Turkey’s rapprochement with Iraqi Kurdistan – an obstacle to the Kurdish peace process?

The decision by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to pursue rapprochement with the president of Iraqi Kurdistan could prove a profound obstacle to the Kurdish peace process.

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Conflict Background


By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp

When the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masood Barzani, visited Diyarbakir with Sivan Perwer, the famous Kurdish singer who was in exile for more than 37 years, many hailed it a turning point in Turkey’s mistreatment of its Kurdish population. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, got on the stage with Barzani and Perwer, declaring that it is time to celebrate the peace.

Successful peace processes need a few critical ingredients – a) inclusivity, b) trust and c) clarity about the end goal.  Ever since the Erdogan launched the dialogue process with the PKK last spring, progress has been less than satisfactory. The recent package announced provides basic measures that permit teaching of the Kurdish language as an elective course in private schools and returns the original Kurdish names to a number of towns in Eastern Turkey. The PKK and the Kurdish political leadership demands political autonomy, a right to education in their mother tongue, a general amnesty to all PKK militants and the release of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, who has been in prison since 1999.

Erdogan is not willing to give in to the demands of the PKK, predicting that meeting them could well be the end of his political career. Instead, Erdogan decided to make an alternative deal with the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has signed an energy deal with Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to build pipelines and deliver the rich oil and gas reserves of the region to Europe. Turkish investors have already been investing heavily in Iraqi Kurdistan, including hospitals, schools and shopping malls. Turkey will support Barzani as the sole legitimate leader of the Kurds in Iraq and against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. This deal might be a logical option for the Turkish government to diversify its options in the Middle East, but it is essentially a very risky move that could endanger the on-going negotiations with the PKK.

There is very little trust between the PKK and the Turkish Government. Turkey has already been building a separation wall in the largely Kurdish-populated Nusaybin province on the border with the PYD-controlled parts of Syria, Rojava. Turkey aims to put an end to the free movement of PYD guerillas in and out of Turkey. This has caused great resentment among the Kurds living in the region. Similarly, the mystery around who gave the bombing orders to Turkish jets that resulted in the death of 32 civilians – mostly teenagers – in Uludere-Roboski two years ago remains unresolved.  It is rumored that it was Erdogan who gave the orders for the strike on the basis of intelligence received from US drones. Furthermore, about 3,000 suspected members of the KCK – the political wing of the PKK – remain in prison, along with six elected MPs from the legal Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP, Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi)

Erdogan is hoping to undercut and exclude the PKK by leveraging his deal with Barzani among Turkey’s Kurds. According to reports, Erdogan encouraged Barzani to set-up a parallel political party in Turkey with more Islamic tendencies than the openly secular and nationalist ideology of the PKK. Erdogan believes that he has found the right partner in Barzani, one who could dilute the PKK’s support, thereby melting the pro-autonomy sentiments through Kurdish-Islamist references. This is a rather belated move, as the PKK and the Kurdish political leadership had already established a strong secularist and pro-women rights movement among the Kurds in Turkey over the past decade. Excluding the PKK would be a big mistake at this point in the peace talks.

The most worrisome part of the puzzle that remains missing is the end goal of negotiations. Peace is a relative concept. It appears that the Turkish Government is satisfied with the current status quo. As long as the ceasefire survives until the end of the 2014-2015 election season, the Turkish government will continue to negotiate. On the other hand, the PKK and the Kurdish political leadership demand concrete steps; allowing Kurdish language electives in private schools or giving back the original names to Kurdish towns is just not good enough. Without an agreement on the blueprint of a possible peace settlement, the negotiation process will remain very fragile. Erdogan’s latest gestures towards Barzani could create a very dangerous incentive for the PKK. In order to strengthen its negotiating position, PKK might threaten the Turkish government with re-launching violent attacks on Turkish military targets in the spring, even if Abdullah Ocalan, their captive leader would continue to oppose violence.  The coming year is very critical for Turkey. Erdogan’s ambitions to emerge as a winner in the Middle East conundrum might cost him the peace as well as his seat as prime minister.

Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.

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