THE KURDS OF WESTERN ASIA: GEOPOLITICS TODAY
Olga Zhigalina, D.Sc. (Hist.), senior research fellow at the Middle East Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies (Moscow, Russian Federation)
Kurdistan is an area of Western Asia densely populated by Kurds and renowned as a geopolitical “hotspot.” Its territory, which covers more than 500,000 sq. km and is inhabited by more than 40 million members of the Kurdish nation, according to their own statistics, borders on Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the Southern Caucasus which forms the gateway to Central Asia and Russia. However, the geopolitical significance of Iraqi Kurdistan is defined by several other factors: its wealth of raw material resources (primarily oil); the military-strategic value of its key location, which is conducive to gaining a dominant foothold in the Middle East; the importance of its transportation routes from West to East, and so on. Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which have large Kurdish enclaves, are showing a special interest in this area. In this respect, it not only continues to be an object, but also a subject of world politics and international relations in Western Asia. Nor can Russia with its 300,000 Kurdish population or the CIS countries, which have 1 million Kurds, fail to be indifferent to the tension in this region, where they have interstate and interregional interests.
By the beginning of the 21st century, Iraqi Kurdistan had become a highly developed ethnopolitical center (compared with the Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish constituents of this region). Its importance is also augmented by the fact that the activity of the Kurdish national movement in Iran and Turkey has perceptibly declined recently, and some Kurdish organizations from these two countries have moved their bases to Iraq.
This strategic geographical element is particularly important today with respect to the aggravation in American-Iraqi relations, which could draw various political forces into a large-scale war in the region. An important underlying motive in American policy in this part of Western Asia is to oust potential rivals and gain control over regional and interregional economic relations.
The Kurds constitute one of the factors that allow Washington to maneuver between hostile and loyal political forces. After the Gulf War, a significant part of Iraqi (Southern) Kurdistan (north of the 36th parallel) was no longer under Baghdad’s control but, in the military respect, under the protection of NATO. The Iraqi Kurds obtained real autonomy and named this territory “Free Kurdistan,” which the U.S. uses as a strategic ploy in its struggle with Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime and with Islamic radicalism in Iraq. With the aid of its armed forces and ally, Great Britain, the U.S. is relying on its regional partners, among whom is the Iraqi Kurdish opposition.
Under U.S. political protection and with assistance from European humanitarian organizations, the Kurds of the autonomous region began building a peaceful way of life. They restored several industrial facilities, set up irrigation systems, began implementing social and cultural programs, and so on. The results of this work prove that the Kurds are capable of constructive action. But this irreversible process is running counter to the interests of the countries that share Kurdistan, as well as to several Islamic and other political trends that do not accept the policy aimed at Europeanization and solidarity with the political elites of the West and the U.S. adopted by the Kurds. In so doing, all of the Kurds’ adversaries believe that their top priority is to prevent the economic base of this autonomous region from developing, to stop the Kurds from using the raw material resources, to cut back or entirely curtail interregional projects being implemented on the territory of Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan, and so on.
One of the threats to Kurdish self-government is posed by Baghdad itself. Saddam Hussein saw to it that vast armed forces were concentrated on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in good time. And the Kurds are afraid that the dictator will launch a preventive strike in Northern Iraq using weapons of mass destruction, as happened in Halabja in 1988, when more than 5,000 people were killed. Information that Iraq has ordered anti-paralytics from Turkey confirms that Saddam Hussein indeed has such intentions. Therefore, the Kurds have begun stocking up on food and medication and are preparing to flee to the mountains if necessary and seek refuge there. Their official representatives in Erbil have stated that there is not one gas mask in Kurdistan. What is more, Baghdad is supposedly encouraging the activity of several extremist organizations in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Another threat to Kurdish self-government is posed by Islamic extremist and terrorist groups that have moved in from Afghanistan. One of them, called the Soldiers of Islam (Jund al-Islam), is trying to paralyze the work of the two leading political forces in the autonomous region—the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iraq (KDP-Iraq) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—by physically eliminating their leaders, as well as putting a halt to the activity of other Islamic organizations that do not share its tactics. The Soldiers of Islam are infringing on local national traditions, trying to introduce Muslim customs into everyday life by force (for example, making Kurdish women wear yashmak, forbidding music and the taking of photographs or videos, etc.), and carrying out terrorist acts on important life-sustaining facilities (industrial enterprises, transmission lines, and so on). The militants deal harshly with anyone who dares to disobey them. They are trying to split the Kurdish opposition and have already broken down the Kurdistan Muslim Union, which monopolized Islamic ideas in the region. They are also barring Kurdish Muslims from access to the grave of Sheikh Osman of Biara, having set up the headquarters of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement headed by Sheikh Ali Abdul Aziz at this site. What is more, on the Iranian-Iraqi border, in the Iranian province of Western Azerbaijan, and in several regions of Syria, Turkey, and the Southern Caucasus, they have banned the activity of the Sufi order of Kakai, which enjoys great respect among some Iraqi Kurds.
The Iraqi Kurds are actively fighting the Islamic extremists and terrorist groups, whose ideas are not popular among the Kurdish population. On the one hand, the activity of these groups is fomenting religious dissent in the autonomous region, the population of which is distinguished by multiconfessionalism, and on the other, is fraught with an increase in centrifugal trends capable of engulfing an extensive region. These dangerous symptoms are posing a real threat to Iraq’s integrity.
In light of this difficult situation, the Kurds of the autonomous region are doing their best to find allies. The leaders of the Kurdish opposition in Iraq are establishing relations both with western countries and the U.S., as well as at the regional level (with Iran, Syria, and Turkey), since boycott of these relations “would disconnect us (the Iraqi Kurds.—O.Zh.) from the rest of the world,” stated Jalal Talabani decisively.1 He is counting on help from the Islamic Justice and Development Party (IJDP), which won the last parliamentary elections in Turkey, stating that “the Party is made up of a large number of Kurds and they will show more understanding of Kurdish issues,” and going on to add that he had not heard of any threats since the IJDP won, which was a good indication of future relations.2
All the same, the Iraqi Kurds are more inclined to remain within the Iraqi state, since under present conditions even a hint that they are striving to gain their own statehood could launch large-scale combat action against the Kurds of the entire region. “The day the Kurds pronounce their own state, Turkey will invade and occupy the territory,” said Jalal Talabani.3 Nevertheless, the situation regarding the Kurds in Turkey itself will hinder the country’s entry into the European Union (EU). Official Ankara has even made some concessions by permitting radio and television programs in the Kurdish language, and in August 2002, under pressure from the EU, this language was also allowed in schools. But these measures are doing nothing to radically solve the problems of Kurdish self-government.
After gaining Ankara’s support, Jalal Talabani visited Tehran, where he was also promised help. Iran is maintaining contacts with the Kurdish opposition in Iraq and assures its members that it will render assistance in the struggle against Islamic extremist groups, in which there are representatives of al-Qa‘eda who have moved into Northern Iraq from Afghanistan. During this visit, Jalal Talabani noted in particular that Iran intends to purge Northern Iraq of terrorist groups and fight the Islamic police, which is suspected of being in cahoots with al-Qa‘eda. In return, Talabani promised to keep the reins on the Kurdish Marxist organization, Komele, which has moved into the area of Iraq under his control.
The Kurds of Iraq and Iran have much in common. For example, their Iranian representatives think that if Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani are promoted to the country’s highest leadership structures after overthrowing the dictator, they will have broader opportunities for free trade in Iraqi Kurdistan. American strikes on Iraq will increase the inflow of Kurdish refugees into Iran, the authorities of which will help them to settle in their territory. In so doing, Iranian contractors will be deprived of advantageous contracts signed with Iraqi Kurds to restore Kurdish towns in “Free Kurdistan.”
There are various opinions circulating among the Iranian political elite regarding their Kurds: the conservatives are for eradicating any dissidence, whereas the reform wing supports a more constructive standpoint. After being elected president of the country, M. Khatami managed to carry out several measures to liberalize the public life of the Kurdish Sunnis, who are even allowed to openly criticize the central government. Nevertheless, unemployment, the passive participation of the Kurds in the supreme power structures, and so on, are complicating their relations with the administration. But despite the difficulties, they are trying to normalize their relations with the powers that be.
All the same, the agreements between the Iraqi Kurds and Iran and Turkey are in no way ridding Iraqi Kurdistan of extremist encroachments. On the whole, the Islamic leaders of both states are encouraging the policy of several radical groups toward the Islamization of ethnic Kurdistan, while generally disavowing terrorism and extremism. But they have their own opinion about which countries and organizations should be accused of terrorism and which should be lauded as fighters for Islamic purity.
At the beginning of November 2002, Jalal Talabani visited Damascus, where he found understanding and support. At the end of the month, Massoud Barzani also made a trip to Syria. He discussed the problems of border protection and the importance of ensuring Iraq’s territorial integrity and independence with the country’s president. And the president expressed his concern about the fact that as a result of the American military action aimed at overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, a Kurdish state might be created in the north of Iraq. Syria has a negative attitude toward U.S. intentions with respect to Baghdad, and its political leaders are justified in believing that this will activate the Kurdish movement throughout the region, including in Syrian Kurdistan.
It is obvious that during aggravation of the crisis, the regional partners of the Iraqi Kurds will place top priority on the state interests of their own countries. This is explained primarily by their striving to retain their economic foothold in Western Asia, where the competitive struggle between Iraq and Turkey for the oil resources of Kirkuk and Mosul still rages. Some Turkish politicians and public figures continue to be in favor of returning this territory, which at one time belonged to Turkey. Therefore, there is still the danger of it invading Northern Iraq.
While official Ankara is against any form of autonomy or independence for Turkish Kurdistan, it is promoting the idea of creating an independent state of Iraqi Turkmen, of which there are only several hundred thousand, with its capital in Kirkuk. In so doing, it is presumed that a large portion of Iraqi (Southern) Kurdistan will go to this state.
Kirkuk is an important factor in Turkish-Iraqi relations, since the Trans-Kurdistan oil pipeline Kirkuk-Ceyhan ensures Iraqi oil access to the world markets (through the Mediterranean). Both of its routes almost entirely pass through the territory of Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan. Although the Iraqi Kurds support the interregional projects being implemented on the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan, they are in favor of these programs working for the economic development of the Kurdish people. Therefore, they are against Baghdad’s policy aimed at Arabizing these regions, and some Kurdish political circles believe Kirkuk to be “a time-honored Kurdish city.” This opinion is also shared by former American President Bill Clinton.
The standpoint of the political leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan is not as categorical. Jalal Talabani believes that the question of whom Kirkuk, a multinational city located on Kurdish territory, belongs to should not give rise to any ethnic dissent. Massoud Barzani is of a similar opinion, stressing that this is a multinational Iraqi city located on Kurdish territory, which is rich in oil, and its status should be determined by legal norms.
Nevertheless, strikes on Iraq could be a signal for Iraqi-Turkish businessmen and nationalistic circles (Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and so on) in their struggle to gain control over Kirkuk and its oil resources. The question surrounding this city is also important with respect to the transportation of Caspian oil to the Mediterranean.
What is more, it should be kept in mind that some of Kazakhstan’s oil is to be transported by pipeline from Tengiz to Aktau, from where tankers will take it to Baku and then on (again by pipeline) through Turkish Kurdistan (the town of Van) to Iskenderun on the Mediterranean coast. In so doing, three terminals must be built: in Aktau, Baku, and Iskenderun. As early as October 1995, the International Consortium made a decision with respect to Azerbaijani oil to build oil pipelines in two directions: the first—Baku-Supsa (a Georgian port on the Black Sea) and the second through Turkish Kurdistan to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. These programs are estimated to continue for forty years. Russia is also showing a certain amount of interest in them.
On the whole, Kazakhstan oil should be exported through Russia, and Azerbaijani oil through Turkey, despite the interest of Russian business circles in pumping it through Novorossiisk. The section of pipeline that passes through the territory of the Turkish Kurds has interregional significance, since it connects the Mediterranean with the Caspian and with the interior regions of Eurasia.
The economic contracts involving the laying of pipelines through the territory of the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds also imply an increase in the political influence of Russia and the CIS on ethnic Kurdistan. Therefore, during aggravation of the crisis in Iraq, economic programs with Russia’s participation could be frozen, if not curtailed entirely. At the same time, the Turkish Kurds are hinging interregional economic relations on their being granted self-government within Turkey, and the problem of Kirkuk is pushing Ankara’s political circles toward support of the Iraqi Kurds. The latter view the United States and Great Britain as their protectors and allies during aggravation of the crisis. In the words of Jalal Talabani, the U.S. “is determined to orchestrate a ‘regime change’ in Iraq; it is a decision signed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and the new president has asserted it.”4 As early as the fall of 2002, the Americans began installing radars and carrying out reconnoitring activity from the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the one hand, and agreed to have an international commission operate in Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction in this country, on the other. Jalal Talabani believes that this action will only serve to postpone the beginning of the U.S.’s inevitable war against Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, he believes that political changes are also possible in Baghdad without armed interference. “Disarming Iraq … is good for its people and for the region, since these weapons (of mass destruction) were used against the Iraqis, against the Kurds in the north and the Shi‘ites in the south … and we fear that an armed conflict might destroy our infrastructure and properties.”5
According to the statements of the Iraqi opposition leaders, the Kurds essentially do not exclude the possibility of their participation in land-based operations against Saddam Hussein. (There are approximately 150,000 soldiers in their armed forces, not counting national volunteer troops.) All the same, Massoud Barzani noted that military action should not touch the territory of “Free Kurdistan,” although the American army intends to use it. Barzani referred to the fact that the Kurdish subdivisions differ from the U.S. army in terms of command system, training, combat methods, and equipment. A military coup in Iraq while establishing alliance relations with the Kurds is one of the unrealized ideas of the former White House administration headed by Bill Clinton.
What is more, it should be noted that neither of the authoritative Kurdish leaders is insisting on overthrowing the dictatorial regime by armed force. Both of them think that it would be more productive to resolve the crisis by means of peaceful negotiations. And this essentially coincides with Russia’s standpoint. The Iraqi Kurds are more concerned with the question of their status in post-Saddam Baghdad, and they propose that at first, within three months after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a federative government should be formed invested with sovereign rights. It should be responsible for finances, foreign policy, the armed forces, and control over vital raw material resources, including oil, and be headed by an elected president. Second, they think that the U.S. should guarantee the non-interference of foreign states (meaning the countries that share Kurdistan) in the affairs of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. What is more, they consider it expedient to hold elections of regional authorities. But the Kurds have still not put the final touches to their plans for Iraq’s future structure, since there are a multitude of versions of this model. The Kurdish leaders think that the U.S. should act as the guarantor of these changes, with whom they will be obliged to cooperate in this event. But the U.S. has presented another view of Iraq’s future. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. is counting on bringing their armed forces into Iraq for 3-4 months and establishing a military regime there. In its opinion, the state should be headed by an international civilian administration. Then there are plans to create a provisional government that will reflect the interests of all the country’s people, renounce the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and adopt all the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council regarding Iraq. Parliamentary elections should be held within two years. The United States drew up this plan by consulting with the representatives of various Iraqi political organizations in exile.6 The latter still do not share a common viewpoint on the question of the state’s future political structure, but each of them is trying to use the situation to its own ends. The leaders of the Iraqi Kurds do not agree with the proposals of several of the country’s oppositional parties to create a provisional government. Nor do they like the U.S.’s program, since it does not fully bear in mind the Kurds’ interests and does not guarantee their status and rights.
Due to the divergence in opinion, Washington is hoping that the Iraqi opposition (40 organizations) will be able do draw up a draft that suits all the sides involved. In so doing, representatives of the U.S. administration stressed that the draft for creating a National Assembly or provisional government in Iraq (as the Iraqi opposition proposes) is not acceptable to the White House, which would like to see a “Consultative Committee” formed that would function as a link with the Bush administration.
The absence of clearly coordinated programs for politically restructuring post-Saddam Iraq and of a charismatic leader capable of uniting the entire spectrum of political forces in Iraq, as well as the American administration’s disregard for Kurdish interests and several other factors will most likely turn events counter to what American experts are aspiring for. It is unlikely that monarchist or other parties in the Iraqi opposition in exile will have the political clout needed to achieve supremacy in the power structures. Nor will the radical Islamic groups remain on the sidelines, since they will see the situation as a chance to take their revenge for the routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nationalistic Iraqi organizations could also put in their two cents. Of course, compared with them, the Kurdish structures have a significant advantage. They have already proven their ability to consolidate and have acquired experience in building a peaceful way of life. In this way, the success of American policy largely depends on whether the military-diplomatic circles in the United States can propitiously use their trump cards in relations with the Iraqi Kurds. Otherwise, their policy will provoke growth in the Kurdish movement throughout ethnic Kurdistan, which is fraught with a worsening in the regional crisis and failure of Washington’s ambitious projects.
1 “Iraqi Kurdish Leader Says U.S. Military Action Is Inevitable,” Daily Star.com.lb, 13 November, 2002, p. 2.
4 Ibid., p. 1.
6 Oppositional groups that participated in the negotiations: the Monarchist Movement led by Prince Sharif Ali bin Al-Hussein, the first cousin of the last Iraqi king; Iayd Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord; Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress; Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan run by Jalal Talabani, and the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq led by Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir Al Hakim, a Shi‘ite Muslim.