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Ted Galen Carpenter - Island of Calm: The KRG in a Volatile Region
Island of Calm: The KRG in a Volatile Region
Date: 29/02/2012 : 11:11:34Views: 964

Turkey’s attitude toward Iraq’s Kurdistan region has been one of unrelenting hostility since the United States and its allies established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq following the Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s. That protection enabled the Kurdish people and the two leading Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to cast off the yoke of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad and establish a viable self-governing region. The U.S.-led ouster of Saddam in 2003 confirmed and enhanced that capability.

From the beginning, Ankara’s attitude was that an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq would be merely a stepping stone to an independent Kurdish state. Moreover, the dominant belief among Turkish leaders was that even an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, much less an independent state, would be an irresistible magnet for Turkey’s own disgruntled Kurdish minority. In other words, Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, they believed, posed a serious threat to Turkey’s unity.

Numerous actions that Ankara undertook in the years following Saddam’s overthrow underscored that hostility toward the Kurdish regional government and the people of Kurdistan. A high-priority policy was to prevent the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its environs from coming under the KRG’s jurisdiction, regardless of what Kirkuk’s inhabitants might prefer. Ankara also accused the KRG of letting armed insurgents of Turkey’s secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) use the autonomous region as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks against targets inside Turkey. On several occasions, the Turkish military conducted punitive raids inside KRG territory in pursuit of PKK guerrillas.

But over the past two years or so there are subtle indications of a change in thinking among the Turkish military and political elites concerning Iraqi Kurdistan. Some Turkish opinion leaders have noticed that northern Iraq is an island of calm in an increasingly volatile and dangerous region. Although suspicions remain in Ankara that KRG officials would like to encourage Kurdish secession in Turkey, those suspicions have faded somewhat. At the same time, Turkish worries about developments elsewhere in Iraq—as well as in Syria and Iran—have increased dramatically. Astute analysts inside Turkey have begun to appreciate that the Kurdish region in Iraq seems relatively stable and democratic, and that the robust economic growth there creates appealing opportunities for enterprising Turkish businesses.

A revisionist view has arisen in Turkey that Iraqi Kurdistan could be a beneficial buffer between the Turkish homeland and the worrisome instability occurring elsewhere in the Sunni Arab and Shia Arab portions of Iraq. Although that view is still a minority one, it is growing.

However, for that perspective to become dominant, Iraqi Kurdistan must strengthen its own commitment to democracy and to rooting out corruption. In the past, quarrels between the PUK and KDP have produced serious tensions and sometimes even exploded into violence. That rivalry has evolved into a reasonably stable relationship—even partnership--in recent years, but those people outside the two dominant parties contend the arrangement has become a corrupt political duopoly. Furthermore, journalists and other regime critics have sometimes found themselves victims of harassment or worse at the hands of KRG authorities.

It is critical that both the PUK and the KDP end such practices and make Iraqi Kurdistan a model democracy. The transfer of the regional prime minister’s post from the PUK to the KDP offers an opportunity to affirm and implement democratic values. A peaceful, orderly transfer of authority is an important lesson for the rest of Iraq and all of the countries surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan. Moving to clean-up corruption and affirming the rights of all Kurdish citizens to peacefully criticize governmental authorities and their policies would be even more beneficial.

What a refreshing contrast that would be to the events in Baghdad, where prime minister Nouri al-Maliki steadily increases his harassment of political opponents and now even threatens to put the Iraq’s Sunni vice president on trial for treason. What a refreshing contrast as well to the stifling policies of the clerical regime next door in Iran. And what a refreshing contrast to the horrors taking place in Syria.

Iraqi Kurdistan as a model democracy and an arena of economic opportunity would strengthen the hand of revisionists in Turkey who begin to see the autonomous region as a beneficial buffer for Turkey rather than a dangerous adversary. It is important that KRG leaders not waste that opportunity.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs and is a member of the editorial board of Mediterranean Quarterly.

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