Internecine Challenges in Kurdistan

Stephen DeAngelis

October 30, 2007

In a couple of previous posts, I discussed the deteriorating security situation along the Turkey/Iraq border in the Kurdistan region because of PKK rebels who live in and launch attacks from that region [Despite Advances, Kurdistan Sits in Shaky Neighborhood and The Kurdish Situation Intensifies]. In those posts, I noted how important getting a handle on the PKK challenge is to the Kurdish region’s future. I also noted that “getting a handle on the PKK” is easier said than done. Not only are Iraqi Kurds hesitant to deal harshly with other ethnic Kurds, but they face the same challenge that everyone who has fought with the Kurds has faced — the mountains. The old saying that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” is certainly true for the PKK. An article in the New York Times focuses on why routing the PKK rebels is a challenge even for the Kurdistan Regional Government [“In the Rugged North of Iraq, Kurdish Rebels Flout Turkey,” by Sabrina Tavernise, 29 October 2007]. Tavernise notes that despite intense international pressure, the PKK rebels operate with relative freedom.

“A low-slung concrete building off a steep mountain road marks the beginning of rebel territory in this remote corner of northern Iraq. The fighters based here, Kurdish militants fighting Turkey, fly their own flag, and despite urgent international calls to curb them, they operate freely, receiving supplies in beat-up pickup trucks less than 10 miles from a government checkpoint. ‘Our condition is good,’ said one fighter, putting a heaping spoonful of sugar into his steaming tea. ‘How about yours?’ A giant face of the rebels’ leader — Abdullah Ocalan, now in a Turkish prison — has been painted on a nearby slope. The rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., is at the center of a crisis between Turkey and Iraq that began when the group’s fighters killed 12 Turkish soldiers on Oct. 21, prompting Turkey, a NATO member, to threaten an invasion. But the P.K.K. continues to operate casually here, in full view of Iraqi authorities. The P.K.K.’s impunity is rooted in the complex web of relationships and ambitions that began with the American-led invasion of Iraq more than four years ago, and has frustrated others with an interest in resolving the crisis — the Turks, Iraqis and the Bush administration.”

Sitting between the mountains and Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government is truly between the proverbial rock and a hard place. But its dilemma, as I have explained, is as much about history and ethnic ties as it is about geography. KRG leaders are reluctant to act against the PKK because such actions would divert funds from development and direct precious resources against ethnic Kurds whose aspirations they understand.

“Kurdish political leaders seem … in no hurry to act. An all-out battle is out of the question, they argue, because the rugged terrain makes it impossible to dislodge them [the PKK]. ‘Closing the camps means war and fighting,’ said Azad Jindyany, a senior Kurdish official in Sulaimaniya, a regional capital. ‘We don’t have the army to do that. We did it in the past, and we failed.’ But even logistical flows remain uninterrupted, despite the fact that Iraqi Kurdish leaders have some of the most precise and extensive intelligence networks in the country. As the war has worsened, the United States has come to depend increasingly on the Kurds as partners in running Iraq and as overseers of the one part of the country where some of their original aspirations are actually being met. Iraqi Kurdish officials, for their part, appear to be politely ignoring American calls for action, saying the only serious solution is political, not military. They have taken their own path, allowing the guerrillas to exist on their territory, while at the same time quietly trying to persuade them to stop attacks.”

Some pundits believe that if the KRG really wanted to rout the rebels they could.

“‘They have allowed the P.K.K. to be up there,’ said Mark Parris, a former American ambassador to Turkey who is now at the Brookings Institution. ‘That couldn’t have happened without their permitting them to be there. That’s their turf. It’s as simple as that.'”

This laissez-faire attitude by the KRG has created angst for the United States, which views both Turkey and the KRG as allies.

“The situation poses a puzzle to the United States, which badly wants to avert a new front in the war, but finds itself forced to choose between two trusted allies — Turkey, a NATO member whose territory is the transit area for most of its air cargo to Iraq, and the Kurds, their closest partners in Iraq. The United States ‘is like a man with two wives,’ said one Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya. ‘They quarrel, but he doesn’t want to lose either of them.'”

This “Big Love” situation is making things tense all around and most of the pressure is being felt in Kurdistan, where leaders would prefer the situation to be settled through negotiation. PKK actions are ensuring that won’t happen.

“The P.K.K. wants an autonomous Kurdish area in eastern Turkey, and has repeatedly attacked the Turkish military, and sometimes the civilian population, since the 1980s, in a conflict that has left more than 30,000 dead. In this small town [Raniya] a short drive from the edge of rebel territory, and in Sulaimaniya, 55 miles to the south, it is business as usual. A political party affiliated with the rebel group is open and holding meetings. Pickup trucks zip in and out of the group’s territory, and a government checkpoint a short drive away from the area acts as a friendly tour guide. Its soldiers said they had waved through eight cars of journalists on one day last week. Mala Bakhtyar, a senior member in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that governs this northeastern region, said there had been no explicit orders from Baghdad to limit the P.K.K., and scoffed at last week’s statement by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, that Iraq would close the P.K.K.’s offices, saying they had already been shut long ago. ‘They are guests, but they are making their living by themselves,’ Mr. Bakhtyar said. ‘We don’t support them.’ He added: ‘We don’t agree with them. We don’t like to make a fight with Turkey.'”

For their part, PKK leaders believe the KRG likes having an armed group in the mountainous border region.

“Fayeq Mohamed Goppy, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, an offshoot of the P.K.K. that still operates freely, argues that Iraqi Kurdish leaders are only paying lip service to wanting the P.K.K. to leave. In reality, the politicians want the separatists around as protection against Sunni Arab extremists, who most Iraqi Kurds believe will move in if the P.K.K. leaves the mountains. Noshirwan Mustafa, a prominent Kurdish leader, said the area was as impenetrable as the mountains in Pakistan where leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are thought to be hiding. ‘For me, the P.K.K. is better than the Taliban,’ he said. Local Kurdish authorities have asked Mr. Goppy to keep a low profile, including canceling a planned conference in Erbil, he said, but otherwise have not limited his activities.”

Tavernise goes on to explain that many Kurds believe they have a tenuous hold in the area and that the PKK provides them with more firepower to ensure they maintain control there. I find that argument specious since conflict with Turkey poses a greater risk to survival than
other perceived threats. Turkey is the threat knocking on the door, not the threat over the horizon. A more understandable argument is that the KRG is using the PKK as a bargaining chip with Turkey; but that is a dangerous game.

“Mr. Parris argues that the Kurdish leader of northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, ever astute, is holding onto the P.K.K. as a future bargaining chip with Turkey, and will not use it until he absolutely has to. ‘The single most important piece of negotiating capital may very well be his ability to take care of the P.K.K.,’ he said.”

Recent events would seem to undermine arguments that the KRG has the “ability to take care of the PKK.” Some local leaders offer that they would be happy to see the PKK go.

“Mr. Jindyany said local authorities would be happy to get rid of them if they could, calling the situation a sword of Damocles for Iraqi Kurds. Throughout its history in northern Iraq, which dates back to the early 1980s, under an agreement with Mr. Barzani, the P.K.K. has had contentious relations with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. It fought in their civil wars, against Mr. Barzani in 1997, and three years later, against Jalal Talabani, a powerful Kurd who is now the president of Iraq. But since the American invasion in 2003, the political landscape has changed. Iraqi Kurds, emboldened by their secure position, have stopped fighting each other and turned their attentions to other threats like Turkey, a state that has long oppressed its Kurdish population, and Islamic extremism from Baghdad. This area of northern Iraq, which Iraqis call Kurdistan, in some ways eclipsed the P.K.K.’s struggle for an autonomous Kurdish area, Iraqi Kurds said.”

The other problem for KRG is that while they may want to see the PKK go, the rebel group has many local supporters.

“Public sympathy in Raniya and Sulaimaniya is enormous, and the fighters procure supplies and health care here with ease. Fighters do not go to hospitals, for fear of standing out — the ones from Turkey speak a different Kurdish dialect — but are treated in doctors’ homes, said one former fighter, an Iraqi Kurd who was recruited at age 14. ‘Their organization is everywhere,’ said the fighter, who now works as a police officer for the main political party, after surrendering to local authorities in 2003. ‘Their members are everywhere.’ To Iraqi Kurds, Turkey’s approach is pure politics. There is no military solution to the problem of the P.K.K., they say, because the terrain would never permit victory, and Turkey’s leaders know that. The solution, Mr. Mustafa argued, lies with moderates in Turkey, who must push for an amnesty for the rebels. Militant Kurds, for their part, should take advantage of the political opening in Turkey — 20 Kurdish deputies are now serving in Parliament there. ‘When you have the door to the Parliament open, why are you going to the caves?’ he said.”

With winter snows approaching, analysts expect the next few months to remain quiet. The hope is that the negotiating process will go forward during this lull in fighting and that a political solution can be found. That would certainly be the best course for the KRG, which doesn’t want to funnel money away from development and into conflict.