Update on the Middle East’s Kurdish Region

Stephen DeAngelis

June 15, 2009

As long-time readers of this blog know, my company, Enterra Solutions, does a significant amount of business in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Because of that, I’m always on the lookout for articles that relate to the region. The Economist is often a good source of such news — even if the news is not always good. Take, for example, an article that reports “Turkish promises to improve the treatment of Kurds ring hollow” [“Stone-throwers in glass houses,” 23 May 2009 print issue]. One cannot talk about conditions inside the Kurdistan region of Iraq without understanding the relationship between Iraqi Kurds and Turkish Kurds. Members of the Kurdish rebel group PKK have for years lived openly in the mountains of northern Iraq executing cross-borders attacks in Turkey. The PKK claims that Turkey’s harsh treatment of its Kurdish minority is the reason they fight and seek a Kurdish state. The article reports that abuse of Kurds still takes place in Turkey. It begins with stories about two teenagers who “are among hundreds of Kurdish minors who face prosecution around the country for allegedly taking part in illegal street protests in support of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” Many Turkish Kurds believe that PKK rebels are ethnic heroes. There is not a Kurdish family that has not lost a relative in the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military. To the Turks, PKK rebels are nothing more than terrorists. It is for that reason that public support of the PKK is banned.

“In Adana alone, some 155 children are facing trial, 67 have been convicted and five have begun to serve their sentences, says Ethem Acikalin, head of the local branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association. All were charged under article 220/6 of the penal code, which criminalises ‘acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation’. The cases are tried in adult courts. Most of the crimes consist of no more than chanting pro-PKK slogans and throwing stones at police. But some have also been charged with damaging public property, resisting arrest, spreading terrorist propaganda or endangering public security.”

The Kurds believe that the law was established as another government tool to deny them their rights and frighten them into silence. The government stick has been accompanied by verbal carrots, but the Kurds are looking for action not words. So far, those actions remind them a lot more of darkened past than a brighter future. The article talks about “Ali Kulter, who ekes out $12 a day as a farmworker in Tuzluca, just south of Adana.”

“Home is a reed shack without running water, the toilet is a hole dug in the ground that serves Mr Kulter and scores of Kurdish families. They migrated here in the early 1990s after being forced out of their villages in the south-eastern province of Sirnak for refusing to join a state-run Kurdish militia to fight the PKK. ‘Our village was an Eden, this is hell,’ Mr Kulter sighs. ‘If there were peace I wouldn’t spend another second here.’ But, as the 55-year-old explains, ‘my stomach is full with unfulfilled promises [by the state].'”

Mr. Kulter’s musing about “if there were peace” pretty well sums up the situation. Things would be much better for the Kurds and for the Turks “if there were peace.” That is why The Economist says that both sides are living in glass houses yet continuing to throw stones. The article concludes:

“Some of [Mr. Kulter’s] scorn ought to be directed at the PKK. Despite [the PKK’s commander in northern Iraq Murat] Karayilan’s doveish talk [he says the PKK no longer demands independence and is happy to let third parties negotiate a deal on its behalf], his men continue to blow up Turkish soldiers. The Danish-based, PKK-leaning channel, ROJ TV, ‘certainly plays a part in inciting teenagers,’ says Guven Boga, who represents Egitim Sen, a leftist teachers’ union. One big worry, he adds, is ethnic tensions between Kurdish and non-Kurdish students that flare up with each PKK attack. The other is the lack of opportunity for many Kurdish youths. ‘They are angry and have no hope for the future,’ Mr Boga says. Their experience in jail only hardens them. And this makes them perfect recruits for the PKK.”

As that article makes clear, the status quo is unacceptable to both sides. Although to many people there to be “an historic opportunity” to solve the Kurdish problem, a history of mistrust and fighting stands in the way. Iraqi Kurds would love to see the situation in Turkey resolved. Turkey’s cross-border military operations into Iraq anger both local Kurds and the central Iraqi government as well. It also provides the central government with an excuse to send military forces in the autonomous military region. Additionally, Turkey is the autonomous region’s largest foreign trading partner. The best route for Kurdish goods into the European market is through Turkey and the only oil pipeline running through the Kurdistan region of Iraq sends oil into Turkey. In many ways, the future of the Kurdistan region of Iraq lies in its oil sector, which is the subject of a second article [“Kurdistan goes glug glug,” The Economist, 30 May 2009 print issue]. The good news here is “the federal government is letting Iraq’s Kurds export from their new oilfields.” The first oil began to flow on June 1st. I noted this historic event during last week’s appearance on FOX Business News’ Cavuto Show with Brian Sullivan. I also discussed other economic development and business opportunities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Economist writes:

“Crude is being extracted from the first newly developed oilfield to have come on stream since the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003—indeed, the first to have come on stream anywhere in Iraq for 30-odd years. It is also the first instance of exploration leading to extraction and export by private companies in Iraq since oil was nationalised in 1972. Iraq’s Kurds, who have signed a string of controversial production-sharing agreements (PSAs) with private companies, are proud that the oil is flowing anew from fields that they control. The oil ready for export comes from two fields. One is at Tawke, developed by DNO International, a small Norwegian firm. The other is at Taq-Taq, where Addax Petroleum, listed in London and Toronto, runs a joint venture with Turkey’s Genel Enerji, which also has a stake in the Tawke show. Ashti Hawrami, the Iraqi Kurds’ natural-resources minister, praises the Turkish companies involved. Relations between Turkey’s government and the Iraqi Kurdish regional one are plainly improving.”

 

The accompanying image shows the layout of Iraq’s oil fields and pipelines. Although it’s good news that oil is flowing, there remain serious challenges ahead. The article notes that Iraq’s central government still believes that PSAs signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government are illegal. There also remain serious issues about sharing oil revenue and about the future of Kirkuk and the oil fields on which it sits. Despite these unresolved challenges, the Kurds are in a celebratory mood. They believe they have demonstrated a superior ability to manage oil resources. The article notes that despite billions of dollars of investments, the Iraqi oil sector still produces about the same amount of crude as it did under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. For the Kurds to prosper, they need to develop sustainable working relationships with the governments of both Iraq and Turkey. There have been few signs, however, that the people in the area (Kurd or Arab) are willing to put past events behind them in order to forge a better future for all of them. Rational beings time and again demonstrate that emotions trump logic.