August 31, 2011


The Kurdish Problem (Morton Abramowitz, August 30, 2011, National Interest)

This time, however, Turkey's internal Kurdish issue may turn international. Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran--Turkey's next-door neighbors, are all agitating.

Turkish elites have always been haunted by the possible establishment of an independent or even autonomous Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq, which took place after the first defeat of Iraq and gained even greater credence with its enormous economic success after the second Iraq war. One might dispute this, but I believe the present, virtually independent and flourishing Kurdish entity has had a major psychological impact on the outlook of the Kurds next door in Turkey as they consider their own position. It has helped make it unclear what will now politically satisfy Turkey's Kurds. Northern Iraq has been also the military home of the PKK, which is allowed to operate, with misgivings, by the Kurdish regional government and receives help from friendly Iraqi Kurds. Erdogan impressively changed Turkey's long-standing isolation policy; rather he embraced Iraq's Kurdish government and invested heavily in the region. The Iraqi Kurds are increasingly troubled by what is happening in Turkey and seemingly caught in the middle. Turkey has pushed the United States hard to help defeat the PKK in Iraq. They have gotten significant American intelligence support but no willingness to attack PKK forces or try to make the Iraqi Kurds do so.

Syrian-Turkish relations have long been troubled. Syria once housed PKK leader and Kurdish idol Abdullah Ocalan until the Turkish government scared the Syrians into expelling him; the Americans found him and turned him over to Ankara. Erdogan embraced Assad, thinking he had the influence to change the Syrian president and ultimately change Syrian-Israeli relations. He either did not or could not because of his own increasing frictions with Israel after the 2008-09 attack on Gaza, and now relations with Syria are in shambles. He remains fearful of what might follow Assad's demise and worried about Syria cooperating with Iran to undermine Turkey on the Kurdish issue. Some two million Kurds live in Syria, so far very meekly, although there are some indications of ferment. Attacks on them and a much greater flow of Kurdish refugees into Turkey could traumatize even today's much-stronger Ankara. Interestingly, President Obama has apparently relied heavily on Erdogan's views on Syria in managing American policy toward Damascus.

The Turkish-Iranian honeymoon has come to an end over Assad. Iran helps to keep Assad going. While Iran has been tough on its own Kurds (and although right now an Iranian counterpart of the PKK operating from Northern Iraq is doing battle with Iran), relations with Turkey have become increasingly testy. An unspoken Turkish-Iranian military coordination against the PKK appears to continue for now, and while one cannot preclude its deepening, there has been increasing concern that Iran is sending signals to Turkey that it could reverse that policy if it so chose. Tehran could also use its assets in Ankara to help generate PKK violence in the cities. Turkey is not without means to counter Iran. This is an important, evolving, highly volatile tale with repercussions for other Turkish-Iranian issues.

So the Kurdish issue now has a bigger canvas. Turkey must see it in a broad, long-term perspective.

One of the big benefits of partitioning Iraq right away would have been that the Kurdistan project would have destabilized surrounding regimes quicker.

Posted by at August 31, 2011 7:03 AM

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