A trap in Mesopotamia

The buildup of Turkish military forces on the banks of the Tigris is setting the scene for a dramatic new episode in a region which, though home to the world’s first civilization, has never stopped being a battlefield. If the Turks do finally invade Iraq, the result may remind us of the Delphic Pythia, who, in answer to a question from King Croesus of Lydia, declared that if he attacked King Cyrus of Persia a great empire would fall. Croesus took this as a green light, only to learn too late that it was his empire, not Cyrus’s, that was destroyed. On one side of the dispute is Turkey, the most modern and powerful state in the region. On the other are the Kurds, a great and historical nation which, numbering about 20 million, constitute the world’s largest nation without a state of its own. Until today, the Turks enjoyed an overwhelming advantage at every level. This is likely to give them a dangerous sense of self-confidence because today circumstances favor the Kurds to an extent that Turkey may suffer incalculable military and political damage. The Kurds lived in the region for millennia before the arrival of the Turks. Today they are divided among four states, with most living in Turkey, followed by those in Iraq, Iran and Syria. At the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, the Kurds saw their dream of a homeland almost become reality but the treaty was stillborn. In 1945, in a part of Iran that was occupied by Soviet forces, Kurds set up the Republic of Mahabad. By the end of 1946, after the Soviet withdrawal, this rebellion was crushed by the Iranians. Later, backed by Iran and the United States, the Iraqi Kurds rose against the regime in Baghdad. But in 1975, the shah made a deal with Iraq and abandoned the Kurds, as did the US. Inevitably, after each rebellion the Kurds suffered terrible reprisals. That is why they say the Kurds have no friends but the mountains. The struggle for a homeland continued with unbelievable alliances and betrayals as the Kurds played regional powers against each other, with temporary victories and catastrophic defeats. In 1984, the Kurds of Turkey began their great war, which has cost about 37,000 lives. In Iraq, the Kurds continued to forge and break alliances with Tehran and Baghdad. In 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War, the US became a central player in this eternal contest. The Kurds heeded the first President George Bush’s call for rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s regime but the Americans gave them no support. Baghdad’s vengeance was swift and merciless as Iraqi troops regained control of northern Iraq. The whole population of Iraqi Kurdistan was forced to flee into the mountains on the Turkish border. Washington had to intervene and provide military cover to the Kurdish region of Iraq, creating the conditions for the longest period of Kurdish autonomy in our time. Today, because of this long-term alliance with the US, the Kurds are in a position of power in Iraq. The country’s president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd, as are many other senior officials. Kurds form a major part of the Iraqi armed forces and, in addition to having guerrilla warfare stamped on their DNA, they have now undergone formal military training and are battle-hardened professionals. The Kurdish region’s leader, Massoud Barzani, has warned Turkey that if it invades, his fighters may confront the Turkish forces. In the summer of 1991, after the US imposed a «no-fly» zone in northern Iraq, Iraqi forces tried to re-enter the region. In one brief fight near Sulamaniyah, the Kurds quickly destroyed a unit of Iraqi tanks, putting an end to the incursion. As true practitioners of realpolitik, the Kurds of Iraq have in the past allied themselves with Turkish forces against Turkey’s Kurds, knowing that they need Ankara’s tolerance to survive. But now that Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq is a fact, and with the US making it abundantly clear that they are not in favor of Turkish adventurism, the Iraqi Kurds will fight. The Turkish tanks now massing on the border may suffer the same fate as Saddam’s when they are forced to leave the plains of Mesopotamia and enter the mountains. Also, if Turkish forces start to lose blood and treasure in Iraq this may prompt a broader rebellion in southeastern Turkey that will be difficult to control. The military cost will be inestimable, but the political one will be even greater and will lead to greater Kurdish confidence at Turkey’s expense. That is why if the United States and the European Union are able to press Turkey into staying out of Iraq, they will be doing Ankara a huge favor; they will save it from a trap that Washington rushed into.

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