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    Middle East
     Aug 11, 2007
Turkey's Kurdish worries deepen
By M K Bhadrakumar

The expectations were that during Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's visit to Ankara on Tuesday, Turkey would give its "final warning" that its patience was wearing thin and it couldn't take anymore the Kurdish trans-border militant activities staged from northern Iraqi territory.

Things didn't happen exactly that way, however. Instead, for all purposes, Ankara preferred to being constructively engaged by 

Maliki's delegation. The Turkish "warning", if any, was said on the quiet. The accent was manifestly on practical cooperation.

The United States would have heaved a sigh of relief that valuable time has been secured in averting an imminent direct Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq. Mayhem was sure to follow if Turkish military decided to march into Iraq ahead of the commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, reporting to the US Congress in mid-September about the status and prospects of the Iraq "surge".

A ground for optimism could be that Ankara arguably seemed inclined to rethink its adamant stance that it will not deal with the northern Iraqi "tribal" leaders except through the central government in Baghdad. In fighting off insurgency, the tricky point invariably lies in deciding at what point the political track should be opened.

The newly elected government in Ankara under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems willing to explore the political track. Erdogan has significantly widened his base of popular support in the Kurdish-majority areas of southeastern Turkey in the recent parliamentary election. He simply has to be more responsive to the hopes reposed on him. Also, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has an ally in the Democratic Society Party (DTP) in the newly elected Parliament. The DTP's 20 Kurdish members of Parliament, elected from the southeastern region as independent candidates, can be expected to be supportive of Erdogan's reform program.

Thus Maliki's visit was a useful face-saving strategy for the Erdogan government. But the bloody failure of the "surge" of US troops into Iraq is pushing that country into a vortex of newer dangers and chaos. On the one hand, Ankara must keep an eagle's eye on the emerging power equations in Baghdad. With US encouragement, pro-Western Arab regimes are poised to jump into the political fray in Iraq, challenging Iran's post-Saddam Hussein ascendancy. Ankara must take a view on any new Iraqi government that promises power for co-religious Salafis. But in any new power calculus in Baghdad, the Kurds may strengthen their role as power-brokers. That in turn would mean the US dependence on the Kurds would increase.

Security accord with Baghdad
At the same time, the Turkish troops at the border, estimated to be 140,000-strong and equipped with heavy weaponry, cannot be kept on standby mode indefinitely. It is still another two to three months before Kandil Mountain passes get closed with snowfall and infiltration by terrorist elements becomes difficult. As of now, there is no inclination on the part of the Iraqi Kurds to curb the activities of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants. Least of all for Ankara, the day is coming close for Iraqis to decide on the future of the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

In April, Ankara proposed to Baghdad a draft agreement on combating terrorism, which, among other things, sought that the Iraqi authorities cut off financial and logistic support to the PKK, block its access to the media for propagating its ideology of violence and its political program of separatism, extradite to Turkey PKK leaders involved in terrorist activities, and exchange intelligence on militant activities. The Erdogan government had no difficulty to estimate that the Iraqi authorities' capacity to enforce such an agreement was virtually nil, but nonetheless it hoped to sign an agreement during Maliki's visit with a view to binding the hands of future governments in Baghdad.

In the event, not only did Maliki not sign the agreement, it also came to be known that he didn't sign because of pressure from the Iraqi Kurdish leadership of Massoud Barzani. The Erdogan government has been left to claim satisfaction that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that was instead signed envisages further discussions on cooperation in countering terrorism, leading eventually toward the conclusion of an agreement in another two months or so.

Two months may seem like eternity in present-day Iraq. But it ensures that the protagonists will keep talking until the onset of winter. Realistically, Maliki's visit failed to meet Turkish concerns substantively about cross-border terrorism. To quote top political commentator Sami Kohen of the liberal daily Milliyet, "Even if the planned agreement had been signed, it wouldn't be easy to implement it, because the regional Kurdish administration [in northern Iraq] is much more powerful than Iraq's central government. Thus the chances that Maliki, whose days in office may be numbered, will be able to realize Turkey's expectations about the PKK are very weak."

The question, then, arises as to what purpose was served by Maliki's visit. Kohen, who is well connected with the Turkish foreign-policy establishment, provides an answer: "As one of the people participating in the talks [with Maliki] said, Turkey is trying to push all diplomatic means. If they fail, it won't be blamed for not having tried."

But there were some tangible gains out of the visit, too. First, the MoU signed during Maliki's visit specifically reconfirmed the three Turkish-Iraqi agreements on good-neighborly relations dating to 1926, 1946 and 1989, which Ankara would find useful to invoke if a need ever arose to give legal underpinnings for a full-scale Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq. Second, the MoU provides for the reopening of Turkish consulates general in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and in the southern city of Basra. At a time when Iraq is falling apart, Turkey will be keeping links with all factions. Third, an MoU was signed on energy cooperation, which provides for the involvement of Turkish companies in oil-exploration work in Iraq, transportation of oil and gas from northern Iraq via Turkey, and the sale of Iraqi gas to European customers via Turkish pipelines.

Dealings with Iraqi Kurds
Turkey's energy cooperation with northern Iraq is becoming a major factor in Ankara's policies with the finalization of a new Iraqi law that provides the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq with the right to administer its oil wealth. Interestingly, the Kurdish Regional Government also separately approved a regional oil law on Tuesday that will allow foreign investment in the region's oil and gas fields.

Not surprisingly, pressure groups have mushroomed in Turkey, allied to strong business interests in northern Iraq's booming economy, which are calling on the Erdogan government to have direct dealings with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Turkey's soaring trade with northern Iraq is estimated to be in the region of US$5 billion. The border trade spurs economic activities in Turkey's backward, insurgency-ridden southeastern provinces. Turkish business is anxiously waiting for the Iraqi Kurdish administration to decide on roughly $15 billion worth of contracts in the coming period.

"The Kurds have become the reality of Iraq. If we are to seek an end to the PKK presence in northern Iraq, we have to deal with the Kurds whether we like it or not. [Iraqi President] Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani are not simple tribal leaders. They are statesmen who know the value of Turkey's friendship and they appreciate the fact that they need Turkey's friendship and cooperation. All they want is some respect and some form of recognition" from Ankara, wrote Ilnur Cevik, editor-in-chief of The New Anatolian

From this perspective, which demands new thinking on the part of Ankara toward Iraqi Kurds, the presence of the Iraqi foreign minister (who is the uncle of Massoud Barzani) and two senior officials of the Kurdish Regional Government as members of Maliki's delegation to Ankara assumes significance.

The United States has consistently advocated direct dealings between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds. But the Turkish establishment, especially the military, would have serious reservations about Iraqi Kurdish intentions, though Barzani and Talabani have had deep dealings with the Turkish security establishment over the years. Therefore, any mellowing in Ankara toward the Iraqi Kurdish leadership will be a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The point is, short of a crackdown, there are ways and means whereby the Iraqi Kurdish leadership could have clamped down on the PKK through measures such as putting restrictions on the PKK cadres' movement within northern Iraq, or making it difficult for the PKK to get logistical backup or effectively manning checkpoints on the roads leading to the Kandil Mountains by the 10,000-strong Kurdish peshmerga. The PKK could have been bottled up in the Kandil Mountains without much difficulty. Their supply lines could have been completely disrupted. But none of these things has happened.

Equally, Turks feel frustrated that the US is also not putting the requisite pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish leaders to act in the right direction. On top of it, on May 30, the Americans formally handed over to the Kurdish regional authorities the sole responsibility for maintaining the security of northern Iraq. Cevik, who attended the handing-over ceremony in Irbil, later wrote, "This is a very significant move that Ankara has to take note of and shape its future policies accordingly ... The US is simply telling Turkey that now it also has to deal with the Iraqi Kurdish reality if it wants to effectively address the PKK presence in the Kandil Mountains."

US's dependence on Kurds
Ankara would have been furious that the Americans recently leaked to the media plans regarding a top-secret Turkish commando operation that aimed at capturing PKK leaders based in northern Iraq. One of Turkey's best-informed political observers, Oktai Eksi, felt compelled to hit out regarding the US doublespeak. He wrote in the establishment daily Hurriyet on Wednesday, "Leaving aside the US seizing the arms from PKK terrorists, the PKK is actually using American weapons against us right now."

Ankara's main worry in the coming weeks will lie in the growing US dependence on Iraqi Kurdish groups. All indications are that the United States is pressing ahead with its efforts to bring about a "regime change" in Tehran. The potential for a US military confrontation with Iran cannot be ruled out, either. Thus, from the "operational" angle, the US military envisages in the coming months a crucial role for the anti-Iranian Kurdish militant groups based in northern Iraq.

Ankara will know that the present US administration has no intentions of a significant withdrawal of troops from Iraq during its term in office until the beginning of 2009. Furthermore, Ankara will also be attuned to the growing likelihood that Washington might choose to usher in a new government in Baghdad built on a coalition of Sunnis, "moderate" Shi'ites and Kurdish parties. Ankara will be watching with unease that once the illusion of solidarity between the US and the Iraqi Shi'ites is shattered, which is inevitable if Maliki's government is ousted, the Iraqi Kurdish parties will gain even greater leverage as power-brokers in Baghdad and as the United States' only real dependable ally in Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurdish leaders' willingness to go along with the proposed oil law has already enhanced the standing of Barzani and Talabani in Washington. This growing clout of the Iraqi Kurdish groups is certain to translate as US political acquiescence with greater autonomy for the Kurdish region, verging on de facto independence.

Turkey has been seeking a postponement of the referendum over Kirkuk's status due in November, as the city's inclusion in the Kurdish autonomous region would boost Kurdish nationalism across the board, including within Turkey. But Barzani has threatened to unleash a civil war if the referendum is postponed.

Barzani has powerful supporters in Washington. Meanwhile, even as Maliki was heading for Ankara, ominous reports appeared of plans to deploy 8,000 Kurdish militia ostensibly for securing oil installations in Kirkuk.

Turkish commentators have uniformly blamed Barzani for putting a spoke in the wheel during Maliki's visit to Ankara by prevailing on Baghdad not to commit to taking any substantive measures against the PKK. The liberal Turkish daily newspaper Radikal quoted members of Maliki's delegation as admitting that an agreement on combating terrorism couldn't be signed with Ankara because of opposition from the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. One visiting Iraqi official in Maliki's entourage was quoted as openly saying, "We want the agreement to reflect everyone's wishes, including the Kurds."

Thus, on balance, the Turks are left to wonder where the Kurdish buck stops. Understandably, the senior editor of the Turkish Daily News, Yusuf Kanli, titled his editorial column on Thursday "Turkey must talk to Bush, Iraq's real sovereign". But even talking with US President George W Bush has become problematic. The White House hasn't extended an invitation to Erdogan to visit Washington (let alone a splendid weekend in Camp David), despite the urgency of Turkish-US understanding at the highest level.

Kanli reveals, "On the contrary, the Americans are advising the Turkish government that before such a meeting could be considered, they needed a 'cooling-off period' during which some of the anti-American rhetoric used by some cabinet ministers in the Turkish July 22 election campaign can be forgotten by Washington. The Erdogan government, on the other hand, has been unofficially stressing that the Bush administration has become lame-duck and they better forge closer ties with the incoming Democrats."

Turkish-US relations present a morality play for anyone who would predicate on the consistency of US policies toward its key allies. Turks would be justified in asking what was the need for enemies when they could have such close allies as the Americans.

But there is danger lurking in the thick fog that has descended on Turkish-US relations. The protagonists may underestimate each other. Washington may be counting on Ankara not stretching matters to the point of invading Iraq, given the certainty of such an act triggering a direct confrontation with the United States. The Iraqi Kurds may be counting on their friends in Washington to restrain Ankara no matter the cross-border terrorism. Most important, the fact that Erdogan didn't issue any explicit "final warning" during Maliki's visit might not have proved much.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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Aug 10, '07

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Aug 4, '07



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