July 10, 2003

The Northern Sector Amidst the

The Northern Sector

Amidst the continuing loss of coalition forces mostly in majority Sunni areas of Iraq, as well as much speculation regarding whether the U.S. can find moderate Shi'as to cooperate with in the southern regions--less attention has been paid to the predominately Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.

Recently, however, there has been more activity than usual on this front. Most dramatically, there was the U.S. detention of some eleven Turkish special forces troops. The reaction in Turkey, as seen here and here, has been far from positive. Meanwhile, Tom Oliphant in today's IHT enunciates what might well be considered the current U.S. conventional wisdom surrounding the incident and its potential ramifications.

Elsewhere, Kurdish rivals Barzani and Talabani cooperate on a NYT/IHT op-ed that seeks to raise the Kurdish issue in the Beltway to a higher degree of attention. Parts of it looks like it was written by Washington PR types assisting the Kurds with some good Beltway spin:

"One simple way to improve the economy in our part of Iraq, Kurdistan, is to ensure that the Kurds receive the money allocated to them by the United Nations oil-for-food program. It is a scandal that $4 billion destined for the Kurds sits, unused, in a UN-controlled French bank account because of past obstruction by Saddam and the present incompetence of the UN bureaucracy."

Will those nefarious Frogs (conveniently so very unpopular these days in the Beltway) release our oil-for-food funds already?

Meanwhile, Talabani is commenting on the Turkish/U.S. dispute in what might charitably be described as a disingenuous manner.

The detention of a NATO member's forces by another NATO army is certainly not a routine event. And, as my links above show, the Turks are fuming over the incident. They are wondering if the decision to detain the soldiers was vetted at high levels in Washington or whether it was an action taken on the ground at lower levels. Either way, this is still very much a developing story as further details emerge and tempers cool.

But this much is clear. One of the Turk's major concerns is that, no longer forced to defend themselves against Saddam, Kurds are moving men (or at least materiel) across the border to their fellow Kurds in Turkey. There is, of course, concern that Kurdish guerrilla-style actions in majority Kurd areas of Turkey will now be on an uptick. Reports of heightened Kurdish militia activity are beginning to seep out.

Put differently, there is a feeling in Ankara that the Kurds are feeling pretty empowered these days. This view is supported by U.S. gratitude to the Kurds stemming from common Kurdish and U.S. interests during the Iraq campaign. This factor must be viewed alongside the significant residual animus towards Ankara that exists in Washington given the lack of significant support from Turkey during the Iraq war.

Throw in feelings of wounded national pride (likely somewhat exagerrated for dramatic effect) over the detention of the Turkish soldiers, deep-seated fears about the preservation of the territorial integrity of Turkey, and the attendant national security concerns given potential Kurdish troublemaking in Turkey proper--you have a pretty toxic brew as seen from Ankara.

But the U.S. has very important interests at play as well. As Oliphant puts it:

"In the current environment, the United States can hardly insist that Iran keep its political and subversive hands out of the delicate situation in the Shiite south. It can hardly insist that Syria not become a haven for cross-border guerrilla and terrorist activities and still tolerate Turkish misbehavior in the north simply because it has status as a NATO member. NATO membership is a responsibility, not a license."

The question is whether Turkish and American diplomats and senior military leaders can smooth over and foster some form of awkward cohabitation given significantly different national interests at work in the northern Iraq sector. I think it's a close call going forward. On the negative side of the ledger it's quite alarming to see Turkish establishment generals--a bulwark of stability buttressing the secular orientation of Turkey--issuing quite acrimonious rhetoric towards Washington. On the other hand, the Cheney-Erdogan chat may well have improved the situation somewhat. More on this soon.

Posted by Gregory at July 10, 2003 10:44 AM
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