Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Homs April 29, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
FOR our friends in Turkey much of the news in their neighbourhood is disturbing. In Syria, the conflict remains stalemated. Further Western intervention may flow from what the West sees as confirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons. Turkey as the main conduit for support to the Syrian insurgents will be seriously affected.
Retaliating to Turkey’s support for the Syrian insurgents, Assad deliberately pulled his troops out of Kurdish-majority areas in Syria enabling the Kurds to not only exercise administrative control but also to grant Turkish Kurd insurgents safe haven. From Turkey’s perspective they are seeking greater autonomy or independence and are intent on making common cause with the Turkish Kurds.
Iraq’s sectarian divide, exacerbated by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarianism and by the sectarian coloration acquired by the anti-Bashar al-Assad struggle in Syria, has scaled new heights. This is a result of the recent attack by Iraqi forces on a Sunni protest camp near Kirkuk, the consequent death of 42 people and the resurgence of violence in Sunni-dominated provinces. Turkey as a neighbour and with a Sunni leadership cannot remain indifferent.
And then there are the Iraqi Kurds. The five million people in the three Kurdish provinces enjoy relative peace and with 17pc of Iraq’s federal budget being transferred to them they are enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity. With more oil flowing from the concessions the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has granted not only in the three provinces but also in disputed territory, oil production may rise to a million barrels a day.
Turkish firms have been in the forefront, seeking these concessions and arranging for overland transport of the oil to Turkey. Oil and gas pipelines running from the Kurdistan Region directly into Turkey are under construction. The KRG’s close economic relationship with Turkey has not however prevented it from providing shelter and military training to Syrian Kurds.
The one piece of good news for our Turkish friends is peace with the Kurds. On March 21, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader after long negotiations with the Erdogan government, called for an end to Kurdish hostile activities against the Turkish and did so without repeating the demand for the creation of an independent Kurdish state. He spoke instead of “1,000-year-long coexistence in Anatolia under the flag of Islam based on brotherhood and solidarity”.
More than 35,000 people have died since the insurgency erupted in 1984 and which, according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has cost Turkey more than $400 billion. Ending this conflict and bringing the Turkish Kurds into the political mainstream will not only be a feather in Erdogan’s cap but will also have a positive impact on the regional landscape.
The Kurdish demands for recognition as Kurds rather than ‘Turks’ and for greater autonomy for the Kurdish region will need changes in the Turkish constitution. Erdogan cannot remain prime minister after completing his present term but were the constitution to be changed to accommodate the Kurds he could also, with the support of Kurdish representatives in parliament, secure an amendment to reintroduce a presidential system of government and then seek election to that office.
There are of course many obstacles that stand in the way. Turkish nationalists are opposed to any degree of autonomy for the Kurds. There are apprehensions that Ocalan’s word may not be law for all Kurds many of whom, sceptics say, do not trust the Turkish government or even Ocalan.
So far, however, events seem to be moving in the right direction. The announcement by Ocalan on the day the Kurds were celebrating Nauroz was welcomed in Diyarkabir, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region. Kurdish fighters in Turkey were scheduled to leave Turkey for their sanctuary in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan by August this year. Instead, the leader of the fighters Murat Karayilan, during a news conference at his headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan, announced that all fighters would leave Turkey by May 8.
The rebels would retain their arms only for self-defence and Karayilan called for international observers to monitor the withdrawal. The demands he made — Turkey should frame a new constitution giving Kurds demo-cratic rights and Kurdish prisoners including Ocalan should be released — were modest.
The immediate benefit for Turkey is that it need not fear Syria’s Kurdish areas becoming a safe haven for Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. In the longer term, the implementation of the agreement will erase the blot on Turkey’s human rights record and make it more difficult for the European Union to deny Turkey’s application for membership and enable it to play the larger role in the region that has long been its ambition. It will make it easier for Erdogan to play a more constructive role in Syria.
Prime Minister Erdogan will, however, have to handle with great care the relationship with the Iraqi Kurds. Currently, he is at odds with the Maliki government, which he regards as Iran’s puppet. He is concerned about the frequent breakdown in oil supplies from the south of Iraq. In contrast, Turkey enjoys enormous trade benefits in Kurdistan Region with almost 80pc of imports being from Turkey. The KRG-controlled region can, with its growing oil reserves, meet all Turkey’s energy needs relieving it of dependence on Iraq, Iran and Russia. But Turkey would have to think hard about letting this lead to support for KRG’s independence.
Given the history of the region and long-held Kurdish aspirations Turkey must see that this would only mean the resurgence of demands for a greater Kurdish state encompassing not only Iraq’s three provinces but also the Kurdish regions of Iran, Syria and Turkey. Far better would be the policy of using the leverage it enjoys to ensure that Iraq remains united, that Baghdads relations with the KRG are normalised and that the Iraqi Kurds seek no greater autonomy than what they already enjoy.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.