The Magazine

Enabling Kurdish Illusions

Independence isn't in the cards.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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Speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 27, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped into a diplomatic minefield when she referred to the Iraqi-Turkish frontier as "the border between Turkey and Kurdistan." Turkish newspapers and television across the political spectrum condemned her remarks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized her statement as "wrong" and said that Turkey, at least, remains committed to Iraq's territorial integrity.

While the State Department said Rice simply misspoke, Turkish officials have reason to be concerned. In a plan coauthored with former Council on Foreign Relations president Les Gelb, Senator Joe Biden, the Democratic chairman of the foreign relations committee, urges ethnic and sectarian federalism in Iraq, in effect breaking the country into autonomous Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish units. Biden claims endorsement of a bipartisan group of heavyweights including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and James Baker; former senior State Department officials Dennis Ross, Richard Haass, and Richard Holbrooke; and a number of senators and congressmen.

The same day as Rice's gaffe, Biden published an op-ed in the Boston Globe saying his plan "offers a roadmap to a political settlement in Iraq that gives its warring factions a way to share power peacefully and us a chance to leave with our interests intact." He is wrong. As French diplomat François Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Mark Sykes discovered after World War I, boundaries drawn in a boardroom have unintended consequences. And even as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sought to rectify Rice's error, Kurdistan Democratic party leader Massoud Barzani commented, "Turkey, Syria, and Iran should get used to the idea of an independent Kurdistan." Barzani's confidence is understandable. Iraqi Kurdish autonomy already far exceeds his wildest pre-war expectations.

Ankara's decision not to participate in Iraq's liberation lessened Turkish influence in postwar arrangements. Many U.S. officials assigned to northern Iraq were unapologetic in their sympathy for Kurdish nationalism. Col. Dick Nabb (Ret.), for example, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority office in Erbil, printed business cards with the Kurdish flag. U.S. military officers stationed in Erbil accepted gifts from Barzani. One, facing corruption charges in the United States, chose to remain in Erbil, where he now serves as an adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Rice's inattention to symbolism further bolstered the Iraqi Kurds' nationalist drive. Rather than reinforce Iraqi unity and demand that Barzani meet her in Baghdad, during her first trip to Iraq as secretary of state, Rice flew directly to Barzani's mountaintop compound at Sari Rash. Kurdish officials painted her decision as an endorsement of their national aspirations.

Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader (and current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani deserve credit for being tough negotiators. As Iraqi politicians debated the constitution, Barzani and Talabani won the right both to preserve their own party's militias and to veto the deployment of the Iraqi army into the Kurdish region.

But the State Department has been unwilling to meet toughness with toughness. By restricting freedom of movement on the basis of ethnicity, Kurdish authorities have violated the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Foggy Bottom nonetheless refused to make U.S. aid conditional on better behavior of the Kurds. On June 23, 2004, U.S. authorities transferred $1.4 billion to Kurdish leaders. Less than a week after receiving that windfall, the Kurdistan Regional Government signed its own oil-prospecting agreement with the Norwegian company DNO, a slap in the face to Iraqi unity.

Once the Iraqi Kurds were flush with cash, U.S. leverage eroded. Iraqi Kurdistan now issues its own visas. The Kurdistan Region maintains separate representation overseas. The Kurdistan Development Corporation competes with Iraq for investment. Barzani's nephew Sirwan runs Korek, the local cell phone company, which for nationalist reasons refuses to cooperate with the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission, in effect keeping the Kurdistan Regional Government's capital cut off from the rest of the country. On September 1, 2006, acting by decree, Barzani outlawed display of the Iraqi flag.

Biden is correct that federalism cannot be avoided. However, he is incorrect to assume that federalism should be based on ethnic and sectarian division rather than on Iraq's existing geographical provinces. Ethnic division will not bring security. Rather than embrace peace with his neighbors, Barzani now mimics the strategy of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat--seeking diplomatic legitimacy while refusing to renounce violence.