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Iraq: Turkey, Kurds Might Consider Status Quo As Lesser Of Evils

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Any U.S. military intervention against Iraq is likely to have serious consequences on the regional balance of forces that emerged after the 1991 Gulf War. Not surprisingly, possible strikes against Iraq have raised concerns in Turkey and in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enjoyed de facto autonomy for the past decade.

Prague, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the early 1990s, NATO member Turkey was the first country in the Middle East to join the U.S.-led coalition to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

Despite fierce resistance from the army's top officers, then-President Turgut Ozal opened Turkey's airspace and military bases to U.S. and allied war planes. The late Turkish leader hoped that endorsing the U.S.-led operation against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would help Ankara boost its role as a Western stronghold in the region and accelerate its admission into the European Union.

Yet the political dividends imagined by Ozal did not materialize. In addition, the war cost Turkey an estimated $40 billion in lost revenue, despite subsequent compensation from the United Nations.

Eleven years later, the situation inside and outside Turkey has changed. Leaders in Ankara do not support the idea of strikes against Iraq, which U.S. President George W. Bush lists as among countries sponsoring terrorism and attempting to produce weapons of mass destruction. Turkey does not want Washington to solve the Iraqi issue by force and says it favors diplomatic efforts to force Saddam to allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country.

Officials in Ankara say a war near Turkey's southern border might jeopardize the government's efforts to sort out the current economic crisis. They also say attempts to force Saddam out might create a political vacuum that could stir unrest in Iraq's ethnic Kurdish northern provinces and impact Turkey's own restive Kurdish regions, reviving the specter of an independent Kurdish state.

Yet analysts believe there might be other, more structural, reasons behind Turkey's reluctance to endorse U.S. military action against Iraq.

Hamit Bozarslan is a Turkey expert at the Paris-based School of Higher Studies in the Social Sciences, better known under its French acronym of EHESS. He told RFE/RL that, in his view, Ankara wants to preserve the regional balance of forces, fearing any disruption could affect its national interests.

"True, Turkey today is much more frightened by the Iraqi Kurd experiment and its possible impact on its own Kurdish regions today than it was in 1991. But I think that [it] is also very, very strongly committed to preserving the existing status quo, the existence of states in their present form, and to preventing any possible change, any possible re-mapping [of the region] that could result from an outside intervention."

Bozarslan says this commitment originates from the "nationalist" trends he says have re-emerged in Turkish politics over the past few years, even though Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's cabinet has been trying to bring Turkey closer to the West. This trend explains why Turkish politicians and military leaders are so concerned by what Bozarslan describes as "imaginary threats."

"The Turks [also] fear that, if an attack on Iraq or on any other country is decided, states would no longer remain free to decide for themselves, and that the policy of interference might someday become common practice and -- who knows -- applied against Turkey itself."

Northern Iraq is covered by one of the two "no-fly" zones imposed on Baghdad by the U.S. and Britain after the Gulf War. Controlled by two rival Kurdish factions -- Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- the region has been enjoying de facto autonomy for most of the past decade. After years of infighting, the two groups have progressively normalized their relations, creating calm in the region for the first time since the 1960s.

Northern Iraq's 3 million Kurds have been living under relative economic self-sufficiency since 1991, receiving a 13.5 percent share of Baghdad's export revenue under the UN-supervised oil-for-food program and levying taxes on cross-border trade.

The fact that the area is off-limits to Baghdad has proved a valuable asset for Ankara, as well. Turkish contractors are helping Kurds build much-needed infrastructure, Turkish businessmen are involved in illicit cross-border trade with Iraq and Iran transiting through Iraqi Kurdistan, and Ankara's armed forces conduct regular incursions in the area in pursuit of militants of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who fled there three years ago after the arrest of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Although Ankara maintains alternatively good relations with both the PUK and the KDP, which have helped Turkish troops crush the PKK, it fears a change in leadership in Baghdad might result in the Kurds being granted a say in Iraqi politics. Although Kurds are formally opposed to Saddam, they are also against any U.S. attempt to remove the Iraqi leader from power, fearing an uncertain future.

David McDowell is a U.K.-based historian and an expert on Kurdish affairs. He told our correspondent that there is no guarantee the situation will change for the better under new Iraqi leaders, even if they are backed by Washington.

"Although I am sure [the Kurds] would be very happy to see Saddam's regime disappear, they also have to be very realistic. And realism implies quite strongly that even if [Saddam] personally disappears, his apparatus is unlikely to. And that's because the [ruling] Baath [Party] regime under Saddam Hussein is not really replaceable. It's only replaceable in terms of changing a few names. But basically, the intelligence network [and] the armed forces will remain [no matter] who takes control in Baghdad. And [the Kurds] know perfectly well that any ruler in Baghdad will view [them] with immense distrust."

In an interview broadcast on Turkey's NTV private television channel last month (8 February), KDP leader Barzani -- who says he is negotiating with Baghdad to create a federative state that would legitimate Kurdish autonomy -- said he saw "no guarantee that the alternative will be better than Saddam."

In comments aired on NTV that same day, PUK leader Talabani said: "We prefer the current situation to a change we cannot accept. At least, Saddam is now under pressure and contained, isolated, and powerless, and we are under international protection."

Bozarslan of EHESS believes that four decades of war have exhausted the Kurds' fighting spirit and that the population of northern Iraq longs for peace. Therefore, he says, they might consider relinquishing their dream of an independent state, provided they can secure their autonomy.

"They [now] consider the creation of a Kurdish state with extreme caution. My impression is that they would content themselves with changes in Iraq -- not [necessarily] democratic changes, because I think they're not the kind of people to be fooled -- but with more or less pacific changes, provided their current status is preserved. I believe they would prefer to live in a modified Iraq rather than in an independent state squeezed between Turkey and Iran."

McDowell also dismisses the possibility of a landlocked independent Kurdistan coming into reality because of the stiff opposition such an outcome would raise in neighboring countries, which he says would not allow the new state to survive.

"Although I am very sympathetic to the Kurdish feelings about self-determination, I actually think that if they would have a state of their own, that would turn into a nightmare. And, ultimately, it would be a nightmare because Iraq, Turkey, and Iran would, in fact, compete to dominate this rather weak -- economically weak -- state and to control it. The pressure would be absolutely intolerable. I think life might be easier for Kurds, quite honestly, within the states that exist if only they could achieve a kind of recognized basis, on which they would be allowed to operate as Kurds."

Bitter past experience might be another reason to explain the reluctance of Iraqi Kurds to back a U.S. military operation against Saddam. During the 1991 Gulf War, then-U.S. President George Bush encouraged the PUK and the KDP to launch a joint insurrection against Baghdad to support the allied offensive in southern Iraq. But Washington decided to stop its advance on Baghdad, leaving the Kurds to their fate and allowing Iraqi troops to suppress the rebellion.

McDowell says wounds inflicted on Iraqi Kurds in the past have not healed: "I think that [the Kurds] know that the U.S. is a very perfidious ally. They also know that the U.S. will be there as a matter of convenience in United States policy, but not for the sake of the Kurds. The permanent reality for the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan is Baghdad, not Washington. So, very simply, they are not going to compromise their long-term future on behalf of Washington."

In a clear reference to the Gulf War, both Barzani and Talabani have said that, this time, they would not take orders from outside powers. They have also made it clear that they do not want to be assigned the same role as the anti-Taliban opposition in Afghanistan -- a mere auxiliary force in a U.S. operation to depose Saddam.

Bozarslan says Iraqi Kurds are unlikely to participate in an operation to remove Saddam. Yet he believes that, should Washington ask them to allow U.S. soldiers or members of the Iraqi opposition through their territory, they would have no other choice but to comply.

(Correspondent Sami Shoresh of Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report.)