Kurds Now Share Turkey’s Longest Border

With Turkey’s Arab neighbors consumed by instability and unrest, its longest border is now shared with the comparatively stable and administratively entrenched Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

Topics covered

syrian, kurdistan, iraqi central government, iraq

Aug 28, 2013

In Baghdad, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is uneasy with the growing power of the Kurds, though he does not have “Northern Iraq” in his lexicon, referring to it instead as Kurdistan.  

Sunni leaders are disturbed by Kurdish autonomy, but they do not talk of Northern Iraq — they talk about Kurdistan. Of course, that is the term Kurdistan Regional Government Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, as well as the Turkmens, use.

At the moment, Turkey’s longest shared border is not Syria or Iraq. It is, in fact, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The Syrian border is no longer under the control of the Bashar al-Assad regime. We no longer have a common border with Syria as we used to. Most parts of the border are under Kurdish control. The rest is controlled by al-Qaeda and the fragmented Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is allowed to cross it for logistical purposes.

In Iraq, we don’t have a common border with the central government. Baghdad is made up of cantons and “mini-Saddams” all crammed into the Green Zone. It is a peculiar set-up where the Foreign Ministry does not allow the vehicles of the National Security Authority to enter its grounds. There is no state. There is instead a national security federation of medieval-style heavily armed states of sects and groups. The Kurdistan Region is an interesting contrast. In Iraq, a legal state exists, but not in reality. It is the opposite in the Kurdistan Region, where there is no legal state but a functioning state complete with ministries, bureaucracies and a security system. 

In short, in the Middle East we know, our neighbors are no longer Arabs but Kurds and Iranians, with the exception of a portion of the Syrian border under al-Qaeda and the fragmented FSA. This situation alone requires Turkey to radically rethink its Middle East policy. Iraq is not likely to recover. There is no longer a military nation-state of Iraq that had inherited the remnants of the colonial rule. It is not likely to come back.

The situation is the same for Syria. Three-quarters of the country is desert and steppes, while the remaining quarter is cultivable. Assad controls 60% of the land, and half of the rest is under Kurdish control, which is neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. They have no logistical support problems. Until Assad fully overwhelms the FSA he will not go after the Kurds.

This is not likely to change easily. A central and strong federal government in Iraq is a distant possibility. The only thing that can change will be temporary coalitions of divergent interests. The strength of each political coalition will depend on Iran, the United States and other foreign actors. Acts of terror have all but wiped out the possibility of democratic social movements from gaining power.

A similar situation exists in Syria. All domestic politics are linked to foreign policy dynamics. Assad's regime, backed by China and Russia, is gaining strength. As Assad expands the area he controls, the FSA and its related groups will step up their acts of terror. This in turn may lead to a national security state except in the Kurdistan Region, which will look after its own security and head to statehood.

What should be Turkey’s foreign policy be at this point? Will it be on the side of a secular Kurdistan outside the Shiite alliance, although linked to Turkey economically and socially or with the Syrian and Iraqi states engulfed in sectarian wars and terrorism? It is time to think seriously.

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