Turkey softens stance on in­de­pen­dence for the Iraqi Kurds

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE -

Af­ter em­bark­ing on a peace process with home­grown Kur­dish fighters, Turkey is fi­nally rec­on­cil­ing it­self with the prospect of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state in neigh­bor­ing war-torn Iraq.

But strug­gling to fend off the grow­ing ji­hadist threat on its doorstep, and pur­su­ing its own strate­gic and eco­nomic in­ter­ests in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, Turkey has grad­u­ally changed its po­si­tion to forge a new al­liance with the Iraqi Kurds.

In stark con­trast to pre­vi­ous Turk­ish lead­ers who de­ferred to the once-pow­er­ful mil­i­tary, Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has started a peace process with Kur­dish rebels in Turkey and in­tro­duced re­forms to ease dis­crim­i­na­tion against Kurds.

Er­do­gan also hopes to call on sup­port from among the 15 mil­lion-strong Kur­dish mi­nor­ity, most of whom hail from the poor and un­der­de­vel­oped south­east, when he stands for elec­tion as pres­i­dent on Au­gust 10.

"Sup­port­ing Iraq's ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity no longer serves Turkey's in­ter­ests. Turkey knows that Iraq can­not stay united any­more and wants to re­main un­scathed," said Bil­gay Du­man, an Iraq ex­pert at the Ankara-based Cen­tre for Mid­dle-East­ern Strate­gic Stud­ies.

"It has no bet­ter ally in the re­gion than the Kurds... An in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state will pro­vide a buf­fer zone to counter the Is­lamist threat," he told AFP.

Ankara's alarm has reached new heights af­ter Sunni ji­hadists seized a vast swath of ter­ri­tory in north­ern Iraq and de­clared a "caliphate" strad­dling Turkey's neigh­bours Iraq and Syria.

Em­bold­ened by re­cent gains as a re­sult of the ji­hadist surge, Iraqi Kur­dish pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani on Thurs­day asked the au­ton­o­mous re­gion's par­lia­ment to pre­pare for a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence, pos­si­bly pav­ing the way for the break-up of Iraq.

Du­man said Turkey no longer fears that Iraqi Kurds' push for in­de­pen­dence will lead to the cre­ation of a greater Kur­dis­tan, "be­cause there is no unity among the re­gion's Kurds".

'Turkey is dif­fer­ent from Iraq'

Re­cent com­ments to the Fi­nan­cial Times by Huseyin Ce­lik, spokesman for Turkey's rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party, also sug­gested that Ankara could tol­er­ate an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state in north­ern Iraq.

Orig­i­nally of Indo-Euro­pean ori­gin, Kurds in the Mid­dle East are pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni Mus­lim and num­ber be­tween 25 and 35 mil­lion, with a lan­guage and cul­ture that make them dis­tinct from Arabs, Turks and Per­sians.

They are there­fore of­ten seen as a threat by all the four coun­tries they prin­ci­pally in­habit -- Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey -- and have long suf­fered dis­crim­i­na­tion.

But Turkey's Kurds have be­gun to en­joy greater demo­cratic rights un­der Er­do­gan's 11-year rule, with the Turk­ish strong­man en­gag­ing the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers' Party (PKK) in talks to end a con­flict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.

The govern­ment last week pro­posed re­forms to re­vive stalled talks with the PKK, which took up arms in 1984 with the aim of cre­at­ing an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state, but has since scaled back its de­mands to greater au­ton­omy for Kurds.

"Turkey is still very dif­fer­ent from Iraq, not least in the fact that the coun­try's rul­ing AKP com­mands up to half of the votes of Kur­dish speak­ers, even in the Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity south­east, and be­cause per­haps half of all Turkey's Kurds live in the west of the coun­try," said Hugh Pope of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group.

"There is ev­ery chance that a well-judged democ­racy pack­age that gives an el­e­ment of reg­u­lated de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion to the whole coun­try can keep the coun­try whole and pros­per­ous."

- Grow­ing trade ties -

Turkey has also built up strong trade ties with Iraq's Kur­dis­tan re­gion in re­cent years, which ex­perts say is an­other rea­son why Ankara can­not af­ford to be as hos­tile to the idea of an in­de­pen­dent Iraqi Kur­dish state as in the past.

In May, Turkey be­gan ex­port­ing oil sup­plies from Iraqi Kur­dis­tan to in­ter­na­tional mar­kets, draw­ing the ire of the cen­tral govern­ment in Bagh­dad.

"Er­do­gan can­not af­ford to an­tag­o­nise the Kurds in north­ern Iraq. Be­cause he needs them for their oil and the goods he is sell­ing them," Du­man said.

Iraq has also be­come the sec­ond big­gest sin­gle ex­port mar­ket for Turkey, ac­count­ing for 8 per­cent of the coun­try's over­all ex­ports.

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