In academia, government offices and the media, opponents of Kurdish self-determination always made the same argument: Autonomy in one part of Kurdistan, or a Kurdish state, will breed instability in the Middle East. “If Kurds in Iraq get self-rule,” they said, “they will secede from Iraq and meddle in the politics of neighbouring states.” Kurdish irridentism, according to this line of reasoning, would sacrifice the Middle East’s stability on the altar of the quest for a Greater Kurdistan.
I remember not long ago participating in a debate about the Middle East where one of my academic colleagues, renowned in the field and much more famous than I, kept directing his harshest criticisms, attacks and warnings at the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. Although Moqtada al-Sadr linked death squads were killing Sunnis and Iraqi soldiers in the south, these were just “misunderstood Iraqi nationalists.” The Sunni Arab groups laying improvised explosive devices under Iraqi roads were “insurgents resisting occupation.” The Kurds, however, were the real threat to Iraq and the region, according to him, because of their “maximalist demands” and “destabilizing, risky behaviour.”
If we look at the record of the last several years, however, reality paints a very different picture indeed. It was thanks to the Kurds that every single post-Saddam government in Baghdad got formed and maintained. Kurdish Peshmerga troops accepted American and Government of Iraq requests to send brigades to Anbar and Baghdad and help restore security there, losing scores of their young men’s lives in the process. Kurds serve as President, Foreign Minister and Chief of the Army for Iraq, among other things, and by all accounts have been doing so in a manner that does all Iraqis credit and serves the entire country’s interests. The Kurds compromised on innumerable issues since 2003, including recently the crucial question of how many deputies they get in the parliament in Baghdad. As I write this today, Kurdish leaders are mediating the latest serious conflict to break out between Shiite and Sunni Arab political leaders.
When it comes to the most contentious issues in Iraq, we seem to always see a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that prefers to pursue its interests within the institutionalized, legal Iraqi political system. Instead of taking Kirkuk and majority Kurdish territories south of their autonomous region by force, which they could have done on numerous occasions, Kurdish leaders negotiate, bargain and gather promises from other Iraqi parties to address their concerns in a fair and legal manner. When it comes to oil, Iraqi Kurds from the beginning accepted the principle that oil revenues should be distributed throughout Iraq, according to population. While they argue with authorities in Baghdad about the right to sign new oil exploration and exploitation contracts within their region, the 2005 Constitution appears to give them this right – so the argument, again, is a legal dispute regarding Iraqi law rather than some raw power play.
So what about relations with neighbouring states, particularly those with sizeable Kurdish minorities of their own? It’s true that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) have bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, from where they have launched operations against Turkey and Iran, respectively. Their bases remain in extremely rugged mountains of the northeast part of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, however, out of the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. This area was never much under Iraqi control even during Saddam’s time, or that of pervious governments. It’s a guerrilla’s dream geography, in short, full of caves, forests, ravines and impenetrable high mountain faces. Although the KRG could have sent and lost many peshmerga up into these mountains to clear them of the PKK and PJAK presence, authorities in Erbil do have many other security worries for which they must conserve resources. Sending the peshmerga to fight other Kurds on behalf of Turkey and Iran would also have proved terribly unpopular amongst the general populace of Iraqi Kurdistan, and just like everywhere else, Iraqi Kurdish leaders must pay at least some heed to popular opinion.
What KRG leaders have done, however, is place limits on the PKK and PJAK’s freedom to operate everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. More important, KRG leaders have been actively helping governments in Turkey and Iran negotiate with these groups. Most recently, high level KRG leaders got Iranian forces and PJAK to agree to a cease-fire, putting an end to what was proving a very bloody summer of 2011 on that part of the Iraqi-Iranian border. Other Iranian Kurdish opposition groups – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), Komala and various splinter groups of these parties – all enjoy a presence in Iraqi Kurdistan on the condition that they do not mount armed attacks against Iran. I should think that this policy makes the KRG a better neighbour to Iran than Iran has been to Iraq.
Rather than stir up Kurdish violence in Turkey, KRG leaders act as a channel for the Turkish government to talk to the PKK, in the hopes that the armed conflict between them can be ended. Although Iraqi Kurds can’t solve Turkey’s problems, they have offered their assistance and they certainly haven’t pursued a policy of aggravating tensions in Turkey. At the same time, Turkish business in Iraqi Kurdistan is booming, to the benefit of everyone involved. Who would have thought ten years ago that Turkey would have a consulate in Erbil, or that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey would visit?
When it comes to Syria, Turkey has intervened and spoken out much more against the Assad regime than Iraqi Kurdistan. The most that KRG leaders have done recently was to give permission for Syrian Kurdish opposition groups to hold a conference in Erbil. Although they care deeply about the fate of Syrian Kurds (as they do for those in Turkey and Iran), Iraqi Kurdish leaders seem like the most cautious and soft spoken of Syria’s neighbours. Despite fairly strong popular opinion on the issue, they continue to refrain from involving themselves too deeply in the troubles in Syria.
In short, Iraqi Kurdistan looks more and more like the good neighbour no one expected.