Syria, Iraq and Iran have significant Kurdish minorities concentrated in regions contiguous to one another. The nations have been targets of Kurdish irredentism and, at times, used the Kurdish card to Turkey’s detriment when mutual relations, as is the case today with Syria and Iran, have been tense.
PKK supreme leader Ocalan’s statement on the Kurdish New Year, calling for an immediate end to PKK hostilities against the Turkish state and withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey to the Kandil Mountains by August was the result of painstaking negotiation underway at least since October.
By and large the Kurdish population has welcomed Ocalan’s announcement of a ceasefire, visible in the celebratory atmosphere in Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital of Turkey, on New Year’s.
By incorporating the Kurdish minority into the body polity, Turkey would end discriminatory treatment of the Kurds by denial of their ethnic distinctiveness – all the more essential when Turkey is undergoing democratic consolidation. But Turkey also has faced increasing tensions with neighbors to the east and south – Syria, Iraq and Iran – especially since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in early 2011.
While the Kurds in Syria and Iran continue to be restive and chafe under Assad's regime, those in Iraq have carved out an autonomous region for themselves in the Kurdish north, thanks to the US 2003 invasion. Even so relations between Erbil, capital of the autonomous region, and Baghdad remain tense because of the acrimony over disputed regions, especially oil-rich Kirkuk, and distribution of oil income.
Turkey has acted not only as economic lifeline of the landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region, but also as its primary political supporter in disputes with the Shia-dominated government of Baghdad. Statistically, Turkey has become Iraq’s largest trading partner for the simple reason that 90 percent of northern Iraq’s trade is conducted with Turkey. Turkish companies in construction and other sectors have become ubiquitous in Iraqi Kurdistan. The close relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government has helped immensely in convincing both Ankara and the Kurdish leadership in Turkey that beneficial relations between the two are not only possible but imperative.
Syria’s relations with Turkey deteriorated dramatically in the summer of 2011 when Ankara decided to throw its support behind the anti-Assad opposition and became principal base for the armed opposition as well as the chief conduit for the supply of weapons to insurgents within Syria. With the Syrian regime’s control shrinking, Damascus decided to pull its forces out of parts of northern Syria contiguous to Turkey populated by Kurds, in part to teach Turkey a lesson: The vacuum was largely filled by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK considered hostile to Turkey.
From Ankara’s perspective, a deal with the Turkish PKK was essential to neutralize the threat of Syrian Kurdistan becoming a haven for PKK fighters similar to the Kandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. With KRG pressing PKK to give up its fight, it would have been convenient for the PKK fighters to move to PYD-controlled safe havens in Syria to continue attacks on Turkish targets.
Tehran, though plagued by Kurdish separatism, has extended assistance and refuge to PKK fighters when its relations with Turkey have been tense. This was the case from 1979 to 2002, when the AKP came to power in Ankara and began improving relations with Iran for both economic and strategic reasons.
Turkey’s good relations with Iran were aided by the improvement in Ankara’s relations with Damascus, Iran’s principal Arab ally, during the past few years thanks to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” However, in 2011, Iran and Turkey split over Syria: Turkey supported the opposition to the Assad regime while Iran continued to be the regime’s principal supporter.
The Turkish decision to allow NATO to position an anti-missile defense system in southeastern Turkey aimed, despite Turkish denials, at Iranian missiles bound for Israel and other western targets, also hurt Iranian-Turkish relations. Consequently, it was reported that Iran was once again reviving support for PKK. A deal with PKK's leader, Ocalan, therefore indirectly strengthens Turkey’s hands against Iran as well as Syria – all the more essential as tensions between Iran and Turkey have increased in recent months over competing aims in Iraq. Iran supports Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, and Turkey supports Sunni Arab opponents of the Maliki government as well as acting as the patron-saint of the KRG in Erbil.
The Turkey-PKK (Ocalan-Erdoğan) deal, therefore, brings advantages to Turkey that go well beyond its borders. The devil is, of course, in the details about which not much is known so far. One hopes that the Turkish government acts with sagacity, indeed with magnanimity, when implementing the agreement even if some parts may not be palatable to ultranationalist hardliners. Acting otherwise will be shortsighted for nothing less than Turkey’s strategic future rides on successful implementation of this agreement.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit AFP-Getty Images