Turkish-US Ties May Take Precedence
Over Kurds’ Fate
by Amal Hamdan
April 5, 2003
Not for the first time in history, the Kurds see a glimmer of hope that after more than 80 years they will gain a homeland of their own in a post-war Iraq.
But in a bid to protect what it perceives as its critical strategic relationship with Turkey, the “United States has an interest in keeping Kurdish aspirations limited,” said Dr. Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group and an expert on the Kurdish question.
Kurdish dreams are Turkey’s nightmare. Ankara, which fought a bloody 15-year Kurdish insurgency that left some 30,000 civilians dead, fears that a viable Kurdish entity will motivate its own Kurdish population to split away.
“Turkey is critically important to the United States,” explained Hiltermann. Washington perceives Ankara as a gateway to Central Asia and the Middle East's rich natural resources, he said.
“If this wasn’t the case we would see Washington a lot angrier,” he added. But the Jordan-based expert was quick to add that the situation was fluid and that the US policy could change.
In the run-up to the US-led war in Iraq Washington appointed Zalmay Khalilzad - who was also responsible for shaping post-Taliban Afghanistan - as special representative to the Iraqi opposition, which included Kurdish parties in northern Iraq.
Numbering some 20 million, the Kurds are the world’s largest nation-less people. Broken promises and violence peppers their history.
After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, aspirations of an independent Kurdish state were dashed when the 1920 Treaty of Sevres promising autonomy was never fulfilled.
Instead, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was adopted and made no mention of the Kurds.
Turkish soldiers stand next to a column of army tanks near the southeast Turkish town of Cizre REUTERS/str
During the 1970s the Kurds rose against the central government in Baghdad amid a territorial dispute between Iraq and neighbouring Iran. They aligned themselves with US-backed Tehran but when Iraq and Iran agreed peace, Washington halted its support to the Kurds.
After the 1991 Gulf War the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrated an uprising among the Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south in a bid to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But when the Kurds launched the insurgency Washington again turned its back on the combined opposition and thousands were slaughtered by Baghdad.
Iraq’s 1988 Anfal campaign to stamp out the Kurdish uprising left an estimated 100,000 Kurdish civilians killed. Baghdad’s equally traumatising chemical attack against Halabja left 5,000 Kurds dead.
In a recent editorial, Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group and Hiltermann drew the comparison of the attacks against Anfal and Halabja to the impact of September 11 on the “American psyche.”
“It is out of such deep emotions and national traumas that identities are forged or reinforced and, sometimes, nations are born,” they wrote.
A recent ICG report quoted a Turkish defence analyst as saying "one of the country's primary interests in Iraq was preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state".
"It is unclear what the Kurds would settle for in a post-war Iraq", said Hiltermann, adding that if they didn’t succeed in achieving autonomy and significant representation in central Baghdad, in a few years they could return to armed struggle.
An ICG paper predicted the Kurds may gain a limited reward for their support of a US-led war.
Last Friday, a defiant Turkey went against US wishes saying it had deployed fresh troops in northern Iraq. The announcement came shortly after weeks of political wrangling culminated in a decision to allow Washington use of its airspace. This is a critical corridor to US plans to launch a second front in the north after Ankara’s parliament earlier rejected a US request to deploy 62,000 troops on its soil.
Conflicting reports on Saturday said Turkey had sent 1,500 troops into the Kurdish area, a statement denied by Kurdish parties and later Turkey’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Ankara already had several thousand troops in the Kurdish region prior to the US-led war.
Turkey insists the move is necessary to stem an influx of refugees and prevent “terrorist elements” from spilling onto its soil. In 1991 Ankara claimed thousands of armed Kurdish fighters entered its territory with refugees, sparking an uprising among Turkish Kurds.
Washington reiterated it opposed the move, stressing that the issues of overflights and Ankara’s presence in the Kurdish areas should not be linked. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Washington had advised Ankara its forces would be perceived as “notably unhelpful” if they entered the north. US President George W. Bush also warned his NATO ally earlier this month its troops would face American troops if they were sent into the Kurdish areas.
A British intelligence source was quoted recently as saying Ankara denied US forces permission to use its territory in a bid to further its regional aims. According to the source, quoted by the STRATFOR intelligence website, Turkey would use the war as an opportunity to crush the Kurds before deploying at least 250,000 troops around the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. This strategy would allow Ankara to occupy some of Iraq’s richest oilfields.
While Kurdish leaders have placed their troops under US command, they have also repeatedly warned that a Turkish intervention would be met with resistance.
They also voiced fears that a green light from Washington allowing Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq would be yet another let down. This was most eloquently expressed by the Kurdish Democratic Party’s Sami Abdul Rahman earlier this month. “In my lifetime,” he said, “twice the United States government has betrayed us [in 1975 and 1991]. Now, if this goes ahead, it will be a third betrayal in one generation.”
Turkey started building its policy position to justify intervention in northern Iraq as war rhetoric mounted last fall in Washington based on fear. Ankara claimed it feared refugees would spill over into Turkey, an establishment of a Kurdish state, and a Kurdish-led massacre of the Turkomans, a minority group ethnically-close to Turkey.
Ankara harbours concerns that Kurdish troops will make a rush for the oil city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want as the capital of a federation, as a step to bankrolling a drive for independence. Turkey started beefing up its military presence along the Turkish-Iraqi border, deploying troops and pre-positioning relief materials.
A Turkish intervention into the Kurdish areas would be tantamount to a “human disaster,” said Hiltermann. The US also fears a “war within a war” between Kurdish and Turkish troops which may de-rail their campaign to oust the Iraqi leader.
Retired US Army Colonel Scott Feil warned that security vacuums in the north will be exaggerated by Turkish troops.
“The worst problem is if there’s an area where there are grievances that people want to settle and the local security forces decide because they don’t want to be identified with the (Iraqi) government, they’re not going to be out and visible and maintain order as the situation starts to change within Iraq but US forces haven’t arrived yet. So therefore there’s a great potential for little pockets with security vacuums to develop,” he explained.
Feil was chief of the Role of American Military Power (RAMP), a post-conflict reconstruction program for the US army. He described Turkish plans to enter northern Iraq as very risky.
“What the Turks will say, of course, is we want to stabilise the situation in northern Iraq…That, I think, is one of the reasons why the US wanted to have a heavy presence in the north, basically to reassure both sides that the Kurds would not be taken advantage of by the Turks and the Turks would not be taken advantage of by the Kurds.”
Amal Hamdan is an analyst with Al Jazeera. This article first appeared in the English on-line version of Al Jazeera (http://english.aljazeera.net).