On 24 April the Turkish National Security Council (NSC) implicitly confirmed recent indications of a shift in Turkish policy towards the Kurds of northern Iraq, in which confrontation and isolation will be replaced by engagement and dialogue.
Since it relaunched its insurgency in June 2004, the training camps and command headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been based in northern Iraq, which has served as a platform for the infiltration of PKK fighters, weapons and explosives into Turkey. Turkey has frequently criticized the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is responsible for the administration of northern Iraq, for its failure to attempt to eradicate the PKK from the territory under its control. It has been reluctant, however, to deal officially with the KRG for fear that this would be interpreted as de facto recognition of its political authority in northern Iraq and would embolden the Iraqi Kurds to attempt to realize their long-cherished dream of creating an independent Kurdish state. Ankara believes such a move could further fuel separatist aspirations among its own restive Kurdish minority. As a result, any dialogue between the Turkish authorities and the Iraqi Kurds has been restricted to media exchanges and a network of back channels, with intermediaries conveying messages between officials in Ankara and the KRG.
In November 2007, the US backtracked on its earlier opposition to Turkish cross-border military operations against the PKK. Since December 2007, Turkey has launched a series of air strikes against PKK assets in northern Iraq. In February it even launched an eight-day ground operation against the PKK forward bases in the Zap region of Iraq, close to the Turkish border (see Terrorism Monitor, March 7). Prior to November 2007, the Iraqi Kurds had frequently expressed their opposition to a Turkish cross-border military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq, sometimes even threatening to resist any Turkish incursion. However, since the first air raids in December 2007, and particularly since the ground operation in February, the Iraqi Kurds have toned down their rhetoric. Many in Turkey have been encouraged by what they regard as the realization by the Iraqi Kurds that, by drawing the Turkish military across the border, the continued presence of the PKK in northern Iraq could have a destabilizing effect on the territory under KRG control.
The first official contact between Turkey and the KRG occurred on March 28, when a delegation led by Murat Ozcelik, the Special Envoy to Iraq at the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA), traveled to northern Iraq to meet with the governor of Dohuk Province and Safeen Dizayee, the External Relations Director of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the coalition partners in the KRG.
The statement issued by the NSC after its meeting on April 24 confirmed the shift in Turkish policy towards the Iraqi Kurds. It praised the success of recent Turkish military operations against the PKK, stressing that the organization’s presence in northern Iraq constituted a threat not only to the security, stability and peace of Turkey but that of Iraq and the region as a whole. The statement then added,” It is considered that it will be beneficial for our country to continue consultations with all Iraqi groups and groupings” (Press Release of the NSC Meeting of April 24, www.mgk.gov.tr).
Nobody familiar with the studied circumlocution of official Turkish will have had any doubt that the inclusiveness “all Iraqi groups and groupings” was intended as a reference to the Iraqi Kurds.
Perhaps more significant than the wording was the fact that the NSC, rather than the MFA or the government, issued the statement. The NSC consists of representatives of the civilian government and the military high command under the chairmanship of the president. Until 2003 it was the main institutional platform on which the Turkish General Staff (TGS) exercised its considerable informal authority to ensure that government policy remained within what the military considered acceptable parameters. In terms of foreign and security policy, the NSC often effectively served as Turkey’s supreme policy-making body.
Reforms introduced in July 2003 stripped the NSC of much of its former importance; not least by reducing the frequency of meetings from every month to once every two months and limiting military control over the NSC Under Secretariat, which had traditionally been staffed largely by active and retired military personnel and drew up briefing papers and policy documents that were submitted to the NSC for approval. Nevertheless, the chief of the TGS and the commanders of all four services (army, navy, air force and gendarmerie) remain permanent members of the NSC, and all decisions and statements by the NSC are still based on the consensus of all of its members, both military and civilian. As a result, the NSC statement of April 24 means that both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the TGS are united on the need for Turkey to engage with the KRG.
The NSC statement did not include any information on the details of the proposed contacts between Turkey and the KRG, but Turkish journalists quoted unnamed officials as suggesting that any direct discussions with the KRG would come under the auspices of the MFA, with the TGS remaining in the background (Vatan, Hurriyet, Milliyet, Radikal, CNNTurk, NTV, Zaman, April 25).