Border Conflicts Testing Kurdish Tightrope Act in Iraq
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The Iraqi Kurdish administration is running out of options as it faces growing pressure to end the fighting between its neighbors and Kurdish rebels based inside its borders.
But analysts say a breakthrough in the decades-old conflicts is impossible without closer American engagement.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have postponed plans for a conference, due to have been held this spring, where many had hoped the rebels would be urged to lay down their arms.
Meanwhile, tension has been mounting in Iraq’s remote, mountainous north, with Turkey and Iran directing air raids and artillery fire across the border at what they say are Kurdish rebel bases.
Analysts say the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, must take a more active role in ending the conflicts being played out on its territory.
Henri Barkey, author of a recent report on the region for a Washington-based think-tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told IWPR the KRG could seek to persuade the rebels to agree to some form of deal “and ensure that a demilitarization is done honorably”.
Fuad Husayn, the chief of staff for the Kurdistan region’s president, Massoud Barzani, said the KRG wanted “good relations with its neighbors” and rejected the activities of “any force which uses the region’s soil” to attack them.
He told IWPR the KRG believed dialogue was the only way to secure peace. “Such issues cannot be solved through military actions from any side,” he said. However, he said, the KRG had not held any discussions with the rebel Kurdish Workers’ Party, PKK, on ending the fighting.
Unlike the KRG, the United States endorses military action as part of a broader solution to the conflict. A U.S. embassy official in Ankara told IWPR Washington’s strategy to end the fighting included supporting Turkey “with intelligence sharing and other operations.”
The U.S. stepped up its engagement in the region in 2007 by classifying the PKK as a terrorist organization – a move which effectively bars the group from any potential U.S.-backed peace talks.
“The PKK has conducted more than enough violent acts to justify being labeled a terrorist organization,” said the U.S. official, when asked whether the move to proscribe the group may have weakened prospects for an eventual settlement by affirming Turkey’s military strategy.
The U.S. official stressed that military operations alone would not solve the conflict. She said leaders in the region were working towards “a comprehensive solution that includes other aspects of the Kurdish issue,” such as economic and social development.
But Barkey says the U.S. “has not been as energetic as it could have been” in pursuing a resolution of the conflict.
As a partner to Turkey within the NATO alliance and a vocal supporter of its bid to join the EU, Washington has great influence over Ankara’s political leadership and its powerful military.
The U.S. also holds sway with the KRG, which is looking to Washington to safeguard Iraq’s federal system amid fears that Baghdad is trying to curb the Kurds’ extensive autonomy.
Recent events suggest the Iraqi Kurdish leadership cannot revive the peace process without American help, say analysts.
Turkish air force jets this month bombed what they said were bases used by the PKK in northern Iraq, reportedly killing ten rebel fighters.
Iran too stepped up its attacks on the PKK’s smaller offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, PJAK, by firing artillery shells and sending attack helicopters across the border into Iraq.
The attacks on the ground were accompanied by diplomatic pressure on the KRG to crack down on the rebels.
PKK and PJAK are accused of using terrorist tactics to achieve a separate Kurdish state. Both groups deny this, insisting they only want greater autonomy for Kurdish minorities living in Turkey and Iran.
They also accuse Iraqi Kurdish leaders of betrayal. Rozh Wlat, a spokesman for the PKK, said the KRG and Baghdad supported Iran and Turkey’s bombardment along its borders. “They are also responsible for this conflict because they have signed agreements ... to stand against us,” he said.
Sympathy for the PKK is widespread among nationalistic Iraqi Kurds, who see the rebels as champions of their oppressed kin abroad. Many also believe the KRG should take firmer action against the border attacks, which they regard as an encroachment on their sovereignty.
Shabaz Jamal, of the People’s Development Association, an Iraqi Kurdish NGO, says the Kurdish street is divided between those who support the PKK and those who question why the rebels are “giving our neighbours a legitimate excuse to shell our borders”.
Husayn says the KRG had raised the issue of the border attacks with its neighbors – but its options for action were limited. “How can you defend against a shell coming from the other side of the border?” he said. “Talks are the only solution.”
Answering those who have accused the KRG of failing to criticise the attacks loudly enough, he told IWPR the issue “cannot be solved through condemnation.”
The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, has voiced concern for civilians affected by the latest violence, while the Iraqi foreign ministry formally complained to Iran over its attacks earlier this month.
However, the KRG has kept its forces out of the conflicts, claiming it does not have the means or the grounds to retaliate.
“The KRG can’t attack or oust PJAK and PKK because [Iran and Turkey’s] problem is not with the KRG,” said Jabbar Yawar, a top official in charge of Kurdish forces.
Yawar said Kurdish troops can defend the borders “if there are any ground assaults, but not against bombardments and aerial strikes.”
The KRG has long ruled out military action against the rebels, as demanded by Turkey and Iran. It has also avoided retaliating against its neighbors, as demanded by the Kurdish street.
Treading a tightrope between domestic opinion and foreign policy, the region’s leaders have invested their efforts in pushing the rebels to the negotiating table.
In March, Iraq’s president and the leader of one of its two major Kurdish parties, Jalal Talabani, announced plans for an international peace conference drawing together the region’s Kurdish political groups.
The conference could have seen the triumphant climax of the KRG’s careful diplomacy if, as many had hoped, it yielded a declaration demanding the PKK and PJAK disarm.
But the meeting, due to have been hosted in Iraqi Kurdistan, was postponed. The reasons behind the cancellation are unclear. However, the delay has highlighted the problems the KRG faces as it seeks to promote peace beyond its borders.
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Iraqi Kurdish member of parliament, said the conference was still in the works – and the PKK’s disarmament had never been on its agenda.
“Disarmament of the PKK has never been officially discussed,” he said. “The conference will outline a strategy for peace put forward by all the Kurds.”
He stressed that the Kurds “cannot achieve peace unilaterally” and called on Ankara to review its policy on the PKK and work towards a middle ground. He also said the US needed to take a leading role in the process, having so far only “echoed Ankara’s rhetoric”.
Fareed Assarad, head of the Sulaimaniyah-based Kurdistan Center for Strategic Studies, said the conference would have run into difficulties if it had tried to persuade the PKK to give up the gun, “The PKK is not ready and has not volunteered to disarm.”
Assarad said the conference would also have found it difficult to unite diverse Kurdish issues.
“The issues are unique to each country. In Turkey, the problem is about Kurdish identity, while in Iran there are no issues over identity – but there is a rejection of the Kurdish political cause,” he said.
Barkey argues that the U.S. should aim to unite the KRG and Ankara in a body that jointly oversees the eventual disarmament of the PKK.
“Left to their own devices, none of the parties has shown much ability to move forward. ... The United States can approach matters with a broader outlook and vision,” his report concluded.
He told IWPR the detente between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds could be consolidated through “a series of sequential, simultaneous steps”.
These included some form of amnesty for PKK fighters; the demilitarisation of the PKK; greater Turkish support for the KRG; and agreement over the future of the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk, contested by Kurds and Arabs.
Barkey warned that hardliners on both sides stand to gain most by prolonging the fighting. “People are making money from the conflict,” he said.
Some 80,000 Kurdish “Village Guards” have been enlisted by Turkey as an informal militia against PKK. The PKK’s ranks include some who profit from the war and have no vision of themselves in a peaceful society.
Elements in the Turkish military could seek to aggravate the conflict in order to undermine the Ankara government. According to Barkey, a settlement would also have to overcome “arch-nationalists in Turkey who think of the Kurds still as some inferior race.”
The U.S. embassy official in Ankara told IWPR that the American policy of urging dialogue between Turkey, Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds was beginning to bear fruit.
“Yes, this is an incredibly complex problem. We have been encouraging dialogue between Turks and Iraqis for some time,” said the official. “We do believe that we’re starting to see results in the last few months.”
While the talks continue, the mountain villagers of northern Iraq pay a high price for living on a frontline.
Ali Hamad, 30, fled his home in Razga village, near the Iranian border, when fighting flared between Iran and PJAK earlier this year. He returned in February with his wife and one-year-old son after a tentative ceasefire deal.
“We had the government’s word that Iran would not shell again,” said Hamad. “But one night we were awoken by artillery fire. My son was killed and my wife and I were wounded.”