Op-Ed

Resolving The Kurdish Dilemma

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Edward P. Joseph

As President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepare for next week’s crucial meetings with Turkey’s leaders about the attacks by Kurdish PKK rebels, they should look beyond crisis management to deal with the wider Turkish-Kurdish agenda. If they do, it is possible that the political stalemate within Iraq can begin to be broken as well. Broadening the agenda could make diplomacy easier.

Iraq’s responsible Kurdish establishment is appealing to Washington for support. Kurdish leaders like Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih see the U.S. as the indispensable player in resolving the crisis. Turkey has put aside anger over a recent Congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide; it also looks to Washington to advance its legitimate demand that the PKK threat in northern Iraq be dealt with once and for all.

The problem is that, while Washington is relevant politically, it will be tough to broker a deal that will meet Turkish expectations. The momentum in Turkey towards a decisive military confrontation is strong. So is the resistance in the Kurdish region of Iraq towards a crackdown on the PKK, which is popular among Kurds along both sides of the border.

Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice may be tempted to simply soothe tempers and focus on the PKK problem. But all indications are that won’t solve much. And a Turkish invasion, even if limited to the Qandil Mountain stronghold of the PKK, could have disastrous consequences. It would destabilize the most successful part of Iraq and further solidify Kurdish nationalism — rendering compromise over the flashpoint, oil-rich town of Kirkuk even more difficult.

Averting crisis in Kurdistan requires dealing with the three most neuralgic issues: the PKK, oil and Kirkuk. Turkey sees Kurdish control of Kirkuk and its oil as the precursor to a Kurdistan independent from Iraq, which could in turn lead to the violent breakaway of Turkey’s Kurdish region. Iraqi Kurds see Kirkuk as an inalienable piece of Kurdish patrimony and a source of revenue-producing oil and gas. A comprehensive deal will take some time to negotiate. But a signal from Washington to finally deal with all these issues, and make tradeoffs across all three, could be the key to defusing the current crisis.

Instead of simply delaying resolution of Kirkuk, as Washington has asked the Kurds to do so far, the U.S. should table creative options like giving the town a “special status” under the Iraqi constitution. The constitution’s wide federalism provisions permit making Kirkuk its own region, while at the same time guaranteeing full power-sharing and property rights for its Turkomen, Arab and other minorities.

While not achieving maximal Kurdish aspirations to reclaim all of Kirkuk under their control, a special status would advance much of the Kurdish agenda without crossing Turkish red lines. It would also stimulate much-needed dialogue with Kirkuk’s sizeable non-Kurdish minority, roughly 40% of the population.

As for oil, the Kurds have been a major obstacle to a comprehensive package on production and revenue-sharing necessary for a political settlement in Iraq as a whole. In July, a breakthrough seemed close, but fell apart largely over Kurdish concerns about their autonomy to enter into contracts unfettered by Baghdad. Likewise, the question of whether Kirkuk’s oil and gas is from “current fields” (subject to sharing with others in Iraq) or “new fields” (possibly exempt from the same kind of sharing) is another nettlesome question that has so far defied resolution.

Up to now, Kurdish leaders have adroitly played their role as “kingmaker” in Baghdad — helping determine which Shiite leader governs Iraq in exchange for freedom to assert their demands on oil and Kirkuk. Now, these same Kurdish leaders, facing their most serious crisis since the U.S. invasion in 2003, might be more willing to listen to creative, carefully crafted proposals from Washington.

An oil deal addressing Kurdish concerns about interference from Baghdad, while providing firm guarantees about production and revenue sharing, is certainly possible. And a breakthrough on oil could advance discussions on the other political questions. Progress on Kirkuk might make possible a badly needed conversation in Baghdad on political arrangements to accommodate the concerns of the capital’s mixed populations (such as helping people to relocate safely if they feel the need), while acknowledging the reality, as seen in Kirkuk, that the country’s demographics have been altered by war.

Authors

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Edward P. Joseph

Visiting Scholar and Professorial Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University