Northern Exposure


Apr 7, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal on April 7, 2003.

WASHINGTON -- As the war in Iraq proceeds, one potential danger lays across the path: managing the North. U.S. diplomatic efforts recently brought two important concessions from Turkey, allowing supply lines to the coalition troops, and keeping the Turkish military out of Northern Iraq, at least for now. But the danger remains that the Turks could yet be tempted to rash action against the Kurds.

Until recently, Ankara insisted on a large military presence in the Kurdish areas across their border. If the reasons presented sounded innocuous, there were serious doubts about their actual agenda, and fears that things could get out of hand, leading to armed confrontations between our Kurdish allies and NATO member Turkey. If there's one thing Operation Iraqi Freedom doesn't need, it's a war within a war.

The Turks may be taking a more cooperative stance now, but their priorities and their dread of Kurdish separatism have not changed. Ironically, it is the success of our military campaign that brings peril. Allies don't always wait at the gates as instructed; the Kurds could take over Kirkuk. Or Saddam, in desperation, could unleash chemical weapons against the Kurds again, causing panic and a flood of refugees.

Turkey has two legitimate concerns -- and an unstated but well-known agenda. The Turkish military had to go into Kurdish Iraq, they had argued, to prevent an unchecked flow of refugees into Turkey, and to guard against terrorists. But the American presence, along with enhanced security on the Turks' own side of the border, could have prevented those problems. More likely, the Turks were in fact concerned about something different: the potential elevated status of Kurds in Iraq and the possible impact on their own Kurdish minority.

Iraqi Kurds have made impressive advances in recent years. Their success is viewed as threatening by the Turks, because it feeds into the vision of an independent, viable Kurdish state. After liberation, things will probably -- hopefully -- get even better for them. The temptation to cut them down to size may be strong in some Turkish quarters, where U.S. praise for the military skill and bravery of the "peshmerga" fighters has to rankle.

The Kurdish issue is a sideshow to most of the world -- but not to the Turks. They may yet see the war in Iraq as an opportunity -- a perception that could have a number of potentially catastrophic effects. A Turkish intervention against the Kurds could escalate. It could conceivably bring in the Iranians, with their own Kurdish issue. If the Kurds, presently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. military, became targets of aggression, this time by a U.S. ally of long standing, it would be impossible for us to refrain from taking action -- but it's hard to imagine what that course of action could be.

It seems judicious to take preventive measures against things going bad in the North, and a ready solution presents itself: to involve the Europeans. They have already taken part in the diplomatic effort to hold back the Turks. Now, they should send a force into Northern Iraq. This is not a combat assignment, and thus should not conflict with the European stance on this war. Trusted by both sides, the Western Europeans are the ideal buffer between potential antagonists, and they are certainly much better suited than the Turks to care for a flood of Kurdish refugees, should that occur.

Giving the Europeans a limited, peace-guarding part to play in the conflict can also help heal the rift between the U.S. and Europe.

The Europeans have traditionally been willing to exert pressure on Turkey when that state overstepped reasonable bounds in its treatment of the Kurds, and have made this matter an official criterion in judging whether Turkey was "Europe-worthy" or not. It was partially on account of that stance that, since 1995, the Turks have made a real effort to treat the Kurds with more civility. Constructive engagement now can help the Europeans avoid the appearance of being carpetbaggers when they suddenly reappear in Iraq once the war is won.

Ms. Benard is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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