War In Iraq: What’s Next For The Kurds?
War In Iraq: What’s Next For The Kurds?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Report / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

War In Iraq: What’s Next For The Kurds?

Assuming the U.S.-led military operation to topple Saddam Hussein proceeds, the threat is very great of large-scale violence, centred on Kirkuk, erupting in Northern Iraq between Kurds and Turks.

Executive Summary

Assuming the U.S.-led military operation to topple Saddam Hussein proceeds, the threat is very great of large-scale violence, centred on Kirkuk, erupting in Northern Iraq between Kurds and Turks. If that is to be averted, the United States must urgently take three important steps: get its own forces to Kirkuk first, ensure that Turkey exercises restraint, and simultaneously persuade the Iraqi Kurds to take no action that will risk provoking Turkey.

The native Kurdish population has succeeded in carving out a degree of de facto political independence since Iraqi forces withdrew unilaterally from the area more than a decade ago. Freed from government domination and largely sheltered from external interference, the Kurds have lived in a bubble, developing the early trappings of democracy and enjoying the economic benefits of the UN “Oil-for-Food” program, even as intermittent fighting between the two principal Kurdish parties effectively cut the region into two halves. A U.S.-led war in Iraq is very likely to upset this arrangement, and prompts the question: what’s next for the Iraqi Kurds?

Deep in their hearts, the Iraqi Kurds want nothing less than full independence, if not in all of “Kurdistan” (a longed-for nation-state without precise boundaries), then at least in Northern Iraq. Aware of the odds, they keep their secessionist dreams mostly to themselves and say they will settle for no more than an expanded autonomy arrangement, possibly as part of a federal Iraq. The present configuration of forces, however, might well augur something entirely different for Iraq’s Kurds, a scenario with which they are already familiar: a limited autonomy or, worse, if not even their minimal demands are met, a forced return to the mountains and renewed insurrection against central control.

In any one of these scenarios, the future status of the city of Kirkuk will play a pivotal part. The Kurds are not the only ones with their eyes on what to them is the ultimate prize. Claimed not only by them but other minority groups such as the Turkomans and Assyrians, not to mention the Arab population that, as a result of the Baath regime’s deliberate Arabisation policy, has swelled its ranks in recent years, the city of Kirkuk is both the object of desire and a source of future strife. Moreover, any central government in Baghdad is likely to assert its claim to Kirkuk and environs as indivisible parts of Iraq. This is as true today, under Saddam Hussein, as it is bound to be the case under a successor regime in the aftermath of a U.S.-led war, and has to do as much with the emergence of Iraq as a unitary Arab state from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century as with the fact that the Kirkuk-Mosul region sits atop oil-bearing formations containing 10 billion barrels of proven reserves.

In contemplating their future inside or outside Iraq, the Kurdish parties know they will have to contend with a number of powerful actors who may either assist or thwart their ambitions. Among these are, most prominently, the United States, Turkey, and the non-Kurdish Iraqi opposition groups with which the Kurdish parties are currently aligned. Iran, which has its own interests to protect in Northern Iraq, is also carefully eyeing developments from the sidelines. Syria’s Kurdish population has also been a source of concern for that country’s governing regime. Nor is the majority Arab population of Iraq particularly sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.

The United States has publicly expressed its commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq. This is another way of saying that independence for the Kurds is not for the United States an acceptable outcome to the Iraq crisis. Turkey, too, has stressed the importance of a unitary Iraq, and for reasons largely having to do with its relationship to its own Kurdish population will not tolerate any degree of sovereignty for Iraqi Kurds. For years Turkish forces have been in Northern Iraq combating guerilla forces of its own Kurdish opposition, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). At least several thousand Turkish troops are now in Northern Iraq, occupying a key airstrip, and tens of thousands more are poised to enter the country. If last-minute talks between the United States and Turkey fail to yield an agreement over basing and overflight rights for U.S. forces, Turkey may choose not to heed Washington's call to refrain from unilateral action in Iraq's Kurdish region, while Washington may not be able to deploy a force in the North sufficiently large to block any move on the part of either the Turks or the Kurds. Even in the event of an agreement, Turkey may be drawn by its own sense of its national interests or by actions taken by the Kurds.

In the gathering storm this has left the Kurds of Iraq with essentially two options, both of which are fraught with serious risk: to cooperate with the United States in its war against the regime in Baghdad and thereby hope to extract the most favorable concessions, short of independence, from those who will rule a post-Saddam Iraq; or to gamble on their own military capabilities in the chaos of war and make a headlong dash for Kirkuk, thereby creating facts on the ground that any successor regime in Baghdad, American commanders in Iraq or the government of neighbouring Turkey would find difficult to reverse.

Either approach may fail. After a decade of lukewarm support for the Kurds, driven in part by the desire to keep the Baghdad regime on the defensive, the United States will predictably throw its full weight behind a successor government of its own creation or liking. In the messy bargaining process that is sure to follow a transition in Iraq, the Kurds may be rewarded for their support of the American war effort, but not by as much as they might wish. They will have served their role, and, more importantly, the U.S. will have to address the needs of non-Kurdish Iraqis who constitute a significant majority of the population and who view Kurdish aspirations with hostility. Kurds may come to be seen as an irritant and potential spoiler, but they will be bereft of the leverage they can bring to bear in pre-war Iraq today. But a less than satisfactory settlement of the Kurdish question, including one that would not give the Kurds certain rights to Kirkuk, might trigger a return to armed conflict and prolonged instability in the North.

Likewise, a Kurdish rush on Kirkuk might backfire, even it does not elicit Turkish military intervention (the worst-case scenario). Assuming that the Kurds can both capture and hold Kirkuk, a feat they signally failed to pull off during the post-Gulf War uprising in March 1991 when they were counter-attacked by superior Iraqi forces, it would set them up for a direct confrontation with U.S. troops. Moreover, in the Kirkuk region itself there may be considerable mayhem if Kurdish civilians, forced out by the Baathist regime over the past decades and now backed by armed Kurdish factions, seek to return, only to find their homes occupied by settlers brought in to Arabise the area. Under Kurdish tutelage, the Baath regime’s ethnic “cleansing” of Kirkuk may be replaced with a new wave of expulsions and attendant violence, this time targeting the region’s Arab population.

There is a third scenario, one in which the Kurdish parties would initially exercise restraint and stay in their area while Kurdish civilians in Kirkuk, joined by those returning from their displacement camps in Kurdish-controlled territory, would take administrative control of the city. Unlike the second pro-active scenario, the Kurdish parties (militias), while themselves appearing to play a responsible role, would here effectively encourage the displaced Kirkukis to act, then use the civilians’ return as justification to enter the city themselves: an act that in turn might trigger both Turkish intervention and a military move by the Kurdish parties to support their kin. Given past rivalry over control of resources and domination of the Kurdish national movement, the fragile pact between Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) may collapse in their rush to seize command of “their” Kurds in Kirkuk.

How is one to prevent matters from spinning out of control while protecting the basic rights of the Kurds, who have suffered so grievously at the hands of the Baghdad regime during its long reign? Two challenges present themselves. The first is to prevent any major confrontation between Kurds and Turks during the duration of the war. The second is to help put together a structure for the Iraqi state that preserves its territorial integrity while addressing the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people. They are interrelated, of course, for the more secure the Kurds feel about their future after the war, the less likely they are to take matters into their own hands during the war.

To meet these challenges, three things must happen. First, it is imperative that U.S. forces get to Kirkuk quickly – before the Turks, and before Kurdish forces. This is a pre-condition for preventing a dangerous and unpredictable conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. Only a strong military force in Kirkuk (preferably a neutral one, not including Turkish troops) can maintain the peace and set the stage for a subsequent fair adjudication by a competent and impartial body of competing claims to property and resources.

Secondly, to buttress that effort, the United States should make publicly clear to the Kurds that it expects them not to take any action that risks provoking Turkey, and in particular that they should refrain from unilateral military steps and consent to a temporary international presence in Kirkuk. In exchange, the U.S. would make an explicit, public guarantee to the Kurds that it will protect them from attack (from either Turkey or a post-Saddam regime in Baghdad) and ensure they have a major role in the creation of a new Iraqi state, with their concerns adequately addressed and their achievements recognized. The Kurdish parties must be persuaded to overcome the deep suspicion born of their historical dealings with Washington and agree to work with the United States and other members of the international community to bring about a post-war situation in Iraq in which Kurds can live in peace and security and in full enjoyment of their human rights

Thirdly, and simultaneously, the United States should reiterate to Turkey that it too will need to show restraint and in particular avoid any unilateral military moves in Northern Iraq. There is little doubt that Turkish forces will enter Northern Iraq if they feel it necessary, regardless of Washington’s pressure, and the failure so far to conclude a U.S.-Turkey military agreement in advance of the war has further complicated matters. But the U.S. must do everything within its power to both lessen Turkey’s concerns (by restraining the Kurds) and heighten the political and diplomatic costs of its intervention.

This report does not address the question whether a U.S.-led war against Iraq will or should take place: the recommendations which follow are premised on the assumption that, for better or worse, it will.[fn]For an analysis of the merits of the various options as they stood in late February, see ICG Middle East Report N°9, Iraq Policy Briefing: Is There an Alternative to War?,24 February 2003.Hide Footnote

Amman/Brussels, 19 March 2003

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