The Kurdish issue in Turkish-American relations

25 Jan 2023

The Kurdish issue in Turkish-American relations

By Alexandr Svaranc

January 25, 2023

The topic of this article, of course, is very complex, profound and ambiguous, which requires more fundamental case studies. The author does not claim to have comprehensive coverage of this issue but will nevertheless try to outline the main features of Turkish-American relations taking into account the Kurdish issue.

The Kurdish issue remains an integral part of the Greater Middle East issue and, considering the geographical area of the Kurdish ethnic group, poses a threat to the territorial integrity of neighboring countries in the region – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. For the first time, this issue appeared on the agenda of international diplomacy following the results of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877–1878 in the Berlin Treaty, and then following the results of the First World War in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. However, interstate contradictions between the countries of the West and Russia did not allow the implementation of decisions on the Kurdish issue in the context of Kurdish ethnic formation under the protectorate of one of the key world powers.

From this, it could be surmised that two major forces, the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians, had a decisive external influence on the Kurdish issue at different stages of modern and recent history. The modern architecture of the borders of the countries of the Middle East largely appeared according to the Versailles system of world order following the results of the First World War with the decisive role of Great Britain. Depending on the foreign policy of countries with a Kurdish population, the Kurdish issue received the corresponding attitude from leading powers. In other words, if Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria remained in the zone of Western influence, then London and Washington paid minimal attention to the Kurdish issue.

The situation gradually began to change with the appearance of the State of Israel and Tel Aviv’s policy of subversive influence on Iran and Syria, where the Kurdish theme was used as pressure on Tehran and Damascus. Accordingly, London and Washington did not reduce their interest in the oil resources of Kurdish-populated Kirkuk. However, before World War II, the UK controlled the oil resources of the future state of Iraq and limited Turkey’s capabilities, and the Kurdish issue was used by British intelligence to put pressure on Ankara’s government in order to exclude revanchist hopes for Kirkuk (for example, the case of the uprising and suppression of the Simko from the Kurdish Shekak tribe). During the Cold War era, the US and the UK considered Turkey as a reliable southeastern flank of NATO, which automatically ruled out support for the Kurdish movement within Anatolia. And, on the contrary, the formation in 1978 of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of a pro-socialist direction, headed by Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey, was considered by the CIA as a project of the KGB, directly connected with the Middle East policy of the USSR.

Naturally, the Kurdish movement in Turkey and other countries of the Middle East could hardly be considered Marxist and socialist, given the level of political consciousness of the Kurdish masses. At the same time, the leaders of Kurdish political organizations (especially in Turkey), objectively assessing the systemic contradictions between the NATO bloc and the Warsaw Pact, often tried to play on the contradictions between the two political systems and benefit from cooperation with Moscow against the “common enemy” (including financial and perhaps limited military support for combat resistance).

Situations like these actively developed between the USSR and the US in the so-called Third World countries (including in the Middle East). By the way, it was the Soviet Union that paid high attention to the Kurds in terms of training scientific researchers and personnel. Thus, in the USSR, three academic centers in the field of Kurdology were created at the institutes of oriental studies in Yerevan, Moscow and Leningrad.

In Turkey, during the years of the Cold War, the Kurdish movement under the leadership of the PKK was fiercely suppressed by the security forces with the participation of units of the local gendarmerie, as well as MIT commando units Covert operations known as “Counter-Guerrilla” (as part of Operation Gladio) targeted Kurdish leaders, activists and militants. At this time, the Turkish radical forces of the Pan-Turkism direction under the leadership of the MNP and the Grey Wolves organization, in cooperation with the MIT, were directly involved in subversive actions against the Kurds.

The situation changed somewhat after the collapse of the USSR and the disappearance of the so-called “communist threat.” In fact, the PKK lost an important external ally and found itself in a systemic ideological and political crisis. With the arrest in February 1999 of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, and his subsequent life imprisonment in a special prison on the island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara, the Turkish authorities deprived the Kurdish resistance of an important control figure. The joint operation of the CIA, Mossad and MIT to arrest Ocalan became possible taking into account the planned construction of an alternative pipeline system to Russia through the eastern Kurdish-populated vilayets of Turkey in order to export Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe. Ankara and its partners, in order to ensure the security of the energy traffic of the Caspian basin, were forced to localize the threat of the Kurdish guerrilla movement in Turkey itself.

However, given the search for a new Middle East strategy, the US and the UK began to consider the possibility of absorbing the Kurdish factor in their regional geopolitics, giving preference to Iraqi Kurdistan, taking into account oil reserves and personal factors. As is well known, in the second half of the 20th century, the CIA established its patronage over the leader of the Kurdish movement in Iraq Mustafa Barzani, and his death in an American clinic on March 1, 1979, according to some informed sources, is linked with the intervention of American intelligence after he accepted the offer of the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, to visit Tehran to discuss the Kurdish issue.

The Kurdish issue in its potential is a factor of confrontation on the scale of a large region and can be used by the US and its key allies (in particular, the UK and Israel) to form a new geopolitical structure in the Middle East. The idea of forming “Kurdistan” under the auspices of the US and being closely connected with the EU and Israel took on a new shape in the regional geopolitics in the first quarter of the 21st century.

London began conducting systematic research (including field research) on Kurdish topics. At the turn of the century, there were virtually no experienced specialists on the Kurdish issue in the US analytical community, therefore, to design its policy in this area, the US administration entrusted the development of Kurdish issues to three research centers: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Middle East Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as individual university teams. It is known that American research centers remain imperative in the development of foreign policy only in cases where there is not enough experience in applying political decisions. Kurdish topics are among those where priority is given to the opinion of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israel and its intelligence services, in turn, have sufficient experience in contacts with Kurdish political and military structures because Tel Aviv seeks to effectively use the Kurdish factor against Iraq, Iran and Syria. Therefore, Israel provides some assistance to the government of Iraqi Kurdistan (including through intelligence). Israel is also interested in the formation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq with control of the oil-bearing region in Kirkuk. If earlier Israel, in terms of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, supported the position of Ankara and offered some kind of complicity in the liberalization of the socio-cultural rights of the Kurdish population, then over time, the great interest of Tel Aviv in the Kurdish issue drew criticism from President Erdoğan, which was reflected in the breakdown of relations in 2010. The conflict off the coast of Gaza in May 2010 actually became the reason for the dissolution of relations between Turkey and Israel, as Ankara, in response to Tel Aviv’s pro-Kurdish obsession, became more active in supporting Palestinian Arabs. And only in June 2016 did the parties agree to restore relations.

The invasion by the collective forces of the US and the UK of Iraq in 2003 led to an increase in Anglo-Saxon support for the project of a Kurdish political entity in northern Iraq, where, in fact, with the support of Washington and London, plus the complicity of Tel Aviv, a de facto Kurdish autonomy was formed. However, while the initial US goal was dividing Iraq into three independent and Washington-controlled parts – Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish, the aggravation of the internal political situation in Iraq in 2006-2007 forced the Americans to abandon such a project in favor of maintaining a united Iraq and cutting down on their promises to the Kurds. Nevertheless, while formally maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq, the US provided local Kurds with favorable conditions for forming governing bodies of political institutions, for controlling oil resources and for creating military structures under the protectorate of American military bases. The Kurdish regional government in Iraq received a considerable amount of weapons from the US and the UK, while CIA and SIS residencies are actively operating in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The subsequent US policy in the Arab East and the aggravation of its relations with the Alawites and the regime led by Bashar Assad in Syria led to a situation of expanding the American protectorate over the Kurdish factor in the region. After Iraq, Syria became the new place for American support for the Kurds (Kurdish political and militant structures opposed to the regime). If earlier on American experts found it difficult to form a US position on the Kurds in Iraq, they considered it undesirable for Washington to divide the once powerful Iraqi state into three parts, because such a policy would displease the Arab world, then after 2011 and the Arab Spring, such a forecast lost its relevance to US regional diplomacy.

In relation to the fate of Iraq, the leading British expert on the Kurdish issue Gareth Stansfeld noted as follows: “The US and the UK are trying to keep Iraq from disintegrating, but if it turns out that the desire is unfulfilled and the Kurds are determined to implement the national idea, the most reasonable thing would be the recognition of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.” The change in the priorities of American policy in terms of the Kurdish issue depends on a number of factors related to the policy of the ruling regimes of the countries where the Kurds live, control of local oil resources and energy facilities, and the fight against so-called international terrorism.

Naturally, such a US policy towards the Kurds cannot suit Turkey, including the creation of a Kurdish state in bordering countries (Iraq and Syria). Perhaps Ankara does not rule out a secret discussion with Washington on the subject of “exchanging” the independence of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq for the recognition of the sovereignty of, say, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Meanwhile, it is Turkey’s productive partnership with Russia that has allowed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to contain the “Kurdish onslaught” of the United States in Syria and maintain the security of its southern borders. Russia has so far managed, thanks to its peacekeeping operation in Syria and constructive relations with Turkey, to maintain relative security in the Kurdish-populated areas of the SAR. Concurrently, the well-known local military operations of the Turkish forces in northern Syria in order to form a security zone with a depth of 32 km with a center in Idlib significantly undermined the authority of the United States, which bears moral and political responsibility for the security of the Syrian Kurds.

The US is worried that support for the formation of a Kurdish statehood in northern Iraq will eventually lead to a situation where Turkey will move to closer cooperation with Iran and the Arabs, and Kurdistan will become the subject of US “strategic concern” by analogy with Israel. At the same time, the existing regional partnership between Russia, Turkey and Iran will block the American monopoly in Kurdish affairs.

American expert Wayne Merry believes that “sooner or later the Kurdish problem will need to be discussed and resolved, while there are no ideas about solutions. The US may face an unexpected crisis caused by the Kurdish problem on a scale of the entire Middle East.”

It follows from this that the US has already “faced” the Kurdish issue in the course of its military operations in Iraq and Syria, now only Iran and Turkey are left. Accordingly, the Israeli lobby in the US (including from the standpoint of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) is actively trying to play the “Kurdish card” against Iran to remove the undesirable mullocracy regime in Tehran. It should also be mentioned that the growing dissatisfaction of the US administration with the independent policy of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan in the event of the latter’s victory in the elections on May 14 this year, could expand the geography of manipulation of the Kurdish issue within Turkey itself, where the largest Kurdish population is located (up to 30%). It is in this case that the US may face an “unexpected” Kurdish crisis throughout the Middle East. In other words, the US will not implement the “Ralph Peters’ Map” of redrawing the borders of individual countries in the Middle East in terms of resolving the Kurdish issue until the Kurdish factor becomes a universal tool for changing the regimes and policies of all four Kurdish-populated countries in the region.

What can prevent such plans of the US and its satellites, if not the constructive role of Russia in the Middle East, respecting the interests of existing states and the rights of their citizens, regardless of nationality? It is this balanced and responsible diplomacy of Moscow that preserves the contours for restoring regional security in the Middle East and ensures the increase of pro-Russian sentiment in the region.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.