Kurd relations require deft touch

Taipei Times, Taiwan
Aug 28 2004

Kurd relations require deft touch

By Fang Tien-sze ¤è¤Ñ½ç

`Taiwan should carefully assess both international and internal
Kurdish factors before offering unequivocal support for a Kurdish

During his recent visit to Taiwan, Prime Minister Nechervan Idris
Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government was received by high
government officials. Because they were the first officials from Iraq
to visit Taiwan since the establishment of the Iraqi interim
government, the delegation was the focus of much attention.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Chen (³¯ – ð¤s) revealed that Barzani
during his visit exchanged ideas with Taiwanese officials regarding
the founding of a state belonging to the Kurdish people, and he also
wanted to exchange representative offices. Based on the principle of
creating a wide range of friendly relationships, we should seize on
this opportunity for exchange and further strengthen the relationship
between Taiwan and Kurdistan.

Due to the complexity of the question of independence for the Kurdish
people, however, Taiwan should carefully assess both international
and internal Kurdish factors before offering unequivocal support for
a Kurdish state and deciding whether or not to exchange
representative offices.

The Kurdish people have long hoped to be able to establish their own
state, but opposition from various countries together with Kurdish
disunity have made the road toward nationhood an arduous one. Armed
intervention by the US and UK was the main reason why Iraqi Kurds
could enjoy autonomy following the 1991 Gulf War.

In order to protect the Kurds and weaken the power of Saddam Hussein,
the US, UK and France in April 1991 created a no-fly zone in Iraq
above the 36th parallel, forbidding Iraqi aircraft to enter the zone.
A US-led multinational force patrolled the area and enforced the
regulations so Saddam could not take military action against Kurds in
the northern part of the country. Thus they could establish an
autonomous regional government, of which Barzani is the incumbent
prime minister.

It should be noticed that the Kurdish area in Iraq remains split. The
Kurd Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani are the two main forces
among Iraq’s Kurds. The two parties formed a joint government in
1992, but the power distribution issue gradually led to a dispute
that exploded into a full-blown civil war in 1994. In an attempt to
defeat the PUK, the Kurd Democratic Party requested the help of
Saddam’s troops in 1996. The two parties set up separate governments,
both claiming control over the whole Kurdish area in northern Iraq.
British and US mediation resulted in the two parties signing a
cease-fire agreement, but to this day the two parts of the Kurdish
area remain separately ruled.

The internal Kurdish split has always been one of the factors
impeding the formation of a Kurdish state. Kurds in different areas
often rule themselves, and some of the leaders of important
organizations do not get along with each other. Some countries are
using these weak points to further weaken the Kurdish people. During
the Iran-Iraq war, both countries made use of Kurds in the opponent’s
country, and Turkey has used Iraqi Kurds to fight Kurds in Turkey.
The Iraqi general elections planned for March next year will be key
to answering the question of whether a peaceful solution to the split
in the Kurdish area will be possible.

Nechervan Idris Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional
Government, is a member of the Kurd Democratic Party. But because the
Kurd Democratic Party and the PUK are equally strong, it is difficult
to predict the outcome of the elections. When expressing its support
for the Kurdish people, Taiwan should avoid giving the impression
that we as outsiders are choosing sides.

In addition to the unpredictability of internal factors, we must also
consider the attitudes of other countries concerning the Kurdish
issue. Apart from Iraq, the Kurdish people are distributed over
Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia. None of these countries want
independence for Iraq’s Kurds lest Kurds in their own country emulate
them, creating an independence domino effect. During the war between
the US and Iraq, Turkey was concerned that the Kurds in Iraq would
declare independence, and therefore threatened military intervention.
Unless these countries change their policies, they will continue to
block the formation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq.

Although the US has assisted the Kurds in obtaining autonomy, its
main goal has been to restrain Saddam, not to support the formation
of an independent Kurdish state. The CIA has intervened in the
Kurdish civil war by supporting attacks by the PUK on the Kurd
Democratic Party. With Saddam now gone, the Kurdish people’s
strategic importance to the US is dwindling, and the US is unwilling
to offend main Iraqi ethnic groups or Turkey over the Kurdistan

These internal and international factors make it unlikely that Iraq’s
Kurds will be able to establish an independent state in the short
term. Iraq’s Kurdish leaders also recognize these limitations. If
Iraq establishes a federal system of government offering the Kurds
some autonomous powers, the Kurds would be willing to compromise and
refrain from seeking independence from Iraq.

Given this situation, there is no need for Taiwan to take a position
on the question of an independent Kurdish state. The Kurdistan
Regional Government’s suggestion that Taiwan and Kurdistan exchange
permanent representative offices would strengthen mutual exchanges
between Kurdistan and Taiwan. Taiwan must, however, give cautious
consideration to the reaction of Turkey and other concerned states.
If such an exchange does not win the understanding of these states,
Taiwan’s losses would outweigh its gains. The visit by the delegation
from the Kurdistan Regional Government is encouraging from a
diplomatic perspective, but we shouldn’t be too eager, and should
instead cautiously assess the situation in order to maximize gains.

Fang Tien-sze is an assistant research fellow at the Cross-Strait
Interflow Prospect Foundation.

Translated by Perry Svensson