Soma - by Dr Denise Natali - February 28, 2007

Although the Kurdistan Region has been spared much of the violence that marks the rest of Iraq, it faces potential conflict with regional states worried about rising Kurdish autonomy and its impact on cross-border nationalist groups.

Turkey and Iran are amassing troops along the Iraqi Kurdish border in a planned joint operation against the Partiye Krekarani Kurdistane (PKK), which is lodged in the Qandil mountains and launching attacks against Turkish and Iranian security targets.

Although the Kurdish elite emphasize that their autonomous region is not a staging ground for terrorist activities, Massoud Barzani threatened that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would retaliate if the region was militarily attacked by Turkey and Iran.

The threat of regional interventions in Iraqi Kurdistan is certainly not a new one. During the height of PKK operations in the early 1990s, the Turkish military conducted search and seizure operations and bombing campaigns in southeast Turkey that ‘spilled over’ into the Kurdistan region. When 35,000 Kurdish refugees from Turkey arrived in Zakho in 1994, most of whom were women and children, Turkey pressured Iraqi Kurdish leaders to close the camps, considered a haven for PKK supporters. In 1996, Turkish military forces advanced into Dohuk governorate in a further attempt to ward off PKK activities. Iraqi Kurdish leaders, in turn, compromised with Turkey as a means of keeping their fledging autonomous region alive. In exchange for targeting PKK rebels they were assured a relatively open border at Ibrahim Khalil (Khabur), a vital economic supply line to their region.

Yet, warding off the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan is more complicated than it was in the 1990s. Alliance structures, political power, and the Kurdish nationalist movement have shifted over the past decade. Iraqi Kurdish leaders are less willing or interested in negotiating away the needs of the larger Kurdish community for Turkish military pressures. Some have assured that “the epoch of Kurds killing Kurds is over”. Iraqi Kurdish elite also have gained the support of the vast majority of local populations, which are prepared to rally behind the KRG against the Turkish government in behalf of Kurdish nationalist interests.

The heart of the matter is the divergent views on the Kurdish problem in Turkey and the means in which it should be resolved. The Turkish government is worried that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will stir nationalist sentiments for Kurds in Turkey. It is also concerned about the PKK, which poses a real threat to Turkish security interests. With more than 30,000 deaths, mass internal migrations to western Turkey, and destruction of entire villages, the civil war between the PKK and Turkish military forces has seriously destabilized the Turkish political economy and society. Additionally, despite the defections within the PKK since the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the organization has spread its Stalinist-like tentacles into neighboring states. One of its newer subsidiaries, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), led by Iranian Kurds, also operates in Qandil against Iranian security forces.

Yet, Turkish paranoia about a Kurdish statelet misplaces the roots of the Kurdish problem in Turkey – which premier Erdogan denies - to Iraqi Kurdish borders, when in fact; it is rooted inside Turkish territory. By focusing on Iraqi Kurdish successes and not the failed Turkish state; i.e the military establishment, Turkish officials dismiss their own responsibility in creating the Kurdish problem. They fail to realize that state repression and denial of ethnic identity in Turkey has encouraged violent Kurdish ethno nationalist mobilizations.

Indeed, the fact that Turkish scholars and some politicians can pronounce the term ‘Kurd’ in public discourses and conduct conferences on the Kurds is a positive step toward recognizing the existence of more than fifteen million people inside Turkey. However, the large gap between the political promises and the reality has discredited the reform effort.

Had the Turkish government implemented durable reforms that recognize Kurdish political rights, then perhaps real negotiations could have been taken place between Kurdish leaders from Turkey and the state. Had the Turkish military establishment ceased terrorizing innocent civilians in the Kurdistan Region,  orrectly managed the 2005 bombing affair in Semdinli, and legalized Kurdish political parties, then perhaps the PKK may not have gained mass support from Kurds across Kurdistan, who now have access to satellite  channels, newspapers, and journals revealing the actualities of state repression against Kurds in Turkey.

Even then, the Turkish government has ignored numerous opportunities to negotiate peacefully with the PKK. Following Ocalan’s capture the PKK proposed various ceasefires, all of which have been rebuffed by the Turkish state. The delegation of PKK leaders and rank and file members that surrendered themselves in Turkey as a sign of good will have been arrested, and remain in Turkish prisons. The PKK has also asked for an honorable way of disbanding their forces by applying the Turkish law of ‘active redemption’ designed for guerilla activists. However, this law has been refused to the PKK, while applied instead to Islamic fundamentalists and ‘deep state’ members involved in organized crime.

This is why the PKK issue cannot be settled by military operations in the mountains of Qandil. President Barzani’s discourse in the Parliament last week, as well as the numerous television debates and newspaper articles about the PKK, represent the opinion of the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds; that the PKK is not a terrorist group and a political solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey is a mandatory component of positive Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations. A real resolution requires political negotiation and a commitment to resolving the Kurdish problem in Turkey, as well as those interconnected Kurdish problems across borders.

The greater fear is not the destabilization of another part of Iraq, but the larger Kurdistan region extending to Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

Denise Natali is an honorary fellow at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University, and is currently teaching at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler, Department of Politics and International Relations.

Printed with permission. From  Soma

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