Friday, May 11, 2012

Shifting Sands for the Kurds

Flag of KurdistanFlag of Kurdistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once upon a time the Kurds were frequently shown a red-line by Turkey that they could never cross – independence. Even as late as 2010, the warning was in effect.  To fight the PKK, the Turkish army covers Kurdish regions in the east of Turkey and has intermittently thought nothing of crossing into Iraq, in force, to attack PKK home bases.  But the Kurdish government in Erbil is different. It is rich, peaceful and it is engaged in a cold-war with Baghdad. 

Kurdish Iraq has been part of the country in name only for at least a decade.  Having first been protected by the no-fly zone in effect against Saddam Hussein, it became de-facto independent after his army was pulverized in the first Iraq war and then systematically dismantled by the invasion in 2003.  Both wars were beneficial for the Kurds. (Please note – I am not defending the illegal, ill-conceived 2003 invasion and its badly handled aftermath). Erbil is now probably the richest city in Iraq as a result of oil, maintains a decent military, enjoys relative peace and can thumb its nose at the government in Baghdad.   It is also stable – something Ankara appreciates on its borders.
The former peace-in-the-neighborhood policy is changing to stark realism as Ankara understands that as a major regional power – perhaps the regional power – choices need to be made. Gradually, Kurds in Turkey are gaining their civil rights – a long road lies ahead in that respect – but Turkey knows that being friends with every neighbor is not a policy choice.  As a result, given the tension that exists between Shia controlled Iraq and Sunni Turkey, the Kurds may find that a deal with Ankara and future independence is not just a dream.
Iraq, Syria and Iran are upset with Turkey and Turkey has severed relations with the Assad regime while offering aid to Syrian refugees and has issued blunt warnings of military action to Damascus – not something Iran appreciates or wants to see.  The Kurds, however, have been welcomed. Not so long ago Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish Regional Government PM, paid a visit to Ankara where he was treated as a head-of-state.  Barzani’s government is increasingly tied to Turkey by both trade and the need for security against what the Kurds believe is a hostile government in Baghdad and a not so friendly Iran. This has resulted into a Kurdish policy of not irritating Ankara by showing any sort of support for the outlawed PKK.
In the past few days, the al-Maliki government in Baghdad has even more reason to be annoyed with Turkey. Ankara has said that the fugitive Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi (a Sunni) wanted for allegedly orchestrating death squads and attacking Shiites, is their guest and that the recently issued “red notice” by Interpol is not an arrest warrant and can be safely (if embarrassingly) ignored.  They are not going to do anything except treat him as a guest.  All these past and current events present the Kurds in Erbil with an opportunity for further de-facto independence, if not de-jure.
Some years ago, the suggestion was floated that Iraq should simply be divided in three, Shia south, Sunni west and Kurdish north.  The idea was derided as dangerous.  But it is playing out. If Erbil and Ankara reach a degree a comfort with each other, it would be beneficial to both. 
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