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The Kurdish Factor in Middle Eastern Developments

Ioannis Michaletos, Athens, Greece, October 15, 2007

A Kurdistan P.K.K. fighter fires a Dorcka machine gun before a June training session in the Amedia area of Northern Iraq just 10 kilometers from the Turkish border. (Photo: Mustafa Ozer / AFP-Getty Images)

The current Iranian crisis, brought about by its nuclear aspirations, is inexorably connected with numerous other factors, political, economic, or geopolitical. One main factor is the existence of the Kurdish "nation," which has a large minority in Northwestern Iran, as well as in the neighboring states of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

Since March 2003 and the subsequent United States invasion in Iraq, relations between Turkey, Syria, and Iran have largely normalized. Turkey's refusal to support the Iraq war was a crucial step toward the alteration of long-standing diplomatic realities in the region.

In early March 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to allow the U.S. Army to operate on the country's soil, a decision that shocked the Bush administration and damaged relations between the two states. The Turks tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Americans for better terms of cooperation and finally agreed to allow use of their airspace. The 4th Infantry Division, which was supposed to launch an attack from Turkey into Northern Iraq, was transferred to the south and had to fight in a zone different from the one already prepared for. Apart from the tremendous logistics involved, the American administration was anxious of the stance by its traditional ally, and this can be said to be the tipping point on which the relations of the two states diverged in most respects.

In mid-2004, Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan visited Syria, and the two countries signed a series of commercial and economic agreements. Moreover, for the first time, Turkey eased pressure in relation to the control of the waters of the Euphrates River, which is vital to the Syrian economy. The Turkish water dam, Kemal Ataturk, virtually controls the flow of the river and was a paragon of great disagreements between the two states back in the 1990's.

The Turkish-Iranian relations have also greatly benefited from United States involvement in Iraq. The effect of the invasion was to an extent a radicalization of certain Islamist elements within Turkish society and an escalation of the fear that the Kurdish issue was going to be resolved against the national interests of the country. Thus, coordination between Damascus, Teheran, and Ankara began to emerge. Of course, this does not imply anything more or less than tactical moves by these three states, in parallel with the developments in Iraq and the Kurdish area.

Moreover, in order to get closer with the general tendencies within the Muslim world, the Turkish government has drifted away from the "Turkish-Israeli" axis, as the entente between those states has been called since 1996. In a 2005 visit to the Palestinian territories, the Turkish premier claimed that the Palestinians lived in a large prison because of Israeli policies. In February 2006, a representative body from the newly elected Hamas government visited Ankara, a move that greatly angered Israel, but was warmly received by Iran. Lastly, over the past two years, Ankara and Teheran have signed commercial deals involving the exportation of Iranian natural gas to the Turkish market.

The Kurdish Issue

Since the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish entity has frightened the Turkish state into using a variety of methods to secure its interests. It cajoled and assisted in some respects two of the largest Kurdish organizations, the Kurdish Democratic Party (K.D.P.) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K). It is worth noting that various sources refer to a narcotics trade being carried out by all of these groups with the assistance of Turkish paramilitaries. The all-timely fear of Turkey was the nationalist-semi Marxist Kurdistan Workers' Party (P.K.K.) led by Abdullah Ocalan, which conducted a wide range of guerilla operations against the Turkish army, and was very active during the 1990's, especially from 1994-1997. In 1999, Ocalan was arrested in Nairobi, Kenya, after a six-month international spy thriller that involved the Greek, Turkish, American, Russian, Italian, and possibly Israeli intelligence services.

Between 1999 and 2003 there were continuous negotiations between Turkey, the P.U.K., and the K.D.P. for the future of Northern Iraq, in which Ankara firmly stated its strategic interest in the area—and its oil reserves—dating back to the 1920's, when it tried unsuccessfully to persuade Britain to accept Turkish control of the region. The whole of Iraq was actually part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and Turkish claims on it have been developed for the better part of the 20th century.

The American-Turkish disagreement was a crucial factor in elevating the role of the Kurds as staunch American allies in the Middle East. The Kurds in Iraq had actually fought against and suffered from the regime of Saddam Hussein. In October 2003, the Kurdish militia denied access to Turkish soldiers trying to enter Iraq, a clear sign that the ex-guerillas were in control of one of the most oil-rich and strategically important areas of the Middle East.

Another factor influencing Kurdish policy is Israel. The state of Israel has vested interests in the region due to its antagonism with Iran and Syria and seems to assist the Kurds as a bulwark to mostly Iranian ambitions. In September 2006, the BBC revealed the existence of a training operation on a grand scale that included Kurdish antiterrorist and security preparations by Israeli trainers. It cannot be excluded that should a war on Iran erupt Israel's only allies apart from the Americans would be the war-hardened Kurdish fighters, who are very adept in mountainous warfare and have substantial experience in the border area between Iran and Iraq. Needless to say, the American-Israeli involvement is minimizing Turkish influence and further complicating its international relations.

The Kurdish nation is the only significant nation in the Middle East that has never had its national territory recognized, having spent its long history divided by other national units. The United States' control of Iraq and the expulsion of the regime of Saddam Hussein have created the necessary framework upon which the Kurds are planning to pursue their independence goals. Their support of the American cause in the Middle East and their military experience in guerilla warfare is a factor that greatly worries the countries that accommodate large Kurdish minorities. The United States' plans now seem to promote the aims of the Kurds, since a likely Kurdish independence will create a country under firm American influence right in the center of the most volatile region in the world. Moreover, the Kurdish minority in Iran would give the Americans a not-easily-confronted pressure level on Teheran. On the other hand, these hypotheses affect Turkey's posture in its relations to the European Union and the West in general. Faced with the possibility of increased guerilla movement in its Eastern territories, Turkey is forming stronger relations with Syria and Iran, which in turn is creating problems in its relations with the West and Israel—a vicious political circle not easily controlled or accommodated.

Overall, what with the seemingly imminent Turkish invasion of Northern Iraq and deteriorating Western-Iranian relations, the Kurdish issue is a powder keg that has the potential to ignite the whole of the Middle East, and it is more than certain that it will make the world's headlines over the coming weeks, months, and years. It is also fair to assume that in such an important area such as the Middle East, every development will certainly have ramifications on a wider scale. Europe in particular should already have made contingency plans in order to be fully prepared for any possible outcome—in this case, another massive exodus of a desperate population from the Middle East, coupled with a further expansion of drug trafficking.

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