Upon entering the Oval Office in 2009, President Obama inherited two wars. This has been well-understood for the past four years. But often overlooked is a problem that comes with the aftermath of a war in Iraq: what do you do about the 30 million Kurds who live in the northern part of the country?
The Kurdish people, a group distinct from the Arabs, have been recorded to exist at least as early as 520 BC. Jewish tradition places Mount Ararat (where Noah’s ark landed) in the land of the Kurds. They were also one of the earliest peoples to convert to Christianity, a faith many still follow today, making them a minority in the largely Islamic region. Iraqi Kurdistan contains oil fields estimated at 45 billion barrels, making it the sixth largest reserve in the world, and the third largest in the Middle East (behind Saudi Arabia and Iran).
When the Europeans arbitrarily drew the Middle Eastern borders in following World War II, they created a number of forced entities that would later erupt in sectarian violence. They also left the Kurds without a homeland, as their people ranged across modern-day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Armenia and Iran. This section should have been cut out separately at the time, if for no other reason than to create a buffer zone between Iraq and Iran, but was overlooked. The Iraqi Kurds did obtain some recognition in 1970, with their autonomy reinforced in 2005 by Iraq’s new regime. The ongoing civil war in Syria has allowed the Kurds there to chisel out a place for themselves contiguous with the Iraqi border. But there is a ways to go.
America’s history with the Kurds has been one of convenience for us and one of strife for them. Henry Kissinger abandoned the Kurds to the savagery of Saddam Hussein in the 1970s after having encouraged a revolt against Saddam. President Reagan supported Saddam’s massacre of the Kurds a decade later, included the gassing of the town of Halabja in March 1988. When President George H. W. Bush urged Operation Desert Storm, he cited Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds as justification — failing to mention we were tacitly responsible for the slaughter. Whatever feigned sympathy we had for the Kurds in 1991 faded by 1992, as President Clinton supported Turkey’s violent and destructive repression of the Kurds throughout the 1990s. By April 2000, Turkish airstrikes had destroyed 3,500 Kurdish villages and created more than two million refugees. We can take credit for that, as Turkey received over $4.9 billion in U.S. weaponry — more than any other nation — during the first six years of the Clinton administration. Our involvement was reflected in the subservient media: Turkey’s actions were called “genocide” fourteen times compared to 132 times for Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq’s treatment of the Kurds merited twenty-four front page stories, whereas Turkey received only one, despite Turkey having killed 50% more people.
In summer 2012, the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds grew more violent due to the nearby Syrian Civil War. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ceded control of several Kurdish cities in Syria to the Kurds, essentially giving them a new base of operations against Turkey. By September, 110 Turkish soldiers and 475 Kurdish militants (known as the Peshmerga, meaning “those who face death”) had been killed. The Kurds make up 9% of Syria’s population (roughly 2 million people), so this is a significant pool from which to train and utilize anti-Turkish fighters. (The dynamics of the Syrian Civil War are interesting for the Kurds — both the Kurdish and Turkish forces are opposed to al-Assad, but could in no way be considered “allies”.)
The problem for foreign governments, including America, is that the Kurd/Turk conflict is not black and white: Turkey’s tactics have included chemical warfare whereas the Kurds have intentionally targeted Turkish politicians, both of which are clear violations of international law. Condemning either side would be easy if it were not for America’s reliance on Turkey’s airfields. The right thing to do would likely be to pull the military from the region altogether (with the exception of troops committed to rebuilding Iraq), but that simply is not politically viable.
The Kurdish region of Iran is perhaps the least violent, but not because of any peaceful co-existence between Kurds and Iranians. Kurdish activists, writers, and teachers have been arrested for their work and are routinely sentenced to death. The charge against them is “enmity against God”. At least twenty cases of political prisoners being executed have been reported in the last three years, but the number could be higher as prisoners are not afforded a trial, and neither their attorneys nor their families are notified.
Even the officially recognized area of Iraqi Kurdistan may not be a completely settled issue. As recently as November and December 2012, a minor border conflict left fifteen dead and several wounded. In January, a Kurdish political office in Kirkuk was bombed as part of a two-day bombing spree that killed 55 citizens. Compared to the Turkish border this could be considered peaceful, but one never knows when tensions might flare up.
Perhaps the strangest situation of all involves the processing of Kurdistan’s crude oil into gasoline. Despite being at war with Turkey for decades, an agreement exists for Genel Energy (run by a former BP executive) to ship crude from Kurdistan into Turkey in exchange for processed oil being sent back. Miraculously, this arrangement has gone smoothly despite simultaneous fighting between the two peoples. Last year, trade between Turkey and Kurdistan totaled around $8 billion, which was used to construct two new Kurdish airports.
But Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi, Iraq’s oil minister, still controls Kurdistan’s budget (the region is “autonomous” but not “independent” or “sovereign”). The minister, as recently as January 17, called the exports to Turkey “illegal” and “very dangerous”, and threatened to stop funding the Kurds’ oil industry. Ironically, these threats will end up hurting Baghdad: ExxonMobil and Chevron have so far invested about $10 billion in Kurdish oil, and if reliance on foreign investment increases, profits will flow into American corporate, rather than Iraqi, coffers.
The future of America is intertwined with the future of the Kurds, and America’s approach to them over the next four years and beyond is crucial. In the aftermath of Iraq, the Kurdish region is the most stable and to be successful in Iraq we must build off the Kurds’ success. Any approach to the Syrian civil war and whatever government will come next there must necessarily involve the Kurds. And Turkey remains one of our most challenging foreign prospects: how do we remain allies with a country that commits genocide with the arms that we supply them? So long as America takes an interest in the Middle East (a permanent fascination, for better or worse) the fate of the Kurds is one we must keep our eyes on.