Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 43

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is due to arrive in Ankara tomorrow (March 7) for a three-day visit, with energy cooperation and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq expected to top the agenda. However, Turkey has refused to classify the trip as an “official visit,” downgrading it to a “working visit.” As a result, unlike recent visits by other heads of state, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (see EDM, January 22), Talabani will not receive the full honors bestowed by Turkish protocol, such as a red carpet, military guard of honor, and a 21-gun salute. Instead, he will effectively be treated as a private guest of Turkish President Abdullah Gul (Milliyet, Yeni Safak, March 6).

The calculated snub is partly because few Turks have forgotten Talabani’s support for the PKK during the mid-1990s, when, as head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), he allowed the organization to use the region of northern Iraq controlled by the PUK as a platform for attacks into Turkey. But it has been nearly a decade since the PKK was active in PUK-controlled territory. The organization is now mainly based in the area under the nominal control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Talabani’s long-time rival, Massoud Barzani, who is currently also head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers the predominantly Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

However, the main reason for Ankara’s refusal to grant Talabani’s visit official status appears to be that it still regards him primarily as a Kurd rather than the president of the whole of Iraq. Particularly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Turkey has resisted engaging on an official level with any Iraqi Kurd, regardless of their supposed support for or opposition to the PKK, for fear that it might encourage the Iraqi Kurds to try to establish their own independent state in the north of the country – something Turkey fears could further fuel separatist sentiments among its own restive Kurdish minority. For example, unlike a string of other countries, and despite being the KRG’s main trading partner, Turkey has refused to open a consulate in northern Iraq. Its only diplomat presence in the region has been one diplomat dispatched from the Turkish embassy in Baghdad and operating unofficially out of a hotel.

Perhaps more surprising has been the Turkish government’s reluctance to engage on an official level with Talabani, who, as president of all of Iraq, represents the unitary state that Ankara is committed to preserving.

“Even though he is coming to Ankara as president of Iraq, Turkey still treats him as the head of the PUK,” noted journalist Rusen Cakir in the daily Vatan (March 6).

In an interview on the NTV news channel, Government Spokesman Cemil Cicek implicitly acknowledged that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still regarded Talabani as being primarily a representative of the Iraqi Kurds rather than the Iraqi state.

“We will remain in contact with different segments of the Iraqi population, in the north, the center, and the south,” said Cicek (NTV, March 5).

Cicek predicted that Talabani’s discussions with Gul were expected to be dominated by the possible cooperation against the PKK and on energy issues, including the possible export of Iraqi natural gas to international markets via Turkey and Turkish companies being granted oil exploration licenses in Iraq.

“The terrorism problem should not prevent us from cooperating in other areas,” said Cicek (NTV, March 5).

Writing in the liberal daily Radikal, columnist Murat Yetkin called on President Gul to respond to Talabani’s visit by paying a visit of his own to Baghdad. Yetkin noted that Turkey’s reluctance to engage with Talabani has meant that he has already visited Iran three times and that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited Baghdad, even though it meant accepting security from the U.S.-led coalition forces (Radikal, March 6).

The daily Milliyet reported that Iraqi Kurdish officials requested that Talabani be allowed to pay his respects at the Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of the modern Turkish republic who ruthlessly suppressed a series of Kurdish revolts inside Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s (Milliyet, March 6). But, even though Talabani is prepared to overlook the past, the future will still cast a long shadow over his visit.

Turkey’s continuing reluctance to engage with a Kurd in his capacity as Iraqi president suggests that it is unlikely to reverse its ongoing refusal to engage on an official level with the KRG. Yet not only the PKK but a large proportion of Iraq’s energy resources are located in territory under the KRG’s de facto control. In the aftermath of its eight-day incursion into northern Iraq to strike at bases belonging to the PKK (see EDM, February 29, March 3), the Turkish military admitted that such operations were unlikely to eradicate the organization and called on the Turkish government to address the socio-economic conditions in southeast Turkey that are fuelling support for the PKK. Even if they are introduced, such measures will take time to bear fruit. In the medium term, it is only through the cooperation of the KRG that the PKK presence in northern Iraq will be eradicated. Yet such cooperation is unlikely unless Turkey engages with the KRG. Yet there is still no sign that either the Turkish military or the civilian government is prepared to set aside its fears of the future emergence of an independent Kurdish state and engage directly with the KRG.