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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

July 2004

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The author, a veteran observer of the Middle East scene, raises a complication in that part of the world that has not received a great deal of notice thus far: the problems associated with the future of the Kurdish people. But even beyond that problem, Jones discusses the possibility that Israel may possibly enter the volatile mix of national interests. —Ed.

The Implications of an Independent Kurdish State

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh tells us (in The New Yorker, June 28) that Israel has given up on the American effort to salvage the state of Iraq and has embarked on a rival strategy to set up a Kurdish island of stability in the Middle Eastern sea of turmoil. The nucleus would be the Kurdish Autonomous Republic (KAR), which has risen since the first Gulf War under the protection of an Anglo-American air umbrella based in Incirlik, Turkey. The KAR has 17,000 square miles, 3,500,000 people, a constitution, a government, a police force, a school system, and the biggest army (75,000 men) in Iraq aside from the forces of the Coalition. Under the UN sanctions regime (now expired), it received a share of Iraq's oil revenues. The KAR still gets a cut from Iraqi-Turkish trade, plus subsidies from the United States and Israel.

According to Hersh, Israeli teams are training KAR commando units and running covert operations into Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria. The ultimate objective is to expand the KAR into a base for Israeli-Kurdish operations against their common adversaries in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. These adversaries might possibly include Turkey, whose Kurdish insurgent organization, the Kongra-Gel, has lately resumed anti-regime hostilities.

The Kurdish population of these four states totals over 20,000,000. After 150 years of persecution, they are widely dispersed, but they maintain their historic claim on some 75,000 square miles of mountain fastness at the juncture of the four affected states. The Kurdish "Jerusalem" is Kirkuk, which commands Iraq's immense northern oil field. After population transfers imposed by Baghdad in the past, Kirkuk's Kurds are outnumbered by Arabs and generic Turks (locally known as Turkmen), but spontaneous Kurdish resettlement is underway, undeterred by Coalition disapproval.

If the new government in Iraq does not accord the Kurds a high degree of autonomy, they may well secede. Secession would be consistent with Israel's traditional strategy of building alliances with compatible communitiesLebanese Maronites, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, and Iranians before the fall of the monarchy.

Secession would pose serious problems for the United States.

The preservation of an intact Iraq is the stated objective of all its neighbors and of the United States, but if the Kurds were to pull out, Washington could not in good conscience go to war against the political entity it was instrumental in creating. Turkey could intervene, however, and probably would. The result: a bloody conflict involving two close American alliesthree if Israel chose to assist the Kurds by, for example, providing air support. Military cooperation between Israel and Turkey has been a prominent element of the Middle Eastern power equation, butas Hersh points outit went a bit sour after Turkey opposed the invasion of Iraq. No such issues appear to cloud Israel's relationship with the Kurds.

Israel's Public Enemy Number One was Saddam until Washington erased him from the picture. The new and more ominous enemy is Iran, whose nuclear program invites the same strategy of preemption that Israel applied to Iraq in 1981. Although Washington participated in the UN Security Council's condemnation of that operation, at Osirak, it showed no evidence of real concern. But a preemptive strike against Iran could aggravate the strains in America's diplomatic relations. Iran's gravitas, political vibrancy, and international connectionsnotably with Europecannot be dismissed as easily as Saddam's Iraq.

For America, a Kurdish state would be a nightmare. For Israel, which has gotten used to nightmares, it might offer an opportunity to break the fifty-year deadlock and possibly even generate a third expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine.

Policymakers have to entertain worst-case scenarios such as these. We observers as well as theywill continue to hope that moderation will prevail in Iraq, but we recognize that if Washington had not followed the counsels of zealotry to Baghdad, it would not have had to contend with such horrendous contingencies in the first place.

June 2004


Curt Jones, a retired senior U.S. Foreign Service officer, had a thirty-year career as a diplomat, most of it stationed in the Middle East or concerned with Middle Eastern affairs in Washington. He writes frequently for American Diplomacy.

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