Turkey opens a new chapter in Kurdish relations
Deutsche Welle

Turkey opens a new chapter in Kurdish relations

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani is in the middle of his first official visit to Ankara as Kurdistan president. The trip represents a major step in Turkey’s relationship with Kurds on both sides of the border.

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On his landmark visit to Ankara on Thursday, Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) made pledges that testified to the major renewal of Turkish-Kurd relations that has developed recently.

“We are against the continuation of violence. We do not see Turkey’s security as separate from our own. We will expend all efforts to end this deplorable situation,” Barzani said after talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Barzani went on to promise that “all efforts” would be made to stop separatist Kurdish violence against Turkey. The separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought Ankara since 1984, has bases in remote mountains in Barzani’s autonomous region in northern Iraq, which it uses as a launching pad for attacks on Turkish targets across the border.

Mounting PKK violence this year culminated in a rocket attack on a navy base Monday, which killed six soldiers and prompted a flurry of security meetings in Ankara. And the rebels also sought to overshadow Barzani’s visit on Thursday by scrapping a year-old unilateral ceasefire and announcing its intention to resume attacks against Turkish forces.

“Two days ago, we started waging attacks against the Turkish army in response to their repeated military attacks against the party and political attacks facing Kurds in Turkey,” PKK spokesman Ahmed Danees told Reuters in Kurdistan.

But recent elections in Iraq established the KDP as the strongest Kurdish party in the country, consolidating Barzani’s position as the major representative of Iraqi Kurds. Turkey, for its part, has also dropped its more hostile rhetoric, shifting to a policy of seeking cooperation with the local authorities to curb the rebels. Barzani himself was often derided as a “tribal leader” at the peak of past tensions, but he is being greeted this week as the Kurds’ “regional president.”

Kurdistan is not going away

Gareth Stansfield, associate fellow at the British think tank Chatham House, is positive about the new spirit of rapprochement behind the current visit.

“It is very big news, but it has been coming for some time,” he told Deutsche Welle. “It does indicate that we’re into a new era of the Turkish relationship with the Kurds, both across the border and its own.”

Turkey is tired of the 26 years of violent conflict with the PKK on its eastern border, and is, according to Stansfield, ready for a new approach. The country is slowly having to accept that the Kurdistan region has become consolidated, and is not going to go away.

“Arguably, it’s much more difficult for them not to accept it, and much more costly for them in all sorts of ways,” said Stansfield. “If they do accept it, then there are potentially economic benefits and also security benefits.”

Andre Bank, research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), traces the new approach to the waning influence of the older elements in the Turkish establishment, particularly in the military. This has minimized the political risk that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking by engaging with Barzani.

The Turkish government has recently celebrated some foreign policy successes – the nuclear deal with Iran and its handling of the Israeli attack on the Turkish flotilla. And the government was able to use this domestically.

“Now, even Turkish opposition parties are making efforts to win over Turkish-Kurd constituencies,” said Bank. “The most obvious example was the recent election of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an Alevi-Kurdish politician, as head of the traditional Kemalist and anti-Kurdish Republican People’s Party CHP.”

Competing for the Turkish-Kurd vote

The Kurdish constituency in south-eastern Turkey plays a vital part in these foreign relations. Bank believes that the practical affinity between Turkish Kurds and Iraqi Kurds is sometimes exaggerated by both sides, as both hanker after a “greater imagined community,” but he admits, “It is true that a majority of the Kurdish population in south-eastern Turkey have a lot of sympathy with the northern Iraqi Kurds – there are after all close business connections and family relations across the border.”

As Stansfield points out, this Turkish-Kurd community carries some electoral weight. “This is not just about the relationship between Ankara and Kurdish capital Arbil,” he said. “It is about Turkey’s relations with its own Kurds, and finding a more constructive solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey. That’s particularly important for Erdogan’s ruling AKP, as they get a lot of their votes from the south-eastern Anatolian region.”

But all this comes with the caveat that the Turkish political elite continues to fear Kurdish separatism. Until recently Turkey tried to isolate Iraqi Kurds, worried that their autonomy, enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, would stoke separatism among its own estimated 15 million Kurds.

This point is not lost on Barzani, whose task in Ankara includes assuaging such fears. The Iraqi-Kurds’ economy is still fragile, and its dependence on Turkish trade is becoming even more essential.

Encouraging economies

From the Iraqi-Kurd point-of-view, this week’s high-level talks are underpinned by protecting these economic interests.

“Turkey is the lifeline for the Kurdish-dominated north of Iraq,” said Bank. “It also looks increasingly likely that the Kurds will lose their position as king-makers in Iraqi politics. This endangers their potential to control the Kirkuk oil fields in the future and makes them even more dependent on economic relations with Turkey.”

This political weakness at home is increasing the need to do business across the border, and is helping to bury some old hatchets.

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