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May 14, 2010
Summary: Next month’s expected visit of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, to Turkey is a first step ending hostility between Ankara and the Kurdish leadership and ending Turkey’s long-time Kurdish problem. One of the biggest propellers of change has been flourishing trade ties. Iraq is Turkey’s fourth largest trading partner. Most of this trade is conducted with the Iraqi Kurds. The other major change in Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds is that they are no longer viewed through the PKK lens, but from an Iraq-wide perspective. Friendship with the Iraqi Kurds allows Ankara to have a greater say in Baghdad. The Iraqi Kurdish and Turkish economies are already tightly intertwined. Once the Iraqi Kurds strike an agreement with Baghdad over the sharing of oil revenues, they can start selling their own oil and natural gas resources through Turkey. This virtuous cycle can help alleviate poverty among Turkish Kurds. Yet, Ankara must never cede to the age-old temptation of playing one set of Kurds against the other.
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Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds: From Red Lines to Red Carpets
by Amberin Zaman*
ANKARA — If all goes to plan Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will be paying his first official visit to Turkey next month. The decision to invite the Kurdish leader is in line with recent moves designed to end over a decade of hostility between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Friendship with the Iraqi Kurds is one of the main pillars of Turkey’s attempts to solve its long-running Kurdish problem. Until recently Barzani, who is also the leader of the most powerful Iraqi Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was firmly embedded in Turkey’s official gallery of rogues. He was derided as a cocky tribal upstart who emboldened by U.S. support was accused of plotting against Turkey. Turkey’s hawkish generals would ever so often warn against the “red lines” that Barzani must not breach. “Don’t try to grab Kirkuk” or else... Don’t think about independence or else…” The subtext was that Turkey would invade the Kurdish controlled enclave. A defiant Barzani vowed to fight back. The potential for conflict between
a critical NATO ally, Turkey, and its Kurdish friends in Iraq was long a source of worry in Washington. Now the red lines are fading. Turkey is preparing to roll out the red carpet for Barzani. The Kurds’ internationally respected leader is expected to meet with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and perhaps even with President Abdullah Gül. During a recent trip to the Iraqi Kurdish enclave I was able to observe firsthand the dramatic shift in Ankara’s outlook. Turkey’s first ever Consul General to Erbil is among its most promising career diplomats. Aydin Selcen cut short a tour in Washington to come to Erbil. In the old days Erbil would have been viewed as a dumping ground for mediocre officers. Today it’s a good career move he says. Selcen has no hang-ups about calling the Kurdish region “Iraqi Kurdistan” or Barzani its “President.” Until recently he would have been accused, perhaps even prosecuted, for doing so on charges of inciting ethnic separatism. There are several reasons for the change. It comes after a prolonged
Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
chill prompted by Barzani’s refusal to take military action against separatist rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK’s top leaders are based together with an estimated three to five thousand rebels in the mountainous terrain that separates Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran and Turkey. Turkey still complains that Barzani doesn’t do enough to squeeze the rebels. But it has dropped demands that his peshmerga fighters take up arms against the Turkish Kurds. This in turn reflects the new thinking in Ankara. Firepower alone cannot quell the 25-year long Kurdish rebellion. Turkey knows that it cannot eradicate the PKK altogether, but it can weaken them to the point where some kind of bargain can be struck. Meanwhile, political, social, and economic reforms tailored to dissuade disaffected young Kurds from heading toward the mountains need to be rapidly enacted. Turkey’s military leadership agrees. This in turn reflects the changes within the Turkish Armed Forces where hardliners are being increasingly sidelined partly as a result of the Ergenekon trial.2 Armed with the generals’ support, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began introducing such measures last year. They were heralded as the “Kurdish Opening.” They include easing bans on the Kurdish language and co-opting Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. These have been twinned with moves to get the PKK to lay down its weapon with the help of the Iraqi Kurds. The opening appeared to slam shut when a group of PKK fighters attacked a convoy of Turkish soldiers last December in the northeastern province of Tokat, well outside the rebels’ traditional zone of engagement in the Kurdish dominated southeast. Some seven Turkish soldiers perished in the attack. A wave of nationalist fury ensued. The raid was probably staged by PKK hardliners who owe their raison d’etre to continued violence. Clashes between the PKK and the army have begun to escalate in recent weeks. All of this makes it harder for Erdoğan to justify further Kurdish-oriented reforms; not least because nationwide parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place by the summer of 2011. Despite these setbacks—and much to the PKK’s dismay—Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds have emerged unscathed. One of the biggest propellers of change is flourishing trade ties. During the week I spent in Erbil at least three different business delegations from Turkey were in town. Iraq is Turkey’s fourth largest trading partner. Most of this trade is conducted with the Iraqi Kurds. “If Iraqi Kurdistan were an independent country it would rank among Turkey’s top ten trading partners,” notes Selcen, the Turkish Consul General. Erbil’s main boulevard is dotted with Turkish shops, its skyline with new flashy buildings put up by Turkish contractors. These include the five star hotel Divan, owned by Turkey’s richest conglomerate, Koç Holding. The state-owned Turkish Airlines is expected to begin flying to the Kurdish region in the coming month and two major Turkish banks will be opening branches in Erbil next month. It’s hard to imagine that PKK camps are just a three-hour drive away. During my trip, I met with Barzani at his mountain fortress overlooking Erbil. Relaxed and confident he sounded genuinely committed to improving relations with Ankara. Over cups of frothy Kurdish style cappuccino, Barzani heaped praise on Erdoğan for his “daring” and “courageous” reforms and insisted these must not be frozen because of the Tokat attack. He said he was ready to continue between Turkey and the rebels. When I asked him whether Turkey would have to eventually talk to the rebels he said: “Turkey will need to deal with the PKK because their problem is with the PKK.” Yet he acknowledged that the rebels were divided and that there were indeed hardliners bent on sabotaging peace. Barzani will undoubtedly be discussing formulas to disarm the PKK and to persuade their leaders to go into exile somewhere in Europe or elsewhere. It’s a tricky affair. Murat Karayilan, the most senior PKK commander is widely believed to be leaning toward a deal. But he faces stiff resistance from Cemil Bayık and Dursun Kalkan, veteran hardliners who are allegedly allied with Iran. Another sticking point is the Mahkmour refugee camp, where some 10,000 Turkish Kurds have been languishing for years. The camp, more of a shantytown, has evolved into a rest and recreation center for the PKK. It also provides recruits. Repatriating these Kurds will further test relations between Ankara and the KRG. I also met with PKK leader Murat Karayilan in the Kandil mountains bordering Iran, where the PKK controls a large swathe of land. The PKK is clearly unnerved by the warm ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. They don’t seem to
believe Barzani will stick to his pledge never to fight fellow Kurds again. Their suspicions will have been re-inforced by a trilateral security agreement signed on April 11 in Istanbul between Iraq, Turkey, and the United States. The details of the agreement are being kept secret but as one senior Turkish official put it to me “it’s the most comprehensive plan of action ever against the PKK.” Alongside military options it includes measures to cut off logistical supplies to the PKK and to crack down on its alleged drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering activities in Europe and beyond. The other major change in Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds is that they are no longer viewed through the PKK lens, but from an Iraq-wide perspective. Friendship with the Iraqi Kurds allows Ankara to have a greater say in Baghdad. (With Washington’s support it is quietly encouraging Barzani to lend support to a broad-based government in the wake of Iraq’s parliamentary elections. At the same time Turkey is courting Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Arab leaders while support for its ethnic Turkmen cousins is far more subtle. Prior to the elections, Turkey cajoled Turkmen’s in Kirkuk to ally themselves with a faction led by the former pro-secular Shiite Prime Minister Ayyad Allawi. The result: Allawi’s group won about an equal amount of votes as the Kurds. The Kurds erstwhile grip over the oil rich province, which they claim as their own, has been weakened. Some Iraqi Kurds claim that if things don’t work out with Baghdad in the long run, joining Turkey would be the second best option after outright independence. They may be exaggerating but the Iraqi Kurdish and Turkish economies are already tightly intertwined. Once the Iraqi Kurds strike an agreement with Baghdad over the sharing of oil revenues, they can start selling their own oil and natural gas resources through Turkey. The ensuing wealth is poised to help generate income and investment in Turkey’s own Kurdish hinterland. This virtuous cycle can help alleviate poverty among Turkish Kurds. Yet, Ankara must never cede to the age-old temptation of playing one set of Kurds against the other. Barzani is no longer just another tribal leader. He is the Kurdish national leader. And as much as he dislikes the PKK he is no longer willing to kill fellow Kurds. As one senior Iraqi Kurdish official put it, “They may be terrorists but they are Kurds.”
Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist
Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.
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