10/22/2007 07:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On The Brink Of Regional War

There is one thing that just about everybody in the Iraq debate agrees on, from President Bush to anti-war Democrats to Republicans to the generals on the ground: that the biggest thing we want to avoid in Iraq is a "wider regional war." No matter what your position on Iraq, from "leave troops there for 50 years like in South Korea" to "bring all troops home tomorrow," pretty much everybody agrees that a wider war which involves Iraq's neighbors is a thing to be avoided if at all possible.

We're now on the brink of that war starting, but we barely even realize it because it's happening from a direction we haven't been paying much attention to -- Turkey. Now, I personally have been warning for a long time that the situation with Turkey could put the United States in a very tough spot, both diplomatically and militarily. Last year (8/9/06) I wrote:

We could back the Kurds, the friendliest faction to the U.S. and the West, but this has a problem, too. Turkey is massing troops on the border with Iraq, and if the Kurds make the slightest move towards declaring an independent Kurdistan, Turkey will most likely invade. So if we back the Kurds, for the first time two NATO countries will be fighting each other on different sides of the same battlefield.

So it's not like this is a new situation or anything. It has been there all along, and we have ignored it at our peril. And now Turkey has pushed matters to the brink, passing a law in their parliament giving the Turkish government authority to conduct cross-border raids into Iraqi territory in "hot pursuit" raids of PKK fighters (Kurdish separatists or terrorists, depending on who you ask).

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has belatedly woken up to the developing situation and is trying mightily to buy some time on the border, but this should be seen as a last-ditch diplomatic effort. It may work, and then again it may not.

Condi's problem is there aren't a whole lot of easy answers. To review the situation on the ground for those who haven't been paying attention, the Kurds are a minority in Iraq, and also in Turkey and Iran. They got shafted when the West (Britain, mostly) drew lines in the desert deciding "this is the border of a country called 'X' and this is the border of a country called 'Y' (etc.)" early in the 20th century. When the map was drawn, there was no "Kurdistan," or no country for the Kurds to call their own. Their historical tribal areas were divided.

So much for the past. We now fast-forward to recent times. Ever since we overthrew Saddam's government, the Kurdish area in Iraq has been remarkably stable. There were initial clashes between the two competing Kurdish political parties, but they soon forged an agreement in their own self-defense. Ever since then, they've been quietly governing themselves (something they did even under Saddam, thanks to our northern no-fly zone between the wars), and even more quietly trying to turn back the clock in Kirkuk. Under Saddam, Sunnis had been intentionally moved into to Kirkuk in an effort to achieve some power in the city, throwing Kurds out of their homes to do so. Kirkuk is important strategically because there's a whopping big oil field there. Since our invasion, the Kurds have been trying to rectify this situation by forcing all the Sunnis out of Kirkuk and moving Kurds back in.

But while the Kurds are making a land grab for those oil fields (or reclaiming what is rightfully theirs, again depending on who you ask), they have never given up their century-long dream of a "Greater Kurdistan." They want their own country, which would be comprised of chunks of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Now, obviously, Turkey and Iran aren't too keen on this idea, as it would mean ceding territory -- something few countries voluntarily do. But the Kurds are adamant, and they have a guerrilla group called the PKK who is fighting to make this reality, especially in Turkey.

Of course, the PKK is using the Kurdish areas of Iraq as staging grounds for cross-border attacks against Turkey, and Turkey is understandably annoyed. And the PKK has been more successful in the past few weeks at attacking Turkish military units, which is a worrisome development as far as Turkey is concerned. Hence the move in parliament to approve "hot pursuit" cross-border attacks into Iraq.

But while Condi belatedly tries to calm everyone down, it's hard to see what ideas or leverage America has that could change much of anything. Especially since the Kurdish area in Iraq is supposed to be our one big "success story" within Iraq (well, actually "two" now that they've touted al Anbar as a second success story).

Our options seem to be limited to the following:

(1) Let the Turks attack and promise we'll stand back and not do anything.

(2) Lean on the Kurds to rein in their own PKK forces (at least for a while).

(3) Lean on the central Iraqi government (Maliki) to move some Iraqi forces up to the border region, both to stomp out the PKK and to prevent Turkey from crossing the border.

(4) Move American troops in to do the same job.

None of these options is very appealing. Option (1) should be seen as a last resort, not an opening position for bargaining. It may come down to that in the end, but likely not before we try something else. Option (2) is probably the first thing we'll do, but other than providing a pause in hostilities it should be seen as a short-term solution at best. The Kurds, remember, want their own country eventually, and so they strongly support what the PKK is attempting to do. So while they may be able to "dial it down" for a period, eventually their own political base is going to push them to turn the PKK loose again.

Which leaves the two military options -- (3) and (4). Neither should really be seen as very plausible, because neither side really has the troops to spare. Iraq moved several battalions of the Iraqi Army who were mostly Kurds down to Baghdad at the beginning of the surge. This made a great deal of sense, since the Kurds really aren't part of the Sunni/Shi'ite battle raging in the capital. Being neutral parties, they were much more acceptable to the Baghdad population than Shi'ite or Sunni Iraqi forces would have been. But that means less Kurdish Army units in the Kurdish areas. Which may be why the PKK mischief has been increasing of late. But pulling these units back from Baghdad means risking security gains in Baghdad or (even worse) putting Kurdish soldiers in the field to battle PKK fighters. The Kurds, after all, sympathize with the PKK, so this is a fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation in the making. The Iraqis could move Sunni or Shi'ite units up to the Turkish border, but that would inflame passions in the Kurdish areas even more. And where are such units going to come from, where they're not already needed?

America moving troops up to the border would be a recipe for yet another disaster in Iraq. We would be between two allies, in essence. So if either one attacks our forces, what are we going to do? What would our military mission be? If we backed the Kurds against an invading Turkish Army, two NATO allies would find themselves across a battlefield. If we backed the Turks, we would be proving to the Kurds once again that America can't be trusted (we have betrayed them before, and they remember this). And we would be destabilizing the only region in Iraq where we've been claiming victory since the very beginning of the occupation. Not exactly good news for the folks back home.

And this doesn't even address where we're supposed to get such troops to take on this new mission in Iraq. The British are pulling out of Iraq (after an election won by the "get us out of Iraq" party). The Poles now look like they'll be doing the same very soon (they just had an election last week, which was won by the "get us out of Iraq" party). The coalition is dissolving. And President Bush and General Petraeus have promised that U.S. soldiers will be coming home for Christmas. This all adds up to a lot less coalition forces available in Iraq in the coming few months. So where exactly are we going to get soldiers to patrol the Iraqi/Turkish border from?

As bad as all this sounds, the worst is yet to come. Because if Turkey declares open season on Kurds, then Iran may decide to do the same (they have their own internal Kurdish problem, remember). Although we've all been worried about a regional war developing and spreading outward from Iraq, most analysts have been focusing on Iran helping Shi'ites, Syria smuggling foreign fighters across their border with Iraq, and (although not talked about much in the mainstream media) Saudi Arabia providing the lion's share of such Sunni foreign fighters -- many of them suicide bombers. While these threats remain, the wider regional war may come from a direction few have been addressing -- the Kurds.

If the Kurds decide the time is ripe to announce their secession from the Iraqi state, and proclaim themselves "Kurdistan" on the world stage, it will be the match that touches off an explosive regional war. So we'd all better hope Condi is successful in the upcoming weeks. Never has there been a more crucial time for diplomacy to actually work in the region, as the consequences of failure could be catastrophic.


Chris Weigant blogs at: