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
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).