Iraq’s Kurdish Problem
Greg C. Reeson

A professional acquaintance of mine, who is affiliated with the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, recently forwarded me an article about a speech delivered at a conference of Kurdish leaders from Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. The author of the article, Dr. Jack Wheeler (who also gave the speech at the conference in early April), provides some insight into one of the most significant problems faced by the United States in its quest to establish a stable and democratic Iraq. The problem: what to do about the Kurds. 

The article begins with a telling paragraph: “A muezzin is calling people to pray from a minaret nearby as I am writing this. I am in Hewlar, Iraq—more appropriately Iraqi Kurdistan, or even more appropriately South Kurdistan. That’s what Kurds in Iraq call their portion of Kurdistan. Kurds in Turkey call theirs North Kurdistan. Kurds in Syria call theirs West Kurdistan. And Kurds in Iran call theirs East Kurdistan.” 

The paragraph is significant because it captures in just a few sentences the sentiments of the vast majority of Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran: they are an independent people whose homeland is being denied to them by other states. The Kurds want, above all else, an independent state that they can call their own. And not just any state. They want Kurdistan, with clearly defined borders that reach into the territories now claimed by four other nations. 

Dr. Wheeler said in his speech: “…the Kurds…remain the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. This must change.” In Iraq, the situation is indeed changing, and the consequences of that change could put at risk everything President Bush and the U.S. military have been striving to achieve for the past four years. 

The Kurds in Iraq have steadily moved toward independence, establishing a stable and secure environment in northern Iraq, one that has been touted as the model for the future of that war-torn country and one that has been self-governed by the Kurds since the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The Iraqi Kurds’ repeated moves toward independence (resistance to giving up oil rights, flying the Kurdish flag instead of the Iraqi flag, insisting on regional autonomy, deployment of an armed and trained militia, etc.) have irritated the Iraqi government in Baghdad and have increased tensions with Iraq’s neighbors. 

Turkey has vowed repeatedly, as has Iran, that there will be no independent Kurdistan, for the creation of such a country would cause what would probably be violent unrest in the Kurdish regions of those states as the minority Kurds sought to break away from Ankara and Tehran to become part of the new Kurdistan. And the Turks and Iranians, as well as the Syrians, have a very real basis for their fears. 

In his speech, Dr. Wheeler urged the Kurds to act: “The peoples of Turkey, Syria, and Iran…must understand they can only have a truly free country when all their people are not oppressed by their governments. It is the Kurds of Syria who can bring freedom to Syria. It is the Kurds of Turkey who can bring freedom to all the peoples of Turkey. And it is the Kurds of Iran who can end the horrible tyranny of the mullahs in Tehran and bring freedom to Iran.” 

And Dr. Wheeler does not hide the fact that with Iraq currently in turmoil and Iraq’s Kurds increasingly gaining autonomy, the next set of steps should be taken in Iran: “Today there is the opportunity for Kurds to join with other people, such as the Azeris, the Ahwazi Arabs, the Baluchis, and democratic Persians to rid Iran of Mullah Fascism and bring freedom to Iran.” He goes on, writing in his article, to say unambiguously that “…the target has got to be Iran.”

This Kurdish nationalism presents a difficult problem for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The United States knows that continued independence moves by the Kurds could inflame Iraqi Arabs, and that there exists the distinct possibility of military intervention by Turkey, Iran and Syria. 

Turkey is a NATO ally and a crucial bridge between the west and the Islamic Middle East. The strategic interests of the United States dictate that the maintenance of Turkey as a member of NATO and a regional ally takes precedence over the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Similarly, the strategic goal of a stable, democratic Iraq is severely undermined by the creation of a separate Kurdish nation that would provoke Iran into fomenting even more regional instability and violence. Syria, too, must be considered, with the Assad regime’s ability to undermine the Lebanese government and to incite violence against Israel, as well as the already demonstrated capacity to facilitate the funneling of weapons and fighters into Iraq. 

For the United States, the choice seems perfectly clear. While the Kurds have demonstrated the ability to establish a peaceful, secure region in a country torn by violence and sectarian hatred, their dreams of an independent Kurdistan must take a back seat to the more important strategic goal of a stable and non-threatening Middle East. The Kurds must be convinced that the United States can be a far greater ally if their nationalist ambitions give way to the greater
good of the region. 

Restraining Kurdish ambitions for self-determination while working toward a diplomatic solution to the war in Iraq is an extremely difficult undertaking, even with 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground. It is a task that will likely prove impossible if our forces are withdrawn before a political accommodation can be reached. And while the Kurdish problem is but one piece of the puzzle in establishing a peaceful and secure Iraq, it is a piece that the United States cannot afford to ignore.