Long-standing tensions between the Turkish Government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) mounted last month when Ankara decided to launch military attacks in north Iraq on the Turkish Kurdish armed forces based there. The Turkish Government resorted to this action after it had criticized the Iraqi Government's ineffectiveness to strike the PKK forces inside the country.
On October 17, Turkey's Parliament approved a motion for cross-border military action. Later that month, the Turkish military entered Iraq and carried out small battles with the PKK. Now, it appears that the Turkish military and the PKK are on the verge of a full-blown war.
The Kurd issue has a long history that involves several countries in the volatile Middle East. Foreign affairs experts believe the issue will make the complex regional situation, especially in Iraq, even messier.
Rooted in the past
The Kurd issue is rooted in post-World War I colonialism, said Wang Jinglie, a senior researcher with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "It is a common problem for several countries," he said.
After the war, the Entente Powers- Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the United States- signed the Treaty of Sèvres with the defeated Ottoman Empire in 1920. The treaty stipulated that the empire's Kurdish region would become a Kurdistan autonomous administration. This requirement was ignored, and the Kurdish region was divided into several different countries along with the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Although these countries finally became independent, the Kurd issue remained unresolved.
Today, the Kurds are spread over four countries-Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They account for 10 percent to 20 percent of the population of each country.
"Independence is the goal of Kurdish people in these countries," Wang said. During several rounds of liberation movements, the Kurdish people could have united and established their own country if they had seized the opportunity. "Since the world has widely accepted the existing boundaries among countries, now is not a good time for Kurdish people's independence," he said.
The existing situation is painful for many countries, because once order has been broken, the problem will take on a greater magnitude, Wang said. Under these circumstances, the Kurd's quest for independence would be considered a move to split Iraq, he said.
Complications of war
After the Iraq war started in 2003, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds shared Iraq's power evenly. Iraq's Kurdish population lives in an autonomous administration. Kurds living in Turkey, especially members of the PKK, strengthened their ties with Iraqi Kurds in an effort to establish an independent Kurdistan.
For Turkey, the PKK's goal of independence is intolerable. First, it would split the country. Second, the Kurdish area in Turkey has ample natural resources.
The Turkish Government demanded that the Iraqi Government launch more strikes against the PKK in Iraq. But Iraq is mired in its own troubles and is unable to undertake the mission. Therefore, Turkey's Parliament passed the proposal to enter Iraq and launch cross-border strikes.
"Actually, cross-border strikes against the Kurds were not rare among the four countries," said Wang, noting that preventing Kurdish independence has been a common historical understanding of these governments. Today the situation is different, because Iraq's political structure is under a multiple power distribution system that combines both ethnic groups and religious elements, he said. The Kurdish people are politically important as well. For example, the current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is a Kurd. "This power structure is under U.S. support, because of the security considerations of Iraq," Wang said.
Hua Liming, former Ambassador to Iran, said the regional situation became more complicated after the Iraq war.
"The Kurdish area in Iraq is fairly stable, if compared to other regions in Iraq," he said, adding that there are fewer conflicts among religious and ethnic groups there. Also, U.S. ground forces will not enter the Kurdish region of Iraq, Hua said.
The Kurd issue has been a headache for the Americans as well, Hua said. "The problem is that Iraq's Kurds will not agree to fight with their brothers; if Turkey enters the area, should the U.S. force dispatch soldiers to the region?" he said. Among Iraq's ethnic groups, the Kurds have maintained the best relationship with the United States. If Washington backs Ankara's plan, it will offend its Kurdish allies in Iraq.
But Turkey, the only NATO member state in the Middle East, is of special strategic importance to the United States. Of the U.S. military's equipment in Iraq, Turkish airbases transfer 70 percent of air forces, 30 percent of fuel and 95 percent of armed vehicle. Losing Turkey as an ally would bode poorly for U.S. Middle East strategy, especially for its plan for Iraq, Hua said.
The two experts agreed that the United States would play the crucial role in the dilemma. "Turkey was angry about the U.S. Congress' resolution in early October, which accused Turkey's mass conflicts against Armenians during World War I was genocide," Wang said, noting that Turkey has reminded the United States of its significance in the region.