The Kurds’ new clout

Last month, the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Turkish Studies program hosted a panel entitled “The Kurds’ New Clout in U.S. Ties with Turkey and Iraq” which focused on the challenges and opportunities in U.S. relations with Turkey and Iraq in light of the growing regional influence of the Kurds. This growing influence, with the Kurds emerging as a key player in the fight against the Islamic State, has put US relations with the governments in Baghdad and Ankara to the test.

How will US collaboration with Iraqi Kurdistan affect US-Turkish and US-Iraqi relations? What will the implications be for the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)?

Panelists included Mohammad Shareef, founding member of the London Kurdish Institute, Denise Natali, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, and Gönül Tol, founding director of MEI’s Center for Turkish Studies, with Daniel Serwer moderated.

Shareef outlined the regional, economic, and political factors that define Iraqi Kurdistan as an emerging regional power. The logical conclusion was apparent: sooner or later Kurdistan would achieve independence, as a natural consequence of its growing strength and importance.

Denise Natali believes, however, that Kurdistan’s success needs to be viewed in the context of the region’s increasingly complex and unstable environment, as well as America’s other relations in the region. There is no ‘clear cut’ US Kurdish policy, as Washington views Turkey’s Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) as a terrorist group, while the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces are fighting alongside the US in Iraq.

Notwithstanding that cooperation, the White House remains committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. This became a point of contention during President Barzani’s recent visit to Washington, when it was made clear that US military support would have to pass through Baghdad.

Gönül Tol outlined Turkey’s changing relationship with the United States on issues such as ISIS, economic cooperation, and rapprochement with Turkey’s Kurds. Turkish fear that the US wants to break up Turkey was allayed with the 2008 Turkey-US security agreement. Ankara’s relationship with the KRG mirrors this progression. Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil and has expanded bilateral trade centered on the natural gas and oil.

Natali believes that the Kurds might have overstepped in their territorial acquisition in Iraq—will they be able to pay for the lands and administer effective control over these areas? Considering the KRG is 17 billion dollars in debt, this remains to be seen. Mohamad Shareef believes that the KRG can be economically viable. A highlight is the 2006 Liberal Investment Law, which has offered vast benefits for foreign investors.

Serwer agreed that perhaps the Kurds have taken on more land than they can realistically control, but this could result in a ‘land for peace’ exchange. Kurdish independence has been postponed due to ISIS, but this issue is sure to resurface in the next 2-3 years, as the Iraqi Kurdish people overwhelmingly support independence. But in the absence of agreement on the borders of Kurdistan, independence could lead to more war, not less.

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