The attempts to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish problem have focused increasingly on Iraq. Turkey has stepped up its diplomatic contacts with both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to boost its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), based in Northern Iraq.
Turkish-Iraqi bilateral relations have been flourishing lately. Although the central government in Baghdad supported the Turkish air and ground offensive in the winter of 2007 to 2008, it could not pressure the KRG, which controls Northern Iraq, into limiting the activities of the PKK in the region (EDM, April 18). The officials in KRG were critical of Baghdad’s rapprochement with Turkey and condemned Iraqi President Celal Talabani’s visit to Turkey in March (Milliyet, March 7). This situation has changed; and a constructive dialogue is being held between Ankara, Baghdad, and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. During Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s trip to Baghdad in July, the parties signed an agreement to initiate high-level strategic cooperation (EDM, July 11). In anticipation of the American withdrawal from Iraq, Turkey met with the Iraqi central government and the United States to set up a trilateral security commission to coordinate activities against the PKK with the participation of the KRG (Terrorism Monitor, December 8).
For some time it has been expected that Turkish President Abdullah Gul would visit Iraq. Gul accepted an invitation from Talabani, but the exact date of the visit was not made public for security concerns. Following the terror attack last week, Talabani went to Kirkuk, where he met with representatives of the Iraqi Turkmen community. He announced that the conditions among the Turkmen would be improved, a move that should please Turkey. Talabani reportedly said that Gul’s visit might take place on December 20 and that the two of them might go to Kirkuk together. In the wake of the deadly terror attack, such a trip might be a demonstration of solidarity against terrorism (Cihan Haber Ajansi, December 12).
The Turkish President’s office confirmed that Gul would be visiting Baghdad soon, depending on the state of his health (he currently suffers from an ear infection that prevents him from flying). A trip to Kirkuk has not yet been confirmed, however. The Turkish daily Milliyet claimed that Turkish diplomats were displeased with Talabani’s statements (Milliyet, December 13). In October Talabani also invited Gul to participate in a ceremony for the opening of Erbil airport; the invitation was declined (www.cnnturk.com, October 13). Given the disputed status of Kirkuk and Turkey’s objections to the Kurdish stance on the status of these cities, the Turkish president might be hesitant to add Northern Iraq to his itinerary. For nationalist forces in Turkey, such a move could be construed as de facto Turkish recognition of the KRG’s right to statehood. As a matter of fact, in seeking the KRG’s cooperation against the PKK within the framework of the Turkish-American-Iraqi trilateral security commission, Turkey prefers to deal with the KRG as part of the Iraqi delegation.
The mechanism set up between Turkey and Iraq might be paying off. The Turkish daily Taraf, which is known for its pro-Kurdish position, ran a story about a new plan being worked out between Ankara, Baghdad, and Erbil. Citing Iraqi Kurdish sources, Taraf claimed that the two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan—Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—had decided to work against the PKK on a unified platform. They agreed to initiate a project to disarm PKK militants in Northern Iraq and return them to Turkey, under a plan to be supervised by the United Nations. As part of the plan, moreover, the PKK would be declared an illegal organization by the Iraqi Parliament, so that its activities inside the country could be curbed (Taraf, December 14). Given Taraf’s warm relations with the KRG, the report might indeed reflect the negotiations in progress among the parties. The report also notes that the KRG would seek to convince the PKK that maintaining that armed struggle harms Kurdish nationalist movement. The KRG has apparently not made any contacts with the PKK to seek its approval on this deal, however. It is unclear whether the KRG would go the extra mile to enforce such an arrangement, if the PKK resists.
At this juncture, another visit to Northern Iraq becomes important. A delegation from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) traveled to Northern Iraq from December 13 to 15 where they met KRG President Massoud Barzani in Erbil on December 13 and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Idris Barzani (a nephew of the president) on December 14. On December 15 they will be in Suleymaniye to meet representatives of the PUK and in Baghdad to meet Talabani. Their discussions have included the latest developments on the Kurdish question, including the Turkish army’s recent cross-border strikes against the PKK camps and the diplomatic talks between Ankara and Erbil (www.cnnturk.com, December 14).
It is no secret that many of Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists look to the KRG as a source of inspiration and guidance, and they welcome normalization of Turkey’s relations with Northern Iraq. It remains to be seen whether the leaders of the Iraqi Kurds can use their leverage on the DTP to convince the PKK to comply with the new agreement.