The Kurdish forces on the ground in Syria and elsewhere represent, at the moment, the single truly effective military counter to the ravages of ISIS — a fight that plays a potentially key role in the Kurds’ larger, decades-long struggle for independence. The desires that animate this conflict are complex and multifaceted. Here, in a penetrating interview with The Octavian Report, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney John Hannah delves into the difficult issues around the Kurds and their relationship to Turkey, the U.S., and the rest of the world, as well as the hard questions currently plaguing the Middle East more generally.
Octavian Report: Could you begin by talking about the complicated history of the Kurds as a transnational people?
John Hannah: The Kurds are absolutely not a monolith. After the settlement of World War I the major Kurdish populations found themselves located in four different sovereign entities, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. And they have developed in those societies in somewhat independent directions, with different kinds of political, sociological, and economic characteristics.
There are linguistic divisions. There are serious political divisions. If you just look at the most developed case of the Kurdish political movement, in northern Iraq, there are sharp differences and a constant struggle for power between the two key political parties, the KDP and the PUK. The PUK comes out of a socialist-driven background based in urban areas. The areas it controls border Iran and PUK leaders have developed especially close links to the Iranian regime. The PUK was founded by Jalal Talabani and the Talabani family continues to dominate the party’s leadership today. The KDP, by contrast, has its roots in more conservative, rural, and tribally-based structures and has always been dominated by the Barzani clan -- first the legendary Peshmerga fighter and Kurdish nationalist Mulla Mustafa Barzani, and now by his son and heir, Massoud Barzani, who has served as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since 2005.
Indeed, as recently as the mid-1990s, the PUK and KDP fought a civil war that required intense U.S. mediation to resolve. Both parties continue to retain their own Peshmerga units that, when push comes to shove, answer first to their respective parties rather than to the regional government. Even today, the political battles over power and the future of the KRG continue to rage. Despite the fact that the KRG is in the middle of a war against the Islamic State, Iraq’s Kurds are in a major fight over the KRG presidency. President Barzani’s term (already extended once) expired in late August. The KDP has insisted that the middle of a war is no time to change presidents and that Barzani should receive another extension. Other Kurdish parties, led by the PUK are resisting, leading to a dangerous deadlock in the KRG parliament. For now, Barzani remains in the palace and appears to be exercising the full authorities of that office – but in a kind of legal and constitutional limbo that fuels tensions and threatens stability.
That's just a microcosm of the kind of conflict and disunity that continues to roil and plague the broader transnational Kurdish movement, which has really entered a qualitatively new phase in the past several years. Most fully in Iraq, but to a growing degree now in Syria and Turkey as well, the Kurds have never been closer to achieving their century-old aspirations for self-government. While at the popular level, there’s no doubt a growing sense of empowerment and transnational solidarity among Kurds, there remain among the elites of the Kurdish movement significant political differences, distrust, and rivalries that undermine its overall cohesion and ability to advance the historic ambitions of the Kurdish people.
OR: Do you think that there will be an independent Kurdistan, and if so, when do you think that is likely to happen and where?
Hannah: The obvious place for it to happen is in northern Iraq. Under the cover of U.S. protection that began in the first Gulf War, the Kurds of the KRG have developed their most advanced political and economic institutions. But my guess is that we’re still some distance from full-blown independence even there. In part, that’s because of these divisions that we’ve mentioned. But it’s also the case that the KRG still faces serious obstacles internationally. First and foremost, the KRG borders two very powerful states, Turkey and Iran, both of whom are very important economically for the KRG, but who are also quite strongly opposed to any formal declaration of a Kurdish state -- which they fear would fuel the separatist ambitions of their own large Kurdish minorities. Turkey, of course, is an important NATO ally of the United States, and it would be very difficult for Washington just to disregard legitimate Turkish concerns on an issue of such importance to Turkey’s security. Of course, the Arabs of Iraq, both Sunni and Shia alike, have also never been particularly sympathetic to the nationalist claims of the Kurds -- especially to the extent that they include disputed, oil-rich areas of the country that contain sizable non-Kurdish populations. It’s entirely possible that an effort by the Kurds to break away could quite quickly trigger new armed interventions on multiple fronts. And Baghdad, it must be noted, still retains a certain power of the purse that it can exercise over the KRG, since until recently its budget disbursements made up a major portion of KRG revenues and helped fuel the Kurds’ economic boom of recent years. Whether wise or not, Baghdad’s recent efforts to punish the KRG for its independent oil sales by withholding budget disbursements succeeded in inflicting substantial economic pain on northern Iraq, exposing a major vulnerability for the KRG.
In the current environment, even the KRG’s greatest international friend, the U.S., is still not ready to endorse a move to independence. There’s the issue of Turkish concerns that we mentioned. There’s also the fact that it’s been longstanding U.S. policy since 2003 that our interests would be best served by keeping Iraq together as a functioning, unified state that could be a strong regional partner. Overcoming that kind of policy inertia is never an easy thing for a machine as large as the U.S. government. On top of that, of course, you also have the fact that the broader region is in meltdown already. Instability and violence are at historic levels. U.S. forces are fighting in the region. Policymakers can legitimately ask whether now is the time to take on the headache of engineering the formal breakup of Iraq as well -- which would almost certainly have immediate implications for Syria, too, if not other countries. The death of nations has historically tended to be a rather messy, destabilizing and violent process that brings lots of human suffering. With all these sorts of considerations weighing in the balance, my guess is that it’s currently a bridge too far for U.S. decision makers to take on the added burden of midwifing the birth of an independent Kurdistan in a way that they believe will actually end up containing instability and violence rather than exacerbating it.
John Hannah is senior counselor with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Previously, he served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.