Kurds and Kurdistan have never felt so much promise. Federalism in Iraq is secure. Iraqi Kurdistan attracts billions of dollars in investment, Masud Barzani no longer needs a borrowed Turkish passport to travel abroad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has offices which act as virtual embassies in Washington, London, and other major capitals. It is ironic, therefore, that against this progress, Kurds wield so little influence over the issues about which Kurds inside and outside Iraqi Kurdistan most care.
After Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] members attacked Turkish military outposts in the early morning hours of October 19, Nechirvan Barzani, a former prime minister who retains the power of that post, rushed to Ankara to try to defuse any retaliation. He failed. So too did regional president Masud Barzani, who placed an emergency phone call to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish President Abdullah Gül vowed revenge and dispensed with the notion for proportionality that Turkey demands from others. "No one should forget that those who are inflicting this pain upon us will suffer in multitudes," Gül declared. Thereafter, Turkish jets bombed targets in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkish tanks reportedly crossed the border. While Turkish officials say they have killed several hundred PKK members, such declarations cannot be taken at face value. Turkish authorities label any Kurd killed in such bombardment as a terrorist, regardless of reality. Civilians often pay the price. Turkey has yet to apologize or pay compensation, for example, to the families of the seven Kurdish civilians killed in an August strike. Nor has the Kurdish government forced Turkey to provide proof the any recent attacks inside Turkey had a cross-border component.
The failure of Kurdish leaders to fulfill their diplomatic agenda extends beyond the latest Turkish incursion. After all, even before the Hakari attacks, the Turkish Army stationed more than 1,000 troops stationed on mountains and around villages several kilometers across the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish border. Indeed, as much as Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu frames his country's foreign policy as seeking good relations with all its neighbors, the fact remains that Turkey is the only aspirant to the European Union that unabashedly occupies other countries. Turkish occupation in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as in Cyprus suggests the true meaning of neo-Ottomanism.
Turkey's occupations, however, provide the Kurdistan Regional Government with an opportunity. On September 2, 2011, Egemen Bağış, Turkey's Minister for European Union Affairs, threatened Cyprus with military action. Should that European Union member not stop oil exploration in international waters off its coast, Bağış said, that Turkey might respond militarily. "That's what a navy is for," he quipped.
While Arab states focused on the simultaneous rupture in the Israel-Turkey partnership, Turkey's bellicosity toward Cyprus was the subject of greater concern not only in Nicosia and Athens, but also in many other European capitals. Apart, neither Cyprus nor Kurdistan has much leverage. Turkey's 37-year occupation of Cyprus is seldom front page news in Washington, London, or any other country. While former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer tries to broker an agreement, and occasionally UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon makes statements about the need to resolve the conflict, lack of international interest condemns Cyprus to continued division.
Of all Turkey's neighbors, it is the Armenians who have the greatest influence in Washington. Corollary Armenian Diaspora groups are also influential in London, Paris, and across Europe. In the United States, at least, the Armenian lobby has failed repeatedly in its principle goal to win American recognition of Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turks in World War I.
Alas, the Armenians can join the Kurds, Cypriots, and perhaps Greeks as well in eschewing coalitions in a failed attempt to go it alone. If those victimized or threatened by Turkey, however, would pool their resources and demands, each group may find its influence amplified exponentially. Kurds who seek recognition of the Anfal as genocide might solicit the support of Armenian counterparts, but also must be willing to offer support as well. Kurdish officials should be outspoken in support of Greek Cyprus, and should leverage Cypriot and Greek influence to ensure that a Turkish withdrawal from Iraq and Kurdistan becomes a European Union platform.
In mature diplomacy, coalitions are essential. The Kurdish Caucus in Congress is more symbolic than effective. True diplomacy should extend beyond wining and dining congressmen whose concern about Kurdistan is fleeting and limited by the next election. With the Americans withdrawing from Iraq—a milestone that should evoke memories of 1975 in Kurdistan and 1991 in Iraq—it is essential that Kurdistan's rulers understand their limitations. There are issues more important than oil deals and real estate. While it is natural that rulers inexperienced on the world stage fret more about the intricacies of protocol than broader issues, it is time the Kurdish representatives stationed abroad are able to talk fluently about broader issues. Kurdish communities should lend their support to Greek Cypriots, and demand that they, in exchange, make clear that Turkish policy has gone awry not only in the Eastern Mediterranean, but in other areas as well.
Kurds should be proud of their achievements, but they are not as solid as they once were. That the Kurds have no friends but the mountains will simply be an epitaph unless Kurdish leaders become far more apt at building alliances than they are now.