It takes a warlord
In a harsh critique of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of Israel lobby fame, Jeffrey Goldberg has this to say: Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, in an interview five years ago, was explicit about his rejection of terrorism, saying that “we could have bombed movie theaters in Baghdad and buses like the Palestinians, but we made ...
Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, in an interview five years ago, was explicit about his rejection of terrorism, saying that “we could have bombed movie theaters in Baghdad and buses like the Palestinians, but we made the decision not to. It would have been wrong.”
I don’t want to get into the weeds on Israeli-Palestinian history, but Goldberg sure picked a strange person to cite as a moral exemplar. After all, Barzani is the guy who, in 1996, invited Saddam’s forces to help attack his rival, current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (who got help from Iran). And Barzani is the guy whom the Turks rightly accuse of aiding and abetting the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that the U.S. State Department has labeled a terrorist organization for its attacks on Turkish civilians. It would seem that Barzani’s problem with terrorist attacks in Iraq was not that terrorism is inherently wrong, but rather that it wouldn’t have been wise to provoke Saddam.
But looking for moral clarity in the Middle East is a fool’s game. For all his faults, Barzani is still the man to deal with in his area of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK issue simply won’t get solved without his involvement. He made that clear again last week when he spiked Turkey’s attempt to get the central Baghdad government to agree to permit Turkish “hot pursuit” of the PKK on Kurdish territory.
A high-ranking Turkish diplomat sat down with a few of us here at FP yesterday and was unintentionally revealing on the Barzani issue. Asked if Turkey would negotiate with Barzani, the diplomat repeated Turkey’s position that it won’t talk with anyone but the Iraqi government. Delivering Barzani is Baghdad’s problem, he said. Presumably, the Turks don’t want to legitimize a possible future Kurdish state. In any case, Turkish military officials have all but said they will assassinate Barzani if they get the chance, and proposing negotiations with the Kurdish leader would probably be political suicide for any (non-Kurdish) Turkish politician. But Baghdad can’t deliver Barzani—the central authorities can’t even prevent the Kurdish Regional Government from signing its own oil contracts, for crying out loud. And this is why, coupled with U.S. dithering and Turkish inflexibility, the PKK problem refuses to go away.
Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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