The Kurdish Elephant and the Great Middle East War
In their latest deal to fight ISIS, Washington and Turkey are treating the Middle East's largest stateless minority like pawns. That's a huge mistake.
Let’s mix some metaphors in the Middle East, all of them involving elephants.
In the crisis zone that encompasses Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the Kurds are the elephant in the room. They are the “problem” that no one really wants to talk about.
Because it would be stitched together from bits and pieces of their territory, the countries of the region oppose an independent Kurdistan. Outside actors, meanwhile, feel varying degrees of guilt for abandoning Kurds over the years: for not paying attention to human rights abuses visited on the minority, for ignoring the promises of self-determination (going back to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points), and for using the Kurds as pawns in myriad geopolitical games. Sovereign sensitivities and outsider guilt combine to drape a cloak of invisibility over the Kurds.
But the Kurdish problem is another kind of elephant as well — the one that the blind analysts grope and thereafter provide conflicting reports on what they’ve found.
For some observers, the Kurdish elephant is all tusk: a violent, thrusting animal that endangers all within its orbit. For other observers, the Kurds are a large flank that is strong and reliable. And for still others, the Kurds are nothing but a slender tail: sensitive, an easily victimized afterthought.
When we mix these two metaphors, we come up with a picture of the Kurds as a large, often ignored, and frequently misinterpreted creature — and all the other beasts of the jungle are either willfully or genetically blind. What could be more ridiculous than the blind leading the invisible?
This is a bad combination even in peaceful times. But it’s especially vexing right now, when the Kurds are at the very center of the most urgent issues facing the Middle East: the rise of the Islamic State, the ongoing fragility of Iraq, the disintegration of Syria, the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the democratic future of Turkey.
This urgency went up a notch in the last week. The Obama administration has just teamed up with Turkey to declare a “safe zone” on the border with Syria — and right between territories that Kurdish militias have occupied. This announcement comes only a few days after Ankara broke a two-year ceasefire and bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq (and possibly Syria as well).
Which brings us to our third elephantine metaphor. When the pachyderms of the region are fighting — the United States, Turkey, Syria — it’s not just the grass that must be careful. So must the Kurdish elephant: tusks, flank, tail and all.
Kurds and the Nuclear Deal
The 30 million Kurds dispersed around the Middle East maintain that they’re the largest ethnic minority in the world without a sovereign state to call their own.
But in the northern part of Iraq, Kurds have a near-country that controls its own educational system, deploys its own army, and conducts its own foreign policy. It has its own national flag and national anthem. But it doesn’t have full say over its economy — it must share oil revenue with the central government in Baghdad. It doesn’t have its own currency. And it doesn’t have a seat in the UN. But it’s the closest the Kurds have come to an autonomous existence since 1946, when the Kurds created a state for 10 months centered around the Iranian city of Mahabad.
You might think that this rump Kurdistan — officially known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — would have a terrible relationship with Iran. After all, Iran has persecuted its Kurdish minority for decades. And Tehran, a major backer of the central government in Baghdad, is deeply worried about the breakdown of the Iraqi state and the ceding of greater autonomy to the KRG.
And yet, Iran is the second leading trading partner of the KRG. As such, the recently concluded nuclear deal could be a major windfall for the Kurds of Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera:
As a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is expected to prompt the removal of some of the economic sanctions on Iran, Kurds might be poised to reap the fruits of an Iranian economic boom. “Iranian economic influence will bring with it increased prospects for economic growth and investments,” said Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute, a largely KRG-funded think-tank in Erbil.
Of course, high levels of trade do not a love fest make. Some Iranian Kurds still dream of reviving their short-lived, post-World War II state. Various politico-military formations are making plans in exile in the KRG cities of Qandil and Sulaymaniyah under slogans such as “democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan.” And Iran worries that the discord in Iraq among regions, confessions, and ethnicities can spread like a disease across borders.
Turkey has made a similarly pragmatic accommodation with Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s the KRG’s leading trade partner — primarily as a result of linking the Kurdish oil pipeline to its own Ceyhan line and allowing the KRG to deposit its oil revenues into a Kurdish bank in Turkey.
But that hasn’t prevented Turkey from going after the Kurds either, as the recent bombings indicate.
Turkey and the PKK
Turkey and its Kurdish population have long had a vexed relationship.
A quasi-Marxist liberation movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), emerged in Turkey in the late 1970s. It challenged Turkey’s right-wing authoritarian government and its identity as a unitary entity. The government’s attacks on the PKK, combined with its assault on leftist critics, produced a “dirty war” that lasted for nearly two decades and left tens of thousands dead.
The rise of the Justice and Development Party changed the dynamic in Turkey. As I wrote recently:
The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, generally took a more relaxed attitude toward ethnic minorities. The cultural and even political expression of Kurdish identity, for instance, became more acceptable with the development of Kurdish-language TV shows and college programs. The AKP’s embrace of a mild multiculturalism, as well its push for greater tolerance for the expression of religious identity, gained it support in those early years from various minority groups.
Ankara negotiated a ceasefire with the PKK two years ago. But it was increasingly difficult to maintain that agreement in the murky politics of Iraq and Syria, where PKK fighters have set up shop. The main Syrian Kurdish party and militia — the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and the Popular Protection Units (YPG) — are affiliated with the PKK. They have accused Ankara of supporting the Islamic State against the Assad regime (and against Kurdish militants). Last week, the PKK killed two Turkish policemen in retaliation for an Islamic State massacre in the predominantly Kurdish town of Suruc in Syria.
Turkey’s sudden decision to work with the United States on a “safe area” just across its border in Syria is thus the result of various calculations involving not just the Islamic State — and its potential to mount attacks in Turkey — but also the Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria, and the Kurdish minority within Turkey.
In the most recent Turkish election, the ruling AKP had its worst showing in more than a decade, thanks largely to the party representing the Kurds, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP). So slim was its margin of victory — and so divided are Turkish politics at the moment — that the AKP has not been able to form a government. It’s hard not to see the turnaround in Turkish foreign policy as a direct response to the AKP’s domestic political headaches.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, has not simply blasted the PKK but all Kurdish politicians.
“Executives of this party should pay,” Erdogan said this week, referring to the HDP. “The Turkish state has the power to make so-called politicians [and] so-called intellectuals pay for the blood of its martyrs.” The president has gone so far as to demand the lifting of parliamentary immunity, presumably so that the state can prosecute HDP representatives. The head of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, accused Erdogan not only of dragging Turkey into a region-wide war but of using the conflict as an excuse to consolidate the AKP’s power through a “civic coup.” He has also offered to voluntarily lift the immunity of HDP MPs as long as the AKP does likewise.
The United States has been so eager to fly bombing missions out of Turkish bases that it’s chosen to ignore how its collusion with Ankara supports this disturbing trend in Turkish politics.
The Kurds in Syria
The Obama administration hasn’t been particularly enthusiastic about the forces arrayed against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Indeed, its lack of enthusiasm for the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and the Army of Conquest has prompted a re-examination of its commitment to ousting Assad as a precondition to any political settlement. If Assad leaves, who will take over? It’s not as if the U.S. efforts at creating a reliably moderate counter-insurgency force have been going swimmingly. Promising over 5,000 recruits, Washington has managed about 1 percent of that amount: a mere 60 trained fighters to reinsert into the conflict.
The one force the Obama administration has consistently relied on in Syria has been the Kurds. The YPG has received military equipment and benefited from U.S. air support in its attacks on the Islamic State and its efforts to consolidate its control over Kurdish majority regions bordering Turkey. The 50,000-strong militia, which recently seized Tal Abyad from ISIS, seems to be on a roll and is “now poised to control the vast majority of Syria’s border with Turkey.”
But it’s precisely that success that worries Turkey. According to The New York Times:
The deal between the United States and Turkey, as described by the American officials, would implicitly freeze the YPG from making inroads into the border area near Aleppo. And on Monday, YPG fighters accused Turkey of going further, saying that its militia forces had been attacked by Turkish strikes in an area they had just managed to take from the Islamic State.
Say what? The Obama administration acknowledges that it is effectively tying the hands of its most effective proxy in Syria? I don’t read this as evidence that the United States is covertly backing the Islamic State as a cat’s paw against Assad (a favorite of conspiracy theorists). But I do question the wisdom of the Obama administration thinking that it can somehow manipulate actors in the region to achieve its intended results. It’s Washington that’s being gamed here.
The Islamic State’s victories in Iraq have enabled Kurds in their near-state in the north to achieve even more de facto autonomy. The retreat of the Iraqi army before the ISIS onslaught allowed Kurdish forces to acquire more territory, including the previously contested Kirkuk (and the oil fields surrounding it).
The question is whether Iraqi Kurdistan wants to make this autonomy complete and de jure. In July last year, the Kurdish leadership instructed the KRG parliament to prepare a referendum of autonomy. This would seem an unambiguous indication of Kurdish intentions. But it also might be just a chess move in the game of wresting more powers from Baghdad. After all, no one in the region — and more importantly virtually no one in Washington — supports an independent Kurdistan.
As Dexter Filkins wrote in The New Yorker last year:
Obama has spoken carefully in public, but it is plain that the Administration wants the Kurds to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS, with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state.
But the Kurds are willing to play the long game. They know that they represent, particularly in the eyes of the United States, a bulwark against the Islamic State, against religious extremism, and against the enveloping chaos of the region. They are not only good fighters but good pragmatists as well. The KRG has managed to maintain good relations with Iran, with Turkey, and even (more or less) with Baghdad.
This then is the paradox for the Kurdish elephant. The more chaotic things get in the Middle East, the more power and territory Kurds can control. But the more power and territory they control, the greater the fear in Tehran, Ankara, and Baghdad that the Kurds will create greater Kurdistan.
Let’s mix metaphors one last time. The Obama administration must start acknowledging and addressing the elephant in the room: Kurds and their aspirations for a state. It must recognize that the elephant has many different aspects: the PKK and YPG tusks, the solid flank of the KRG, and the vulnerable tail of the Kurdish minorities in Iran and Turkey. And it must resist the temptation to pound the ground and smash heads with its adversaries in the region, for both the United States and the Kurds may well suffer adverse consequences.
Elephants are extremely smart creatures with legendary memories. Treating them like pawns, instead of the much more powerful rooks that they are, is a very risky proposition.