The Kurdish issue, specifically the matter of establishing a homeland for Kurds, has complicated efforts to stabilize Iraq. Now, there is growing concern among international experts that the Kurdish question could become a source of tension, and possibly conflict in the South Caucasus.
Media outlets in Turkey and Azerbaijan have reported that militant Kurds, in particular fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, have been settling in Nagorno-Karabakh and in portions of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijan, with the tacit support of the Armenian government in Yerevan. Many of the Kurds are reputed to have resettled in the strategically important Lachin Corridor, a strip of territory now occupied by Armenia that was formerly part of Azerbaijan proper. Control of Lachin is one of the main obstacles in the search for a Karabakh settlement. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Before the outbreak of the Karabakh conflict, Lachin had a high number of Kurdish residents, and during the 1920s, it was part of a Kurdish Autonomous Area within the Soviet Union. Much of the Kurdish population fled the region during the Karabakh war. But the fact remains that there is a historical precedent for a Kurdish presence in Lachin. Even so, their resettlement today -- especially if reports about PKK militants being among the migrants are accurate -- is fraught with peril for regional security.
Some recent Turkish and Azerbaijani reports have seemed downright hyperbolic in sounding the alarm about the Kurdish threat, as well as about Armenia's supposed role in promoting resettlement. The reports alleged that Kurdish militants have established training camps in and around Karabakh, and that Armenian authorities have given Kurds access to state broadcasting facilities. They likewise claimed that political organizations in Armenia, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnakstoutiun), are actively assisting the Kurds, seeing them as a means to strengthen Armenians' hold on Karabakh. In addition, Turkish and Azerbaijani media have stressed that both Ankara and Baku consider the PKK a terrorist organization.
On May 14, a commentary in the Istanbul newspaper Yeni Safak, a staunch supporter of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party, claimed that the PKK's leadership, perhaps feeling insecure in northern Iraq, was mulling a move to Nagorno-Karabakh. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Armenia officials have vigorously denied a PKK presence in either Armenia proper or in Karabakh. "The unsubstantiated rumors about the intentions on the side of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to move to Nagorno-Karabakh and controlled territories cannot be called anything less than another provocation," stated Foreign Ministry press spokesman Vladimir Karapetian.
It might be tempting to downplay the news reports as Turkish and Azerbaijani propaganda aimed at their longtime enemy -- Armenia. But dismissing Turkish and Azerbaijani assertions and concerns could prove dangerous. They require further investigation.
There is a danger that Turkey and Azerbaijan could take matters into their own hands, using the reported Kurdish threat as a pretext for military operations in Karabakh. In a February commentary published by the Ekho newspaper in Baku, political analyst Mubariz Ahmadoglu stated that that the country's political leadership might feel compelled to use force in an attempt to address the Kurdish issue. "If Armenia continues moving in this direction, resistance on the part Azerbaijan will be increasing. And not only at a diplomatic level," the newspaper quoted Ahmadoglu as saying. "I cannot rule out that Azerbaijan can start real actions of a military character. I know officials who made remarks lately and I formed such an impression." For example, Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov has stated publicly that Baku would consider military operations to root out Kurdish militants.
In addition, Turkish military leaders -- who in recent months have ordered military operations in northern Iraq designed to smash PKK strongholds -- have hinted that they would consider attacking Kurdish militants wherever they were found. This has fueled speculation that Turkey too might consider a raid against Karabakh, or even Armenia proper.
The mere fact that Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets are complaining about a Kurdish militant presence in Karabakh should spur the international community to action, in particular the co-chairs of the Minsk Group -- the United States, Russia and France. There is a clear need for redoubled efforts to get Karabakh negotiations back on track, so as to eliminate, or at least greatly diminish the chances of developments taking a calamitous turn.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.