The Obama administration’s “responsible redeployment” from Iraq is made even more urgent by the requirements resulting from worsening conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For redeployment to occur on scale and on schedule, the United States seeks an end-state in Iraq that is stable and at peace with its neighbors. Simmering sectarian violence is inevitable, but it will not break Iraq. However, ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds could escalate into a major conflagration with regional implications.

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About the Report:

The Atlantic Council of the United States (ACUS) convened a meeting of Turks and Iraqis, including Iraqi Kurds, in Washington, DC, on April 13-15, 2009.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss issues affecting relations between Turks and Iraqi Kurds and to develop a framework for further dialogue and confidence building.  The meeting is part of a non-governmental initiative, and no U.S. or Turkish officials attended the meeting.

As a result of the meeting, the Atlantic Council published “Confidence Building between Turks and Iraqi Kurds.”  This report recommended several steps that could be taken by governments and others to encourage better relations in the region.  The author is David L. Phillips, who is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States and who also has scholarly affiliations with Columbia University, New York University and American University.

The Atlantic Council of the United States is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-government organization whose mission is to renew the Atlantic Community for 21st Century global challenges.  It routinely convenes meetings to wrestle with critical issues that involve knowledgeable individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, interests and experiences.  The Council often publishes reports in connection with these meetings that put forward policy recommendations intended to address those issues.  Although the Council hopes that the ideas produced in its reports and meetings are helpful to governments, the Atlantic Council is independent of all governments.

Executive Summary:

Findings and recommendations in this report – Confidence Building between Turks and Iraqi Kurds – draw on discussions during the Washington meeting of Turks and Iraqi Kurds on April 13-15, 2009, as well as information and views gathered during research and a recent trip by the author to Turkey and Iraq. Future meetings are anticipated in Istanbul and Erbil. The Istanbul meeting, planned for September 2009, will expand the core group of Turks and Iraqi Kurds and will include briefings to media representatives from Turkey and Iraq. Joint task forces are envisioned on (i) trade/investment, (ii) energy development/transport, and (iii) environmental/water issues. The task forces will identify areas for collaborative work integrating the interests of Turks and Iraqi Kurds. Participants agreed that a shared future between Turks and Iraqi Kurds is essential to mitigating conflict and ensuring peace and prosperity in the region.

To this end, the report assesses the views and interests of Iraqis, Iraqi Kurds, regional players and other major stakeholders as the basis for cooperation when interests overlap and preventing conflict when they diverge. Since interests are shaped by history, the report considers the history of Kurds in Turkey and in Iraq. The report also evaluates opportunities for collaboration, and flash-points for conflict escalation between Iraqis, as well as between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. While the region remains volatile, the report notes significant progress in Turkey-KRG relations as a result of constructive dialogue between officials from both sides over the past year.

The following recommendations are provided as the basis for further discussion between Turks and Iraqi Kurds:

  • To promote Turkish trade and investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Habur Gate at Zakho should be upgraded on both sides of the border, transit procedures streamlined, and a second border crossing opened to reduce congestion. Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan should establish reciprocal trade promotion offices. Improved economic conditions will have the added benefit of moderating Kurds in Turkey.
  • To foster cooperation between Turkey and the KRG on energy development and transport, the GOI and KRG should build on the recent arrangements enabling export of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to finalize national Hydrocarbons and Revenue Sharing Laws. Such progress would accelerate the production of Iraqi gas thereby enhancing the profitability of the Nabucco pipeline.
  • To resolve peacefully the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, concerned parties should intensify efforts to overcome differences. The longer it takes, the more likely is communal violence. Though giving away Kirkuk is a red-line that no Kurdish politician can cross, there is still room to accommodate competing claims within the parameters of Article 140 in Iraq’s 2005 constitution.
  • To enhance governance and minority rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG should consult with its polity and then move quickly to adopt its draft constitution that includes a bill of rights and decentralization arrangements for local government. To protect and promote minority rights, the KRG should finance minority schools, ensure use of minority languages in public proceedings, and permit display of minority place names, signage, and symbols. Additionally, local security officers should reflect the ethnicity of the community they serve.
  • To address the PKK’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG should crack down on PKK logistics through more effective efforts to arrest senior commanders, interdict financing, and tighten checkpoints around Qandil, including mountain passes. Further integrating KRG representatives into the Iraqi delegation to the Trilateral Security Commission would more fully engage Kurdish officials in intelligence sharing.
  • To diminish public support for the PKK by Kurds in Turkey, Ankara should take additional steps to recognize Kurdish identity by, for example, eliminating “Turkishness” as the basis for citizenship in the constitution. The PKK problem cannot be solved with security measures alone. The ultimate solution lies in Turkey’s continued democratization and development, aswell as some amnesty arrangement for the PKK rank and file. Investments in job creation and social services would also help drain the swamp of public support.
  • To ensure that the Obama administration is fully engaged, the United States should appoint a Special Envoy for Northern Iraqi and Regional Issues. The Special Envoy would help focus U.S. efforts to integrate the interrelated themes of security, democracy, and development, raise the profile of these problems, streamline the inter-agency process, complement efforts by the U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Ankara, and navigate the USG architecture for Iraq and Turkey.