May 1, 2007
By Mehmet Kalyoncu
Nowadays, amid the current presidential and nearing parliamentary elections, Ankara is preoccupied with the question of a cross-border operation against Kurdish PKK militants who have found refuge in northern Iraq. A provocative comment came from one of the Kurdish leaders in Iraq, Massoud Barzani: “if Turkey interferes with Kirkuk, then we will interfere with Diyarbakir.”1 Baghdad’s apparent tacit approval of his comments have strained nerves in Ankara more than ever as the Turkish military keeps a wary eye on developments in Northern Iraq.2
The provocative attitude of Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government, and Baghdad’s failure to confront it, are also coinciding with heightened terrorist activities from the PKK in Turkey’s southeastern border area with Iraq. This has had the effect of blurring the distinction between the PKK threat to Turkey and Kurdish state formation in Northern Iraq, creating the impression that the two are naturally conducive to each other. In fact, they are not. The two are indeed interrelated, but will reinforce one another only if Ankara gets involved in northern Iraq militarily and isolates itself from the region economically and diplomatically.
The PKK threat is likely to be used by the Kurdish leaders as leverage against Ankara so long as it does not recognize the legitimacy of Kurdish state formation in northern Iraq. The PKK would seek to garner Kurdish popular support for the idea of the so called “Greater Kurdistan” in the southeastern Turkey as well as within the Kurdish Diaspora in the European capitals through alliances, with other diasporas traditionally not so friendly with Turkey.
The PKK threat is, however, destined to die out, provided that Ankara fully engages in diplomatic and economic relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad, tries to make sure that the KRG is not dominated by a particular clan or family but is controlled by alternating governments through democratic elections, and carries out multilateral but not unilateral military operations against the PKK camps in Northern Iraq. At the end of the day, the formation of a Kurdish political entity in Northern Iraq may even serve Turkey’s deliberate diffusion into the Middle East, if handled properly by Ankara.
A Hostile and Unpredictable Kurdish Government is a Threat- Not Kurdistan
A democratic Kurdistan on good terms with Turkey can be a reliable ally in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, for Turkey, which is now all for more involvement in the Middle East, Kurdistan with a democratic government could be even vital to Turkish interests, provided that its leadership is available and accountable to the average Kurd, and hence subject to alteration through a democratic election process. The real challenge seems to be securing the Kurdish Regional Government’s future against the absolute domination of a particular clan, which is the Barzani clan at the moment. This clan has traditionally proven unpredictable and exhibited a mostly confrontational behavioral pattern.
Ankara can never have a stable and predictable relationship with the Barzani leadership, at least so far as past experience would seem to indicate. The relations between the two have frequently swayed between cooperation and confrontation. Turkey provided a safe haven for some half a million Iraqi Kurds during the First Gulf War, in addition to 1.5 million Kurds escaping Saddam Hussein’s campaigns in the 1980s- most notably, the 1988 chemical attack in Halabja. In the early 1990s, Ankara granted the Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani the right to seek refuge in Turkey, which it did not give to his rival, Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, the Ankara-Barzani alliance did not last.
According to Iraqi Kurdish writer Kamal Said Qadir, “switching alliances is part of the Barzani family political culture, intertwining survival and power with Kurdish nationalism. Between 1980 and 1988, Massoud Barzani allied himself with Iran in its fight against Saddam, even as the revolutionary authorities in Iran turned their guns on Iranian Kurds. After long hostility to Turkey, in 1992, he allied with Ankara in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerˆš„¢n Kurdistan, PKK); in 1996, he allied with Saddam Hussein against rival Kurdish leader (and current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani. In the wake of Iraq’s liberation in 2003, Barzani has portrayed himself as a U.S. ally. For how long, though, remains unclear.”3 Barzani’s recently confrontational attitude toward Ankarawas thus not contrary to his attested behavioral pattern when he recently threatened to interfere with Diyarbakir, Turkey’s southeastern province, in case Turkey interferes with Kirkuk, which he claims to be a truly Kurdish city.
However, Opportunities Still Exist
Despite Ankara’s not so friendly experience with Massoud Barzani, Turkey and the Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq, be it defined as a state within clearly defined borders or an autonomous regional government, could develop mutually beneficial relationship in this chronically unstable region- so long as the Kurdish leadership turns truly democratic as opposed to being run by a dictatorship led by a particular family or clan. According to Richard Holbooke, a former US Ambassador to the UN, “despite their history, Turkeyand Iraqi Kurdistan need each other. Kurdistan could become a buffer between Turkey and the chaos to the south, while Turkey could become the protector of a Kurdistan that, though still technically part of Iraq, is effectively cut loose from a Baghdad government that may no longer function. In addition, Turkey has a major economic opportunity in northern Iraq; already, more than 300 Turkish companies and substantial investment are a primary engine of Kurdish growth.”4
Due to either this approach being favored by the United States, which has so far acted unilaterally in the region with almost no regard for Ankara’s concerns, or fearing possible nationalist unrest from the Turkish public, Ankara has so far reflexively disregarded the possibility of accommodating the process of Kurdish state formation in Northern Iraq. However, such a process, so long as it is guided by democratic values and remains somewhat predictable, may not be detrimental to Turkish national interests in the region after all.
Full engagement with the current Kurdish state-building process in Iraq from the very beginning would help Turkey gain confidence, not only in its own Kurds, but also in all Kurds of the region- the very constituency targeted by the PKK and other separatist entities. In so doing, Turkey can build leverage against the possibly hostile Kurdish government(s) now and then in Northern Iraq, and the central government in Baghdad. In this regard, Turkey should take the lead in the region by helping the Kurds of Northern Iraq to modernize their community, establish institutions and help democracy take root in the new Kurdish state entity.
Turkey’s support to the Iraqi Kurds should also aim to create a broad middle class which would also develop an economic interdependence between Turkey and the Kurdish Iraqi state. Economic engagement could start with taxing the already ongoing trade between Turkey’s southeastern cities and the cities in Northern Iraq. Such an engagement should also aim to carry Kirkuk oil to the global markets through Turkish pipelines. In addition to pursuing full diplomatic and economic relations with the new Kurdish state, Ankara should mobilize civil society organizations in Turkey to be proactive in the making of the new Kurdistan, so that the ties between the Turkish and Kurdish publics remain strong, even if disruptions may occur occasionally between the governments.
Is the Military Option a Viable One?
The option of a military operation against the PKK camps in Northern Iraq might seem tempting, but is in fact highly risky, not only for Turkey but also for regional stability. The military might of Ankara of course cannot be compared to that of the PKK rebels, or even its possible allies in Baghdad. Based on that comparison and the record of 16 successful cross-border operations, some may tend to think that it would take only hours to annihilate the PKK threat. However, it is no longer 1992, when the PKK was encircled by Barzani’s peshmerga units from the south, thereby helping the Turkish military to succeed quickly. Today, a military operation with some 40,000 troops against the PKK is no different from a scenario in which a conventional military power goes after a non-conventional enemy with high mobility, which would most probably retreat back and diffuse into the Kurdish civilian settlements. Once the Turkish military forces are tempted to chase the retreating fighters, it may be far too late for Ankara to realize just how far it has had to go into northern Iraq by the time the world media will have already condemned the operation as a Turkish invasion of Iraq.
The Last Thing Turkey Needs: A Hostile Kurdish Diaspora
Another risk associated with Ankara’s non-accommodating approach to the Kurdish state being formed in Northern Iraq is the likelihood that it would create a hostile Kurdish Diaspora in the Western capitals, and provide a medium for them to be lured by other anti-Turkish diasporas. Given Turkey’s bitter experience with the Armenian and Greek diasporas, the last thing Turkey needs is a hostile Kurdish Diaspora. However, the present attitude of Ankara toward the Kurdish state formation in a restructuring Iraq is likely to only create another hostile diaspora, this time a Kurdish one, mainly located in the European capitals.
It is to the best interest of Ankara to recognize that it cannot afford to ignore the ongoing modernization of Kurds in Western capitals and the expediting role of transportation and digital communication to help them organize. Most probably no later than a decade will proliferate Western educated Kurdish leaders who will be pursuing a Kurdish “independence” cause. A la Qubad Talabani who represents the Kurdish Regional Government in Washington, who is up for establishing a Kurdish Congressional Caucus and a Kurdish-American Business Council, and who interestingly called for an amnesty for the PKK, 6 which is listed as terrorist organization by the US State Department.
Similarly is it inevitable that there will grow a second- and third-generation European Kurdish community which will be attached to the imagined “Kurdistan.” It should not be difficult for Ankara to understand that such a flourishing diaspora would easily find financial and intellectual support in Europe, given certain European states’ certified support for the PKK. According to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in the recent past Greece, Bulgaria and Russia, in addition to Syria, Iran and Israel have supported the PKK in one way or another.5 In addition, the Danish government has long turned a blind eye to the Kurdish Roj TV broadcasting from Denmark, despite Ankara’s concerns over the TV channel being used as an outlet for the PKK to convey its captured leader Abdullah Ocalan’s messages, and to instigate the Kurds in Turkey to make uprisings and provocations. Similarly, the Belgian government has long provided protection to Fehriye Erdal, a PKK member and the assassin of prominent Turkish businessman Ozdemir Sabanci, despite Ankara’s continuous efforts to bring her to justice.
After all, not only should Ankara avoid making foes of those who could be friends, but also recognize the opportunities attached to the challenges unfolding in Northern Iraq.
1 “Barzani haddini asti, bu sozlerin bedeli agir olur”, Zaman, April 10, 2007, available at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=525763
2 “Barzani’ye destek Verdi: Karisanin elini keseriz”, Zaman, April 14, 2007, available at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=527509
3 Kamal Said Qadir, “The Barzani Chameleon”, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2007, available at http://www.meforum.org/article/1681
4 Richard Holbrooke, “Opportunity for Turks and Kurds?” Washington Post, February 12, 2007, p.17
5 “Dr. Cagaptay: ABD, Turkiye’nin K. Irak’ta kisa sureli operasyon yapmasina goz yumar”, Zaman Amerika, 12 Nisan 2007, p.3
6 “Qubad Talabani calls for amnesty for PKK,” Turkish Daily News, (KurdishMedia.com), June 14, 2006. See speech on “Amnesty for the PKK”<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p99AT2B00Bc>at the Center for Strategic and International Studies<http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Center_for_Strategic_and_International_Studies>(CSIS), June 13, 2006, cited at http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Qubad_al-Talabani