The once cold relations between successive Turkish governments and the Kurdish populations have been turning hot. This is crucial because the improvement may ultimately result in a concrete, strategic derail from the deeply-rooted traditional Turkish attitude towards the Kurds. In fact this change may be seen as the end of Turkish hibernation rather than a new beginning. Ironically, Turkey’s ambitions having been disrupted by the Arab Spring, this development, became a powerful driving for Turkey to accelerate the transformation of Kurdish issue. If this process – subject to strict limits constructed by Turkish and Kurdish interests – goes ahead successfully, it will mark a milestone in Turkish-Kurdish relations and will likely produce seismic repercussions on the region’s politics.
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In a region that is geopolitically crucial as it brings together significant interests of both regional and non-regional powerhouse countries, neighboring states cannot afford to be passive spectators to events on the Kurdish stage. It is reasonable, therefore, to argue that the influential forces in such an area would seek to achieve equilibrium, allowing them to extract benefits. In the final analysis everything depends on their interests. Penetrated and subject to fierce rivalries, the region remains at the mercy of influential powers. The word mercy simply does not exist in the politicians’ dictionaries. Only political terminologies dominate.
Such a situation is a double edged sword with regard to the Kurds. On the one hand, following the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised independence. The influential powers of the era later calculated that political benefits had to override ethnic considerations. The result was a Kurdish setback that is now a century old and unresolved.
The other edge of the sword bandages these Kurdish wounds. The nature of their region has seen the Kurds become a main player in the game and has produced the building blocks of Kurdish statehood. As a consequence of the Gulf War a Kurdish quasi-state emerged and continues to develop multi-dimensionally. Two decades later, and confirming the fundamental instability of the region, the Arab Spring has shaken the tectonic plates of the region.
All of the neighboring countries in which the Kurds live automatically repudiated the granting of Kurdish rights. While the remainder of the regionally influential powers simply pursue their own interests. Haunted by the injustice they have faced, enthusiastic about the struggle and determined to achieve their ambitions; the Kurds have come to view the sporadic instability and uproar, a characteristic of the region, as a window of hope, and have resorted to various tactics in order not to miss opportunities.
Bearing this in mind, Turkey, among others, understands that developments on the Kurdish stage could open a Pandora’s Box for it. Consequently, the traditional Turkish rationale for its attitude towards the Kurds would suggest that trying to keep the box locked is better than trying to close it later. More recent thinking, however, leans towards recognizing that it might be more beneficial to attempt to turn it into a golden opportunity.
This now appears to be happening. Relations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Region in Iraq are showing an unprecedented improvement. Cooperation is occurring over a wide range of issues. While the region has become a budding market for Turkish products and a gift for Turkish investment companies, Turkey in return is becoming the region’s main conduit for the transfer of its energy products to international markets. Currently viewed by Turkey as a crucial partner in resolving its own Kurdish problem, the Kurdistan Region is in constant contact with Turkey’s Kurdish officials while simultaneously receiving the armed PKK guerrillas as they withdraw from Turkish soil. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Iraqi Kurds have been in continuous contact and, in some cases, have coordinated moves, concerning developments in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and beyond.
Meanwhile, Turkey and its own Kurds are having historic peace talks. Given the fact that such a process is always subject to potential sabotage by internal and external factors, it has passed several tough tests, demonstrating the serious intent of both parties to the process. While the Kurds are expecting an AKP supported constitution envisioning Kurdish rights, the AKP, in return, expects Kurdish support for Turkey.
It is possible to hypothesize that the AKP’s recent policy in favor of Turkey’s Kurds has been much influenced by developments in Syria’s Kurdish region and is now, somewhat positively, affecting its policy towards Syria’s Kurds. The nature of the relationship between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurds certainly affects its policy towards Kurds beyond its borders, albeit to different degrees. Furthermore this has resulted in a spillover regarding the Syrian Kurdish attitude towards the Turkish government. Though still far from being firmly established, there has been a clear improvement in the discourse between the Turkish government and Syria’s Kurds.
The background to this state of affairs consists of complex parts. Turkey has undergone multi-pronged developments. The assumption of the Justice and Development Party to power led to dramatic changes in the political landscape of the state. The AKP began to take a different route in its domestic and foreign policies. Its ambitions aimed to take Turkey to a top position in the hierarchy of regional and international systems. Interestingly, the party, following generations of political denial during which the state viewed itself as the guardian of traditional Turkish nationalist ideology, calculated accurately that the achievement of these goals would be torpedoed by oppressing its own Kurds and marginalizing the Kurds outside its borders, but might be realized by embracing them all. Of late this has had to translate into tangible moves as; on the one hand, the Kurdish issue is highly sensitive, while on the other, the AKP needed to guarantee its survival and rule. These changes resulted in a strengthening of AKP power, and given the party more say on subjects relating to Kurdish issues.
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Other aspects driving the movement forward relate to the Kurdish stage. The removal of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq has wounded Turkey. While Turkey had no great enthusiasm for Saddam Hussein, he had been a protector of Turkish interests in Iraq. Iraq’s territorial integrity, which is Turkey’s end-game in Iraq, has now been put in real jeopardy as Iraqi governments may fail to keep Iraq territorially glued together. With their growing control over their own homeland the status of the Kurds has been greatly improved. The Kurds have now become an important player in both Iraq’s politics and the region.
Syria’s Arab Spring only added to Turkey’s deeply-rooted fears about the increasing Kurdish influence. Its aggressive policy with regard to Syria’s crisis was greatly influenced by the Kurdish issue since Syria had been the PKK’s nest for over a decade. Added to that, relations between the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are well established. The complex nature of politics in Damascus may allow for developments to take a path perceived as very threatening to Turkish perceptions of its national interests. In the Turkish view the potential for the “PKK-ization” of the Kurdish issue or/and the “KRG-ization” of the Kurdish zone in Syria would surely have a domino effect on Turkey’s Kurds, and, potentially, carry dangers for the survival of the Turkish state.
The improvement of Kurdish status in Syria has not only strengthened the leverage of Iraqi Kurds, it also emboldened Turkish Kurds to bitterly fight for their rights. As the Kurdish clout in Syria was being consolidated, the long-term Kurdish struggle in Turkey was hitting a new record. The crisis in Syria effectively contributed to the holding of historic peace talks in Turkey. Resolving its Kurdish problem peacefully is what Turkey must do and the sooner the better. Interestingly, Turkish politicians were rushed into intensive care by the sudden developments favorable to the Kurds. This problem effectively denied Turkish policy makers the ability to move forward domestically, regionally and internationally. Since Turkey’s concerns regarding the Kurdish populations in neighboring states are caused entirely by its failure to address its own Kurdish issues, their resolution would provide Turkey with a route to the Kurds beyond its borders. Acknowledging Kurdish existence at home and away as an asset, rather than a punishment, is what Turkey should eventually come to acknowledge.
Turkey can derive much benefit from an alliance with the Kurds. A full and willing acknowledgement of the change in Kurdish status in the region will help to repair the self-harm that Turkey has persisted in inflicting for generations. Such an agreement would lead to a strengthening of both parties domestically, regionally and internationally.
On their part the Kurds are eager for such a development. Turkey, viewed as a strategic country in the region, is the Kurds main gateway to the western world and a potential counterbalance to possible events further east. The western countries have been a major source of legitimacy for the Kurdistan Region and are the markets for Kurdish energy resources. While, for the Kurds Turkey is regarded as a potential bulwark against Arab nationalism and fundamentalism.
Overall, the current state of affairs between Turkey and the Kurdish population may result in a formal Turkish-Kurdish alliance. In the meantime it will remain as an agreement between the AKP and the Kurds, rather than a formal pact between Kurds and the Turkish state. Domestically, the AKP and the Turkish Kurds may join hands to resolve the Kurdish problem by making a new constitution that envisages Kurdish rights and a presidential system. If successful, the AKP and the Kurds may establish future political alliances, although individual interests will be dominant. Regionally, Turkey will contribute to a Kurdish ascendancy and this will contribute to enhancing Turkey’s influence. By the act of working together, they will affect regional politics.
This alliance will be subject to severe ceilings. It will exclude a declaration of Kurdish independence, one of Turkey’s main objectives being the prevention of the Kurds assuming statehood. In addition the survival of any alliance that may be established will remain at the mercy of domestic, regional and international factors and developments. Nationalist ambitions and geopolitical considerations will always keep the alliance subject to the threat of sabotage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Idrees Mohammed holds an MA in International Relations from Warsaw University. His thesis was on Turkey’s policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan. He now largely monitors and writes on Turkish foreign policy and Kurdish issues.
You can follow him on Twitter at @IdreesMohammd.