The invasion of Iraq has surfaced long-suppressed nationalist aspirations among the Kurds, most notably the emergence of the federal Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). If ignored or mishandled, Kurdish aspirations have the potential to ignite violence and instability in Iraq, as well as the region, at a particularly delicate time, a new report by the Carnegie Endowment concludes.

Henri Barkey calls for renewed attention to the Kurdish issue to prevent conflict and prescribes a fresh U.S. approach. The United States must move quickly—as American forces withdraw from Iraq, U.S. influence in the region will wane.  

U.S. policy recommendations:

  • Break the deadlock between the Iraqi government and the KRG over oil and gas revenue sharing and refugee resettlement. This will go a long way toward rebuilding trust and preventing Kirkuk from becoming a flashpoint—the first priority for the United States. 
  • Continue to support the federal system outlined in Iraq’s constitution and avoid any suggestion that Iraq be partitioned.
  • Solidify the dialogue between Turkey and the KRG through U.S. involvement. Warming relations between Turkey and the KRG would stabilize the region and aid in a smooth U.S. troop withdrawal.
  • Demobilize the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and encourage its fighters to disarm or defect under a joint political and military effort coordinated by the KRG, Turkey, and the United States.
  • Work with European allies to resolve Turkey’s internal Kurdish disputes. Supporting Turkey’s counterterrorism program and its bid for EU accession, and providing development assistance in Turkey’s Kurdish regions would allow the U.S. and Europe to address problems from both sides. 

Barkey concludes:

“The United States has to take the lead, because it remains, despite its mistakes, the only power with the requisite capacities to cajole, convince, and pressure governments and groups to act. Left to their own devices, none of the parties has shown much ability to move forward, even if the right ideas and solutions are apparent, or sustain progress once achieved. The United States can approach matters with a broader outlook and vision concerning the linkages among the issues, attributes often missing in local parties.”