friend. Meanwhile, the United States will move forward with its withdrawal plans, leaving much of Iraq's political future in Turkey's hands.