Preventing conflict over Kurdistan
The consequences of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq will doubtless be debated for years to come. One result, however, is already clear: the long suppressed nationalist aspirations of the Kurdish people now dispersed across four states—Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria—have been aroused, perhaps irrevocably, by the war. Already in Iraq, Kurdish regions, which have benefited from Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, have consolidated themselves into a federal region. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is a reality and a force for further Kurdish empowerment as it seeks to incorporate other Kurdish-majority areas and the oil-rich Kirkuk province in particular into its domain. The KRG’s existence and demands have already alarmed all of Iraq’s neighbors and the Baghdad government.
The issues are far from being settled. If ignored or badly handled, Kurdish aspirations have the potential to cause considerable instability and violence in Iraq and beyond at a particularly delicate time. For the United States, the Kurdish issue touches on many vital concerns—the future unity and stability of Iraq and the ability of U.S. combat forces to disengage responsibly; its relations with Turkey, a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally and aspirant for European Union (EU) membership; and more generally, the stability of an oil-rich region during a period of considerable uncertainty over energy security.
This report argues that Washington must pay close attention to the many intertwined dimensions of the Kurdish question and, in particular, to the very real potential for conflict and outside intervention. Washington must develop a comprehensive approach that recognizes and, where possible, leverages those linkages to help usher in a stable and prosperous future.
This report does not suggest that the many facets of the Kurdish issue can only be solved simultaneously, but rather that Washington has to be sensitive to how potential progress—and setbacks—in one area can affect movement elsewhere. Of primary importance should be settling Kirkuk’s future and consolidating the legitimacy of Iraq’s federal structure. Closely related is the development of a working relationship between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government.