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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Kurdish television and newspapers are rife with incitements to unrest, often referring to Iraqi Kurdistan as "South Kurdistan," thereby implying that large chunks of Turkey must be "North Kurdistan." Likewise, they place the eastern Syrian city of Qamishli in "West Kurdistan." The Kurdish flag adopted by Barzani is that of the short-lived, separatist Mahabad Republic, which, with Soviet backing, declared its independence from Iran in 1946. Maps printed on Iraqi Kurdish presses and sold in the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah markets show a Greater Kurdistan stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

Just as Arafat transformed the Palestinian Authority into a safe haven for terrorists, so too does Barzani. His administration provides safe haven and supplies to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists who have been responsible for approximately 30,000 deaths in Turkey since 1984. The Turkish government accuses the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government of furnishing passports to PKK terrorists on Turkey's most wanted list. Turkish officials complain there are six PKK bases operating in territory controlled by Barzani's party. Just as weapons supplied by the Clinton administration to Palestinian security forces ended up in the hands of terrorists, so too have arms supplied by the U.S. government to Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, found their way into PKK hands.

Barzani places little restriction on PKK travel within northern Iraq. In October 2006, two PKK leaders received treatment in an Erbil hospital; three months later they were photographed in an Erbil restaurant. Meanwhile, the PKK continues to smuggle explosives and carry out attacks in Turkey. Barzani refuses to stop weapons trafficking across the border with his own peshmerga militia, and refuses the Iraqi army permission to do so.

Turkish authorities have made countering the PKK their top priority. At the June 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul, President Bush promised Turkish officials a U.S. crackdown on the PKK. The next year, Rice repeated the pledge. But only in September 2006, after Kurdish terrorists detonated bombs in Istanbul and several Mediterranean resorts, killing not only Turks but also wounding more than a dozen European tourists, did the State Department appoint Gen. Joseph Ralston as special envoy to counter the PKK. His appointment has so far been more symbolic than effective. Last month, Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gül and military chief of staff Yasar Büyükanit met with national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Vice President Dick Cheney to demand real action against the terror group. Privately, Ralston told journalists he does not believe Washington will respond. Turkish leaders rightly ask why Washington can cross borders to chase terrorists, but they should not.

They may very well begin doing so, especially if the Biden plan gains traction. A perfect storm is gathering: For the first time since 1973, Turks face selection of a president and election of a parliament in the same year. Election year nationalism is incendiary. Barzani's rhetoric and PKK terror add fuel. Meanwhile, according to the Iraqi constitution, there must be a referendum by the end of this year on whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should become part of Kurdistan. Both Barzani and Talabani call Kirkuk the Kurdish "Jerusalem," but it is an ethnically mixed city with deteriorating security.

Asked during a February 27 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether Turkey would "stand on the sidelines and watch an independent Kurdistan be formed in the north [of Iraq] without going to war," Director of National Intelligence Vice Admiral J. Michael McConnell said, flatly, no.

The Kurds underestimate Turkish resolve. Many Iraqi Kurds say the peshmerga can defeat the Turkish army in the mountains of northern Iraq--and believe that, in any case, it won't come to that. But in 1998, a similar standoff occurred when the Syrian government ignored Turkish demands that Damascus stop sheltering the PKK. The Turkish army mobilized. The late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad had a more sober view of the Turks and expelled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who now serves a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Those in Turkey's political and military decision-making circles from the time said they planned to enter Syria, with or without a green light from Washington.

Barzani also overestimates the meaning of U.S. sympathy for the Kurds. He may believe Kurdish leaders' friendship with Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, will pay off. Galbraith, who has testified repeatedly in Congress on behalf of his Kurdish clients, seeks redeployment of U.S. forces to bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, in effect shielding Barzani from the consequence of his actions. But the fact is, while Washington would not bless a Turkish operation to attack PKK camps in northern Iraq, it would understand one.