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Opinion: The Ankara–Erbil–PKK Triangle | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iraqi Kurdish protesters deploy a giant flag of their autonomous Kurdistan region during a demonstration to claim for its independence on July 3, 2014 outside the Kurdistan parliament building in Arbil, in northern Iraq. The Kurdish leader, Massud Barzani asked its parliament to start organizing a referendum on independence. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED

Until recently, the persistent confrontations between Ankara and Erbil reminded us of the traditional joke involving Turkish folk figures Temel and Dursun, the “best of enemies.” The joke goes that Temel and Dursun are both sentenced to death. When the executioner asks Temel for his last wish, he says he wishes to embrace his mother for the last time. When it is Dursun’s turn, he uses his final wish to stop Temel from embracing his mother.

It is ironic that oil from northern Iraq was delivered to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, with Tel Aviv accepting the first delivery from the disputed Kurdish–Iraqi pipeline despite the exchange of bullets and bombs between Mosul’s Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Just two weeks ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was seeking to play down the chaos in Iraq. He has now done a complete U-turn about the situation in the neighboring country, warning that “a large-scale crisis is at our doorstep.”

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals ruled to accept the establishment of a new political party named the Turkish Kurdistan Democratic Party (T-KDP). This new party will be closer and more open to Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani’s own Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), even sporting a similar name and flag.

None of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens ever dreamed that the name “Kurdistan” would feature in the name of a domestic political party in this manner and with such ease, particularly when this term was a political taboo until recently.

Also this week, the deputy leader of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party, Hüseyin Çelik, announced that the decision to declare an independent state of Kurdistan belonged to the Kurds, adding that the putative state would be a “neighbor” and “sister” to Turkey.

Turkish Culture Minister Ömer Çelik, a close aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made a similar statement about the Syrian federal scenario. He stressed that the Syrian people were the ones who had to choose their own political and constitutional system.

The recent reform packages presented to Turkey’s parliament
by Erdoğan that aim to accelerate the peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are another indication of Ankara’s willingness to adopt a new language and approach when dealing with the Kurdish issue. Ankara has put forward an action plan based on six points, the most important of which gives the government a free hand in its dialogue with its Kurds, providing legal cover and immunity required for the talks. In addition to this, the Turkish government has facilitated the return of hundreds of PKK fighters to their homes without the threat of prosecution, while also adopting direct and official negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and other Kurdish leaders.

The AKP wants to guarantee the release of hundreds of PKK prisoners before the Muslim festival of Eid Al-Fitr. The ruling Turkish party wants to ensure that these negotiations are successful—unlike previous attempts four years ago, which failed before they even got started.

The Erdoğan government also wants to ratify this deal before the Turkish parliament goes into summer recess, and before the launch of Erdoğan’s own presidential election campaign. Erdoğan may be seeking to win over the votes of the Kurds by utilizing new reformist political discourse in his dealings with the Kurdish issue.

Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani’s recent visit to Ankara, at Erdoğan’s invitation, did not just address developments in Iraq and the possible scenarios there, but also the option of announcing an independent Kurdish state amid the security and political developments taking place there. Turkey also called on the new government in Erbil to support the Ankara–PKK dialogue by coordinating—or putting pressure on—the PKK not to object or disrupt the talks, especially given the impending presidential elections.

Recent comments by Jamil Baik, a leading PKK figure who offered concessions regarding demands for Öcalan’s release and the timing of the new talks, gave a message that the PKK did not intend to stand in the way of this new approach.

It may be no more than a coincidence, but Öcalan was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 28, 1999, and Ankara made the announcement that it would accept Öcalan himself as the main negotiator on the Kurdish issue on June 28, 2014.

The radical change in Ankara’s position on the Kurdish issue, particularly with regards to the wider region, is not only due to concerns about the redrawing of the regional map, but also a general conviction that the successive developments in the region are leading to a new reality for the Kurds, which ultimately must be accepted.

Turkey is increasingly concerned about the consequences of what is happening in Syria and Iraq, and particularly how it will affect the situation in Turkey. After all, Ankara hasn’t had complete success in dealing with the governments of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in the past.

The domestic situation in both Iraq and Syria is changing; the very borders of these countries could also be changing. This is cause for concern for Ankara, and has prompted it, in recent weeks, to reconsider its policies.

Attempts to pressure Ankara, both externally and from within, have prompted Turkey to change its position on the Kurdish issue.

Some describe this emerging Turkish–Kurdish alliance as a response to another alliance that has started to take over the regional map. This is the Islamist advance, which will hurt the interests of Turkey and the Kurds alike.

The surprises will keep on coming in the next few weeks. Signs of this have already begun to emerge in the most recent discourse issued by a number of figures, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and Maliki in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and even from influential US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

At the same time, Erdoğan is walking a fine line, and hardline Turkish nationalists have warned him against giving the Iraqi Kurds an inch, only for them to take a mile with an independent Kurdistan extending into Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Erdoğan is playing a high-stakes game, gambling that he will be able to come out on top. The AKP figures who talk about building a “new Turkey” must listen to the demands of the Kurds. However, Öcalan and the PKK are not prepared to wait endlessly for concrete results.