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Edition 16 Volume 6 - April 17, 2024

Turkey, Iraq and the PKK
New Turkish strategy points the way ahead  - Bulent Aras
Turkey considers itself a responsible actor in Iraq and tries to preserve good relations with all segments of Iraqi society.

Turkey's problematic Middle East role  - Steven A. Cook
Northern Iraq is a flashpoint that has the potential to trip Iraq into another round of civil war.

Toward a new era in Turkish-Iraqi relations regarding the PKK  - Abdulkadir Onay
Turkish officials believe that Iraqi Kurds view the PKK as a potential bargaining card.

A time for moderates?  - Hiwa Osman
The key is direct talks between Ankara and Arbil.

New Turkish strategy points the way ahead
 Bulent Aras

Turkey has a new strategy in its war against Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terror. This new strategy is based on three principles: domestic peace, regional legitimacy and coordination with the United States and the European Union. This conceptualization guides Turkish policy to follow a new course at domestic, regional and international levels and has implications for relations with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and the Iraqi state. An analysis of the strategy will help in understanding the future course of Turkish foreign policy toward Iraq.

The Kurdish question is a serious domestic problem for Turkey. If one adds the terror dimension, it may be considered a more vital threat to domestic peace than political Islam. Turkey's EU membership process widened the boundaries of the political system and initiated a number of reforms for Kurdish language and cultural rights. However, the pace of reforms has slowed and subsequent crises over the presidential elections and AK Party closure cases have held Turkish politics hostage to domestic political considerations. The reforms as they were, did not go far enough to satisfy the demands of Kurdish parties in Turkey. The Democratic Society Party (DTP) formed a group in parliament after being elected as independent MPs, thus overcoming the 10 percent national threshold obstacle.

But the ruling party still received more support than the DTP in populated Kurdish regions. Government reforms and voter preferences had created a relatively suitable environment for a solution to the Kurdish problem. The AK Party targets a normalization of its security-dominated agenda to preserve a peaceful atmosphere to address the problem. This was evident during the Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq to destroy PKK bases. There is speculation that the AK Party has a comprehensive package of measures to solve the domestic Kurdish problem, but the party has to date only announced some economic investment plans in Kurdish populated southeastern Turkey.

Turkey's new strategy in the war against terror prioritizes regional legitimacy to draw the support of Iraq's neighbors and other influential states on this sensitive issue. Turkey utilizes the formalized meetings of Iraq's neighboring states to pursue regional diplomacy to make its case with the countries of the region. The Extended Iraqi Neighbors meeting in Istanbul in early November was a sign of Turkey's ability to pursue regional diplomacy for the Iraqi cause. Turkish sensitivities regarding the territorial unity of Iraq and PKK terror dominated the agenda at the meeting and generated support from Iraq's neighbors as well as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The final declaration emphasized the urgent need for cooperation against terrorist groups in Iraq. Turkey's military incursions, meanwhile, did not raise serious criticism in the region where there were only expressions of concern during the operation. Turkey has created a diplomatic channel with the countries of the region and is likely to preserve its dialogue with them in the war against PKK terror.

Turkey also pursues international diplomacy and prioritizes coordination and cooperation with the US and EU. Recent months have witnessed a high level of Turkish diplomatic activity vis-a-vis the US and EU, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meetings with US President George W. Bush and the heads of several European countries. Turkey secured US support in the war against the PKK and received intelligence support during the operations in northern Iraq. The single digit sympathy for the US in Turkish public opinion rose to double digits as a result. The US response to the operation was balanced and Turkish-American cooperation in this respect is likely to continue. Turkey also aims to prevent the diplomatic and financial activities of the PKK in Europe and, compared to recent years, EU support for Turkey in the struggle against PKK terror is more visible while there are new measures against PKK proxies in different European countries.

Turkey's new priorities and policy will have implications for relations with Iraq. To ensure regional legitimacy and focus on internal peace the prerogative is to develop relations with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. To create a stable regional environment on the Kurdish question and continue Turkish attacks on PKK targets, Turkey needs confidence building and constructive relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey's emphasis should be for peaceful co-existence with the Kurdish regional administration within the Iraqi state. There are enough signs that suggest a deepening of political and economic relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani paid an official visit to Turkey and the head of the Kurdish regional government, Mesoud Barazani, expressed hope for an improvement of relations with Turkey. Turkey's coordination and cooperation policy with the US and EU also dictates such a policy line.

Turkey also considers itself a responsible actor in Iraq and tries to preserve good relations with all segments of Iraqi society. Ankara has influence with Sunni circles and contributed to their participation in the constitution and election processes. Turkey persuaded the Iraqi central government that the PKK is a common enemy and Turkey's military incursion only targets the PKK presence in northern Iraq. There is a continuous dialogue mechanism between Baghdad and Ankara. Turkey seems closer to the Iraqi government than ever before and is confident that it has developed a certain level of trust with Iraqi politicians. This new regional profile is also a signal of further Turkish involvement in building a stable and secure Iraq.- Published 17/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Prof. Bulent Aras chairs the Department of International Relations at Isik University, Istanbul.

Turkey's problematic Middle East role
 Steven A. Cook

With all the attention in Iraq over the last five years focused on the fate of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite, the role of Iran, the security of Anbar province, the "surge" and, most recently, the further deterioration of Basra, the situation in northern Iraq has only received sporadic attention. The conventional view has been that the predominantly Kurdish north has been the one relatively stable part of Iraq since the beginning of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and thus was a good story. Unlike other parts of the country, the invasion left the north relatively unscathed and what became known as the Kurdish Regional Government enjoyed a 12-year head start in building government institutions. In the immediate post-Saddam period, the KRG was able to deliver services and, importantly, security to the area.

Yet, northern Iraq is a flashpoint that has the potential to trip Iraq into another round of civil war. It is also the one area of the country that, if engulfed in violence, could result in the intervention of some of Iraq's neighbors. The issues bound up in the Kurdish region, from the status of Kirkuk and the related issues of Kurdish nationalism to the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK) struggle with Turkey and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan's (PJAK) confrontation with Iran to the long-awaited oil law are fraught with risk for Turkey, Iraq, the Kurds of both countries and the United States.

The often contradictory policies of Turks, Kurds and Iraqis reflect the fragility of northern Iraq and how the region could unravel. For example, despite Turkish complaints to the contrary, there is no real evidence that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership has provided material support to the PKK. The policy was essentially to turn a blind eye to PKK activities in the hope that the issue would not interfere with the broad goals of Iraq's Kurdish population--independence or something close to it. While the downside of heeding Turkish demands that the PKK be brought to heel was abundantly clear--Kurds have a rich history of fighting each other--the KRG's inaction ultimately led to Turkey's recent military incursions, which, if they continue, have the potential to undermine the stability of the north.

Similarly, Ankara's northern Iraq policies reflect a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. While the Turks never believed that Baghdad had any control over developments in the north, they were consistent in their refusal to deal directly with representatives of the KRG. This was a primary reason why the Turkish-Iraqi-American dialogue that was launched in July 2024 as well as General (ret.) Joe Ralston's mission, which was supposed to coordinate the anti-PKK activities of all three countries, failed. Although Turkey has worked with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, its resistance to engage in dialogue combined with cross-border operations has fueled Iraqi Kurdish support for the PKK and given additional impetus to Kurdish nationalism--developments detrimental to Turkey's interests.

The regional implications of both the changes that the United States has wrought through its invasion as well as the complex relations among Turks, Kurds and the Iraqi central government are clear. Not since the Ottoman Empire have the Turks played as prominent and potentially problematic a role in the Middle East. Given the November 2024 shift in US policy green lighting Turkish pursuit of the PKK into Iraq, the risks for Turkey of continuing cross-border incursions are manageable, but serious enough to warrant extreme caution. There is some sympathy for the plight of Kurds in the Arab world, but only so far as it does not undermine Iraqi unity.

Alternatively, if Turkish military operations result in similar large-scale Iranian actions against PJAK and the fighting (on either border) draws in Iraq's Arab population, the Turks will lose their newfound status and prestige in the Middle East--a region that Turkey's current leaders deem strategically and commercially important. For its part, Washington would not look favorably on any Turkish actions in the north that would precipitate further Iranian meddling in Iraq.

Kurds are also undeniably a new player in regional politics whether as part of a unified Iraq or an independent state. This new status could have far-reaching effects beyond the immediate concentration of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. The very fact that a Kurd serves as the president of a major Arab country as well as its foreign minister, deputy prime minister and other important posts shatters myths and long held beliefs about the Arab world. The Iraqi Kurdish precedent, whether it is independence or the accumulation of political power within a unified Iraq, will encourage other sizable minority groups in the region to seek ways to alter their own status. As is the case with Iraq's Kurds, these types of changes will not likely be met with acquiescence.- Published 17/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Steven A. Cook is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Toward a new era in Turkish-Iraqi relations regarding the PKK
 Abdulkadir Onay

Last month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visited Ankara for a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to discuss, among other things, the PKK issue. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) currently controls a terror enclave in northeastern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdish parties--Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party--flank the PKK enclave. The United States is currently cooperating with Turkey in its operations against the PKK by providing intelligence support. But this cooperation will not be successful unless the Iraqi Kurds, who have the ability to block the PKK enclave, come on board and take a stand against the group.

What can Iraqi Kurds do in this regard and how would this affect their relationship with Turkey?

The Iraqi Kurds reaped the benefits of an alliance with the United States in 2024 by providing assistance to the US against the Saddam Hussein regime. Since then, the KDP and PUK have resisted increasing US pressure to take action against the PKK enclave in northeastern Iraq, from where the PKK has carried out terror attacks against Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds cooperated with Turkey significantly against the PKK in the 1990s; during that time Turkey provided the Iraqi Kurds with vital commercial and physical access to the outside world, bypassing the Saddam Hussein regime. Turkey also supplied the Iraqi Kurds with crucial protection and access to US military support against Saddam from the Incirlik base in southern Turkey. However, since the start of the Iraq war in 2024, and with the end of Saddam's rule and the United States occupation of Iraq, the KDP and PUK have ignored their deal with Turkey. In due course, they suspended cooperation with Ankara against the PKK. Furthermore, according to western security contractors in Iraq, Kurdish local forces are now protecting the PKK and its franchise groups by facilitating or providing logistics support.

Because the Iraqi Kurdish leadership does not acknowledge the PKK as a terrorist organization, PKK terrorists can travel unhindered in northern Iraq provided, in some cases, that they inform the local Iraqi Kurdish authorities. Journalists are also given access to the PKK enclave in this territory. For example, in a recent instance a Washington Post correspondent reported from location on March 8, explaining that the enclave is not controlled by either local Kurdish authorities or the Iraqi government.

If they are to be regarded as an established authority in northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds ought to take action against the PKK presence in their region. The PKK has illegally seized Iraqi territory. The PKK's enclave benefits from logistics support from areas controlled by PUK and KDP. Although these parties do not control the PKK enclave, the border between their respective areas and the PKK enclave is not sealed, allowing logistics support to flow to the PKK.

Turkish officials believe that Iraqi Kurds view the PKK as a potential bargaining card in exchange for Turkish recognition of Kurdish autonomy or of a probable declaration of independence by the Iraqi Kurds. While the Iraqi Kurds have strong ties to the US, their policy of ignoring Turkey may be shortsighted. Once the bulk of the US military leaves the region, the Iraqi Kurds will be surrounded by the Iraqi Arabs to the south, Syria to the west and Iran to the east--all neighbors the Iraqi Kurds have reason to fear. When this comes to pass, the Iraqi Kurds will need Turkey both for protection and for access to the US military in Incirlik.

Ankara views the PKK much in the way that the US viewed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11. Presently, northeastern Iraq resembles Taliban-era Afghanistan--especially the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan--in the sense that both are lawless areas in which terrorist groups have set up shop. Hence, just as the US military has targeted al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Turkey will likely continue to tackle the PKK presence in neighboring Iraq.

In this regard, there are a number of key steps that the Iraqi Kurds could take on the PKK issue. The first step would be recognizing the PKK as a terrorist organization, a measure that would allow the Iraqi Kurds to come on board with Turkey, the United States and the Iraqi government in this regard. Second, the KDP and PUK might be well served to consider denying the use of their land by the PKK and preventing logistics support from their cities to the PKK enclave.

Finally, the Iraqi Kurds could cooperate with Turkey against the PKK as they did in the 1990s. They could help arrest some of the PKK's leaders and destroy PKK facilities as well as facilitating Turkish policing of PKK camps. Such steps would elevate Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish ties to the 1990s' level and even beyond.

Israeli operations in Lebanon and the recent Columbian operation in Ecuador against a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia leader in early March are examples of action required when an authority allows its territory to be used for terrorist activities against a neighbor. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad's latest proposal, made at the summit of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference in Senegal's capital Dakar on March 13, 2024, according to which Iran, Turkey and Iraq should work together to defeat the PKK terrorists while respecting each other's territorial integrity, has already made inroads in Turkey. Indeed, it should allow everyone to see the big picture on the PKK issue: the continued PKK presence in northeastern Iraq not only drives a wedge between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds but also has the potential of bringing Turkey closer to other regional alliances.- Published 17/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Abdulkadir Onay is a visiting fellow in the Turkish Research Program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution.

A time for moderates?
 Hiwa Osman

The twenty fifth Turkish military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan to root out the PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party) and the way it ended proved that that there can be no military solution to this issue. It has been tried 25 times, with and without the help of the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, and it has not worked. The few times where a ceasefire was mediated--secretly or openly--have yielded some results. But they were not capitalized on or followed with other steps.

An opportunity is emerging this time. It should not be spoiled. The Kurds of Iraq are more and more convinced that the PKK issue is an irritating factor that is hampering progress in relations with their much-needed neighbor Turkey.

For Iraq, Turkey is an important neighbor. For the Kurdistan region, Turkey is the only neighbor with access to the outside world. The Kurds appreciate the importance of long-term strategic ties with Turkey. US troops will one day leave; Turkey is staying. Similarly, a day will come when the PKK presence ends, but the Iraqi Kurds are staying.

Since the early 1990s, the Kurds of Iraq understand that Turkey is a red line that cannot be crossed. They also now know that the United States is not "like a man with two wives" as an Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya told the New York Times in the run-up to the Turkish military incursion into the region. Yet the events that followed and the level of US cooperation proved that this was wrong. America does have two allies: a long-standing Turkish one and a nascent Iraqi one.

The Kurds of Iraq are part of the Iraqi ally. But a military operation against the PKK is not an option for them. Their previous experience of fighting the PKK illustrates this clearly. Since the mid-1990s many operations, joint and unilateral, were conducted against the PKK. The result was bitter memories and a great loss of life. Now, a few thousand lives later, the Kurds of Iraq are not willing to repeat the same military and political mistake.

"I am amazed how short-spanned is their memory," a local Peshmerga commander said after the failure of the last military operation and the quick pull out by Turkey. "They forgot how difficult the area of the PKK is. They can try for 25 more times. All they can catch is partridges in these mountains," he added.

The PKK area is an impossible one. It is now dubbed the Tora Bora of Kurdistan. A Kurdish military operation to root the PKK out will only strengthen them and rally people to their cause at a time when their popularity is waning and more calls are raised for them to stop attacking Turkey.

The PKK themselves are looking for a way out of this dilemma. They feel that Iraqi Kurdish public opinion is becoming less tolerant of their presence. No demonstrations were held this time in Iraqi Kurdistan in their support. Also, the PKK has come to terms with the reality that it cannot change Turkey by force. Hence its demands have been minimized to cultural, democratic and political rights for the Kurds of Turkey.

The Turkish stance on dealing with the Kurdish issue has been oscillating between radicals who want the eradication of the PKK militarily and moderates who want to deal with the Kurdish issue politically. Allowing a bigger Kurdish cultural, political and democratic breathing space in Turkey would certainly close down the PKK on both sides of the border.

The Kurds of Iraq do not want to pay the price for, nor do they want to be a party to, Turkey's internal differences on this issue. But a political step as such would make their lives much easier. It would enable them to rally the public (on both sides of the border) in favor of pushing the PKK into further isolation. Turkey does not need 25 more incursions to accept that a political course of action is the roadmap for a solution and the most effective way to end the PKK issue.

The situation is ripe for a face-saving solution for all parties. The key is direct talks between Ankara and Arbil. The US called for this when Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Ankara and Arbil last month. Earlier, President Jalal Talabani's visit to Ankara was an icebreaker and a catalyst for a new page in Iraqi-Turkish relations.

A solution is needed today more than any other time. All sides realize that they have a lot to lose if the situation escalates and deteriorates. There are radicals and moderates on all sides. The radicals had their time, and failed. Perhaps it is time that the moderates take the lead.- Published 17/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hiwa Osman is Iraq country director at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Baghdad.

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