The Kurdish problem and the quest for a solution to it continue to be the main issue on Turkey’s national agenda. Earlier negotiation processes at Habur and Oslo failed but the sides have now initiated a new process. Not details but a broad roadmap for a settlement has been shared with the general public. The prevailing view of the public is that the conflict that has been going on for 30 years and cost so many lives must end. Thus a cautious optimism reigns in public.
By Assoc. Prof. Zeynep Dağı
We are in a new process of resolving the Kurdish question. In this period of peace favourable attitudes are gaining strength. So it is also the time to look at the Kurds in our neighbourhood.
A field trip to some Middle Eastern countries in December 2012 provided us with the opportunity to examine the Kurdish question within a regional context and specifically observe the administration of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The findings of the trip were compiled in a special dossier in Analist. Interviews with the representatives of political groups in the region, as well as with academics and jounalists both in Iraq and Turkey demonstrated how closer Iraq has got to Turkey in the minds of people despite the fact that Iraq means ‘distant’ in Turkish.
The experience of seeing Turkey the Kurdish problem, and also Kirkuk and the Turcomans provided a salutary reminder of how intertwined the problems under discission at both the national level and in the region really are thus how inscapable is the need for cooperation when it comes to finding a solution. Especially important is the need to convey to the Turkish public the friendly attitude ordinary people in the Middle East feel about Turkey and the Turkish language. Because, despite the attitude of partial denial towards the Kurdish problem and towards the Kurdish langauge in particular, the local population of the area has a far greater appreciation for Turkey, the Turkish language, its music, and even its TV serials, than might be expected.
Drawing closer to Iraq
Although Turkey and Iraq have a common frontier, as far as people in Turkey were concerned, from the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s until its occupation by the Americans in 2003 Iraq was indeed a ‘distant’ country separated by the walls of a cold war. However everthing that happened in Iraq after the cold war had a direct effect, not just on Turkey’s economy but also on its internal and external political affairs. One example is the vote of the Turkish National Assembly on 1 March 2003 not to give the USA permission to transit Turkish territory for its war in Iraq. This helped bring Turkey closer to the Arab Middle East but caused tensions in Turkish-American relations. Then in 2003 there was also the hooding crisis – in which certain Turkish officers were detained and hooded by American troops in Iraqi Kurdish region. This was remembered in Turkey as an important event that caused an escalation of tension with the Kurds of Iraq, and the one that nurtured anti-Americanism among the Turkish public. When the Kurds obtained first a de facto, then constitutional autonomy in northern Iraq, this too was an important factor which altered and expanded the parametres of discussion of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. In sum, what caused Turkish public opinion to understand Iraq and debate it more fully was the end of the Cold War and the uncertainties and problems that this created in the region.
The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq
“Change” is one of those key words which best explains today’s world. Every country, society and individual across the world is coping with the changes in the international environment and cannot remain outside these changes. One of the players which have done most to internalise these changes is the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government. Until a decade ago, the Kurds suppressed and excluded from the central government were fighting in mountains against Iraq’s central government. Now they secured an autonomy within Iraq via the constitution governing their own affairs locally. The change within a decade took a wholesale form transforming the lives, attitudes and the wealth of Iraqi Kurds. There is a widespread confidence among the Kurds of Iraq that they are doing economically well, and they are optimistic about the future. While Baghdad, governing an energy rich country, has electricity for only four hours a day, KRG provide 24 hours electricity in Erbil. This is an important indication of the difference between these two cities and the ability of the Iraqi central government and the KRG to resolve their problems and provide services.
The Kurdish region is not only doing well and is expecting more in economy, especially energy sector. It also extends its efforts for advancement in construction, educaton, diplomacy, and democratisation. National income per capita has raised from $300 a head to $ 6,000 ad this is not just because of the economic upsurge, but as Hicran Kazancı, representative in Turkey of the Iraqi Turcoman Front, says democratisation of the political process that brought stability, security and predictability has also played a part. The prosperity which is reflected even on the streets, the clean premises, and the very modern shopping centres and luxury hotels have made it a centre of attraction for its region.
Consequently Kurdish politicians stress that they have managed to construct their region through a very hard struggle that began long ago. The struggle continues for them. So in order to maintain security they keep diplomatic channels with all the players in the region open, and pursue a policy of engagement and dialogue. They are aware that they don’t have a formidable military but diplomatic skills that they have developed over the years of their struggle.
For last couple of years Turkey’s relations with the KRG have significantly improved. Yet the perception in Turkish public opinion that identifies the KRG with the PKK’s presence on the Kandil mountain is still an important psychological block standing in the way of perfecting relations with the region. On top of that the prevailing belief among the Turks that the KRG is engaged in an effort to form an independent Kurdish causes anxiety and stir debates in Turkey.
Despite the Turkish concerns that a “greater Kurdistan is in the making” the KRG faces the challenges of political and administrative dualities that threaten the future of the new entity in the North of Iraq. The regional government continues to appear double-headed. Erbil, currently under Barzani’s control, is the political capital, while Suleymanye, accepted as Talabani’s centre is agreed to be the cultural capital. Although both have historically been Kurdish regions, the tradition of tribalism did not just obstruct the integration of these two centres and groups but also triggered the outbreak of a bloody civil war in the past.
In the last few years significant steps have been taken particularly with the backing of the USA to integrate Suleymaniye and Erbil with the goal of establishing stability in the region. Since one of the most important indicators of political integration is public finance the fact that the accounts of the two have only very recently been merged is an important development. While there is an impression of de facto state bulding, the regional government does not describe itself as such, and does not present itself at the expense of Turkey. Contrary to the anxieties felt by Turkish public opinion, they accept Turkey not just as a very important gateway to the outside world but also as an important political ally against the likely chaos in the region. Consequently the gap beween realities on the ground and perceptions reminds us of the need for to sides to get to know each other better.
Is a “zero problem policy” possible without the Kurds?
During the 1990s the abuses by the ‘deep state’ and PKK terrorism rose sharply. International intervention in Iraq and the protection of the Kurds by international interventions from the 1990s onwards resulted in a de facto autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds. This development in Iraq added a new aspect to the discussion of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. The Kurdish problem became a regional issue which was no longer confined to Turkey but which involved an ever more diverse set of players. As the Kurdish problem had persisted, spread and deepened it became vitally important to follow regional developments as well as its internal dynamics in Turkey in order to solve it.
In this context it is not enough to built working relationship between Turkey and the KRG at the governmental level but it is also necessary for the peoples to get to know and engage with each other. Closer links of this sort would facilitate a solution for Turkey’s domestic Kurdish problem and would also open the way for Turkey to become a strong player at the regional level. For a view of foreign policy which excludes the Kurds and the KRG appears unlikely to have any success in achieving the goal of zero-problem with neighbours which has provided the basis of Turkey’s new foreign policy.
Constructing ‘durable relations’ with the KRG would help to correct the perception that the policy of ‘zero problem’ has been abandoned altogether in Turkey’s dealings with the region. To do this we should start by using the constitutional name of the region, which is under the constitution of the Republic of Iraq the existence of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north of the country has been accepted. It is recognized in the constitution of Iraq as a politically automous, self-governing federal region. If one looks at the historical background to placenames, one will find that the region inhabited by the Kurds was known as Kurdistan until 1925 when this usage was abandoned. The tendency of Turkish public to refer to the region as ‘Northern Iraq’, thus depriving it of its ethnic identity leads to difficulties in both the region and Turkish domestic politics.
Goran: A movement for change
The KRG may give the impression of being caught between the followers of Barzani and Talabani but there is a growing opposition in the region which is reflected in society as a whole towards the monopolization of power, corruption and oppression. Although Barzani and Talabani are important for the Kurdish people as historical and political actors, the fact that their close associates are noted for their corruption creates great unease at the popular level. Thus, despite the power of these apparent leaders of the Kurds, namely Barzani and Talabani, the popular support for the Goran Movement, led by Nechirvan Mustafa, has been on rise as indicated in the 2010 general elections. This reflects the quest for democratisation in the region. The Goran Movement demands greater transparency against corruption, greater social justice, pluralism, and change.
During our interview Nechervan Mustafa emphasised the importance they attribute to change, dialogue, and youth. On this matter, one important detail is that as Orhan Miroglu stated the politically-active population of the region and the civil society organisations attach a particular importance to the Turkish model in their quest for democracy.
The Turkish public has been discussing the possible application of ‘the Turkish model’ only with regard to the post Arab spring Middle East. Yet the Turkish model on demand by the Kurds of Iraq too. It is therefore a serious shortcoming that no one seems to have realized that the Turkish model debate is also applicable to the Kurds in our near neighbourhood.
A secure zone in the midst of chaos
It is also important to remember that in last decade an important degree of internal migration has taken place in Iraq. Especially after the US withdrawal from Iraq and the consequent reduction in strength of the central government, a number of terrorist attacks along with oppression and corruptions caused members of the Turcoman and Christian minorities living in Baghdad to migrate to northern Iraq. This has had an impact on the position of the Turcomans and have turned the area of the KRG more pluralistic.
The ‘safe-haven’ formula, developed in the 1990s to protect the Kurds against the masacres by Saddam now turned out to be a renewed destination for the Christians and Turcomans who escape from Maliki’s oppressive and discriminatory policies. Despite the difficulties and challenges Kurds, Turkmens and Christian communities are trying to learn how to live together on the lands under the protection of the regional government which have succeeded in constructing an atmosphere of stability.
The Erbil-Istanbul line
The US troop withdrawal did not just weaken the authority of Baghdad it was also the reason why the gaze of the Kurds turned towards Turkey. Turkish public opinion may perceive the regional government as something of a threat but Erbil attaches great importance to its relations with Turkey seen as a gateway opening out onto the world. In particular it is important to note that that for those who are born after 1990 not Baghdad but Istanbul is the city that attracts. It is Istanbul not Baghdad that people are eager to travel, to trade with and to dream about. Thus young people are more interested in learning Turkish than Arabic. A further interesting point to note is that Kurdish politicians as well as business and administrative elite enrol their children to Turkish schools that are active in Erbil, Suleimaniye and Halapce. Though with delay Turkey has opened a consulate in Erbil that contributes to an ever increasing social and offical contacts between the two sides. The visits of the Prime Minister Mr Erdoğan and the Foreign Minister Mr Davutoğlu to the region have proved to be a turning point to foster relations and build trust among both societies.
Some of the Kurdish politicians we met referred to their region as “a natural extension of Anatolia’ which makes it easier to build a common understanding, culture and language for future cooperations.
The Turkish vision does not only envisage an Erbil-Ankara cooperation but also tries to help find solutions for the problems of the Iraqi Turcomans. During our interview the Turkish Consul-General in Erbil presented economic and political data explaining to us Turkey’s interests there. For example eight buses set off just from Erbil to Istanbul every day. There are several flights a day between both cities and in both directions by Turkish Airlines and private airline companies, and the Habur border-post records daily crossings by at least 4,400 trucks and 600 private cars. All these indicate an enormous social and economic interaction between Turkey and the people of the KRG.
The volume of trade between Iraq and Turkey is steadily growing. Iraq today is the second largest export destination for Turkish products following Germany. It is worth reminding that nearly 70% of this trade is carried out between the KRG and Turkey. There are large numbers of Turkish investors in Erbil and Suleymaniye and high levels of demand for Turkish goods. Turkey is also a tourism destination for the Kurds of Iraq. Around 600 visa requests are made every day to Turkish consulate in Erbil.
A positive agenda
The PKK problem remains as a distraction in Turkey-KRG relations. In the past Turkey’s cross-border operations against Mount Kandil caused tension from time to time. It now seems as if the two sides have both abandoned their former confrontational political language. Moreover the current dialogue between the government and the PKK leadership, if results in disarmament and demobilization of the PKK, may remove a very important source of tension between Turkey and the KRG opening up new opportunities for cooperation. The fact that Turkey has opened a consulate in Erbil and that the president of the KRG Mesud Barzani attended the AK Party’s congress and addressed the audience in Kurdish demonstrates the extent to which the rapprochement between the two sides has taken place in recent times.
Important developments are taking place which directly concern all players in the region
There are a number of events which illustrate the importance of the growing uncertainties and instabilities in the region with possible impacts on Turkey-KRG relations. These include the aftershocks of the Arab spring, the civil war in Syria, the increasingly unfriendly attitude of the Maliki government towards Ankara and Erbil, Iran’s pursuit of influence in the region as well as the violent clashes in Kirkuk, and on top of all, the serious health problem of President Talabani that may upset the internal balances of the government of Iraq.
This is a period of time that when Turkey is searching intensively for a solution to its own Kurdish problem the growing uncertainties surrounding the region makes it difficult to promote cooperation and peace among various political actors in the region. Yet unless a policy of cooperation and peace is sought among the regional actors the present uncertainties might expand and deepen further, and may also turn into violent clashes.
Such an escalation of tension among the regional actors would harm all regional actors including Turkey at a time when it is trying to find a solution to its own Kurdish problem. So now more than ever a positive agenda is needed, which first and foremost will strengthen political cooperation and dialogue between the triangle of Ankara, Baghdad and Erbil. Besides, establishing a working relationship with the “Kurds outside Turkey” will also ease the problems of the Turcomans in the KRG, and improve their the social, economic and political conditions. As Kazanci has stressed, the influence of the Turcomans living in the region may be rather small but it should not be forgotten that Turkey’s rising visibility in the region adds to the influence of the Turcomans too. To sum up, it is crucially important to maintain the peace process a home and sustain a cooperative relationship with the Kurds of Iraq. These will strengthen Turkey’s soft power in the region, which is the most indispensible factor needed for peace and cooperation among the regional actors.
Three basic risks facing Barzani
Despite the unstable circumstances of Iraq, even as things stand, a region of relative stability has emerge within the boundaries of the KRG. Yet this does not eliminate the risks and question marks about the future of the KRG. Looking at the difficulties of the state building process, there are three basic risks confronting the KRG and Iraqi central government.
The first is the idea and the ideal of an independent Kurdistan. If Barzani is inclined to take a move to establish a Kurdish state at the expense of neglecting the balances in the region he could ignite a lengthy regional as well as internal conflict jeopardising stability and security of his own people. A turmoil in the KRG would seriously risk the prospect of a prosperous Kurdish entity. It is visible everywhere in the KRG that they act as if they are an independent state nominally attached to Baghdad. Yet “declaring” independence is fundamentally different from enjoying a de facto independence. However it is not out of question given Al Maliki’s policy of bullying vis-à-vis Erbil.
The second risk is demographic structure in the region, which is like a time-bomb. If this issue of ethnic diversity is not managed properly via democracy and a model of power sharing stability and peace may not be sustained within the KRG. The matter will be of course worsened in case the Kurds go for independence. In such a scenario, in which Turkey will be very concerned about the future of Kirkuk and the Turcomans, ethnic homogeneity policies may trigger internal and external conflicts. On this matter the repopulation policy carried out by the forces of Barzani after the occupation of Iraq has created anxieties among Turkish decision makers. Barzani does not act in a sufficiently compromising faction when it comes to discussing the way the richness of the region are to be shared with other ethnic gorups. The relevant literature indicates that the objective of economic development cannot be achieved when instability reigns in the region and the problems of state-building and power-sharing is not resolved.
This takes us to a third risk that is the discrepancy between the resources and ambitions of the leaders of the KRG. Pragmatic policies that put regional balances into consideration benefit the people. Kurds of Iraq should prove their diplomatic skill and not provoke regional animosities. They should put their diplomacy at the service economic development and prosperity of the people. This implies that Barzani must strike a balance between the status which he seeks and the actual strength he has.
About the author: JTW
JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).