Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish Rapprochement Ominous for PKK

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 19

In a significant change of policy, Turkey recently initiated high-level official dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq. A columnist for the Turkish mass circulation daily Zaman commented that such an official dialogue “was not an ordinary step. It was a turning point in the approach to the Kurdish issue and broke a taboo” (Zaman, May 5). The talks—which focused on a wide range of political, economic and security issues—are the first to occur on such a high official level. The May 2 talks in Baghdad involved a delegation led by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and a Turkish delegation led by Ahmet Davutoglu, the senior advisor to the Turkish prime minister; Murat Ozcelik, the special coordinator for Iraqi affairs at the Turkish Foreign Ministry; and Derya Kanbay, Turkey’s ambassador in Baghdad.

The KRG official media described the meetings as cordial, open and focused on a convergence of common interests of both parties. According to the KRG, “Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani expressed the Kurdistan Region’s desire to develop good neighborly relations with Turkey. He recognized Turkey’s legitimate concerns and highlighted the importance of solving common problems through cooperation, political negotiation and dialogue” (KRG Statement, May 2).

Turkish officials and media stressed the positive effect of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s March visit to Ankara, as well as KRG President Massoud Barzani’s recent statements against attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and in favor of good relations with Turkey. President Barzani’s recent statements have included: “Today, the use of violence is left in the past. Kurds should adjust themselves to this transformation and change their mentality; they should try the other path that is modern and peaceful”; as well as: “Now is the phase of dialogue. Kurds shouldn’t get involved in violence, either amongst themselves or in neighboring countries … The mentality of the Kurds should change, and this way the mentality of these countries will also change” (Today’s Zaman, April 20).

Ankara’s new willingness to officially engage with the KRG stems from a number of factors besides the KRG’s well worded diplomatic overtures, however. Turkey’s late February military incursion, which lasted only eight days, did limited damage to the PKK and may have convinced Ankara of the need to pay more attention to a variety of counter-insurgency approaches. At the same time, the incursion probably succeeded in convincing KRG leaders of the need to work harder to both contain the PKK and improve relations with Turkey. To Ankara’s credit, its February military operation and a number of air raids against the PKK in Iraq carefully avoided civilian casualties, which in turn left KRG leaders the freedom to pursue better relations with Turkey. The avoidance of civilian casualties and the operation’s short duration probably helped dispel Iraqi Kurdish suspicions that Turkey’s real agenda aims at damaging the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous government, rather than fighting the PKK.

The additional problem of increasing Iranian agitation regarding Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK—closely tied to the PKK) cross-border attacks on Iran has also left the KRG worrying about joint Turkish and Iranian military operations inside KRG territory (see Terrorism Focus, April 22). Finally, for obvious reasons the United States has likewise been working hard to convince both its Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish allies to improve their often tense relations. Turkish business interests currently doing an increasing amount of investment and trade in the KRG region are also keen to see Ankara improve relations with Iraqi Kurds.

KRG actions against the PKK have stopped short of confronting the group militarily, however. The principal approach consists of isolating the group by blocking supplies to its mountain bases, forbidding journalists from visiting the PKK, closing PKK political front organizations in Iraq, limiting the PKK’s ability to move about the region and similar tactics. Because Turkish foreign policy tends to designate friends and enemies according to their stance on the PKK, these KRG moves constitute a very necessary minimum policy to pursue good relations with Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, while agreeing that the recent talks with KRG officials were very positive, stated: “The level and the frequency of this dialogue will be closely related to concrete action especially on [the] fight against terrorism” (New Anatolian, May 6). The KRG continues to resist Turkish pressure to act militarily against the PKK, however, and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani insisted on May 7 that the KRG is not responsible for the activities of the PKK, since the group’s mountain bases are not under its control and the group is not under the Kurdish administration’s influence (Hurriyet, May 8).

KRG actions to constrain and isolate the PKK may prove more effective now that they are being combined with Turkish military operations based on actionable, real-time intelligence provided by the United States. Turkish air raids on PKK positions have thus become more effective than in the past, and the PKK is probably feeling a significant amount of pressure. As a possible indication of this increased pressure, a Qandil-based PJAK leader recently threatened suicide attacks against U.S. interests, in retaliation for U.S. intelligence assistance to Turkey (Kurdistan Observer, May 6). PJAK admitted to suffering six dead from a Turkish bombing raid the previous day. The threat, however, was quickly repudiated in an official PJAK press release and removed from the Kurdistan Observer website (Kurdistan Observer, May 8; PJAK Press Release, May 7).

With the snows now thawing on the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian borders, both the PKK and its PJAK allies have begun spring infiltrations into Turkey and Iran, with close to 20 Turkish soldiers killed since mid-April. The Turkish military in turn claims to have killed upward of 150 PKK and PJAK militants in its air raids (Hurriyet, May 3), although this number appears a bit high and lacks independent confirmation. In any case, both the PKK and the Turkish state appear eager to achieve a psychological advantage with the start of the new fighting season, convincing opponents and observers alike that they have taken the initiative.

At the same time, officials in Ankara concede that a military approach, while a necessary part of their policy in the face of PKK attacks, will not succeed without a political program (Turkish Daily News, February 8). In general, the non-military aspect of counter-insurgency programs involves both a political and economic dimension. In the economic realm, increased government services and prosperity buttress the state’s legitimacy, and the current robust trade between Turkey and the KRG is helping to develop southeastern Turkey’s economy. Combined with economic initiatives, political reforms and concessions are also necessary. These must generally be aimed at helping to mitigate the discontent that breeds insurgency in the first place. The details and timing of such a political program remain unclear, however, especially with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) facing the threat of legal closure for violating constitutionally-mandated secularism. While any Turkish governing party faces severe challenges reforming the state’s approach toward its Kurdish minority, one under the threat of legal closure must likely focus on more immediate, pressing issues than a new Kurdish policy.