The Kurdish conundrum makes Turkey face tall orders again. Its policy of supporting terrorist and insurgent forces in Syria has stymied. Now the Turkish officials change the tune. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks more frequently about «extremist activities and the damage they cause to the Syrian revolution» and the fact that «Turkey has never supported radicals fighting Bashar Assad».
The use of the term «Syrian revolution» as a figure of speech implies that Ankara still wants the power changed in Syria, but it has changed the ways to achieve this goal. The main reason is the growing role of Kurdish factor in the Arab country that shares a long border with Turkey… The Kurdish people are a nation divided by borders. The situation has started to change this year when the northern areas of the country have become the main battlefield between the regular Syrian army and motley rag-tag armed formations of opposition. Around 2, 5 million Kurds (up to 10 percent of the country’s entire population) lived there till the war erupted. This summer it was reported that the Syrian Kurds were one step from the declaration of autonomy. Some of their leaders were killed, so the Kurds called for total mobilization, created armed formations for self-defense and fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (1) and Jabhat al-Nusra, the two groups closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
On November 12, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union, the largest Kurdish political force, made open its plans to establish an interim government in Syrian Kurdistan. If this plans come true, Turkey may see a new Kurdish autonomous area in the vicinity of its territory to be added in future by other autonomies emerged to stretch along the border line with Iraq, Iran and Syria. It may have grave consequences in case the «parade» of Kurdish autonomies spreads to south-eastern Turkey.
It spurs Ankara’s efforts aimed at rapprochement with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan with the capital in Erbil and the Iraqi central powers based in Baghdad. Neither relationship is stable. Any sign of getting closer to the regional powers in northern Iraq provokes new tensions with Baghdad, which looks askance at the contacts between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds.
In the recent months Ankara has managed to smooth over some prickly issues affecting the relationship with the cabinet of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. At the beginning of 2012 the Iraqi government accused Ankara of meddling into its internal affairs by granting political asylum to former Vice-President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashimi. The latter was sentenced to death by hanging. He escaped to Turkey having crossed Iraqi Kurdistan. In the August of 2012 Ahmet Dovutoglu went to visit Kirkuk, the city situated in the northern part of Ira. He did not see fit to inform Baghdad about it.
Now the relationship has changed. On November 10, just a few days after meeting his Iraqi counterpart in Ankara, Dovutoglu paid a return visit to Baghdad. The meeting resulted in a roadmap of political, trade and transport cooperation. At the same time Turkey wants to get a free hand in its relationship with Erbil eyeing multi-billion projects related to pumping oil through pipelines from the northern part of Iraq to Turkey. The divergences remain between Erbil and Baghdad over sharing the revenue produced by oil fields in the northern Iraq, but the issue could be tackled in the process of working dialogue. That’s what Turkey tries to achieve coming up with offers to manage the dispute. (2) Ankara emphasizes the damage inflicted to Turkey as a result of sanctions imposed on Iran by the West. Energy and Natural Resources Minister of Turkey Taner Yıldız has reported recently the oil import to his country from Iran has been reduced from 140 to 105 barrels per day. Under the circumstances oil and gas coming from Iraqi Kurdistan could be a real windfall.
While developing economic ties with Kurds Turkey tries to tackle political goals as well, for instance the ones related to the situation in the densely populated Kurdish areas of Syria. Now Ankara tries to look at Syrian Kurds as a stabilizing factor in the border area, a potential forward area for armed Islamists formations penetrating into Syria. Turkey takes into consideration the complexity of relationship between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union and the authorities of Kurdistan. Erbil expressed support of compatriots in the north of Syria when Islamic radicals attacked them. Still the Iraqi Kurdish leaders are wary of the Democratic Union’s attempts to become the sole representative of Syrian Kurds. Turkish observers stress the strong presence of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Syrian Kurdish provinces. The regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan wanted to control the movement for autonomy but it still has a long way to go to achieve the goal.
Experts have put forward a conjecture about the possibility of alliance of Ankara and Erbil to contain the Kurdish Workers Party and prevent its penetration to the north of Syria. I believe that even if it emerges, this kind of union will be an outright marriage of convenience. It’s also an alliance of convenience when it comes to other matters aside from Syria. To large extent the rapprochement with Erbil is explained by oncoming presidential elections in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party has great hopes for the vote. In 2014 the head of Turkish Republic will be elected through a direct vote by people not by parliament as it has been done until now. The longtime leader of the Justice and Development Party and incumbent Prime Minister Recep Erdogan wants the overwhelming majority of voters to cast their ballots for him. No matter how peculiar it may seem at first, the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan may lend him a helping hand.
The Party had a good result at the 2011 election in the south-eastern parts of Turkey wining more votes than the local pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Some Turkish Kurds link their aspirations for democratic reforms with the Justice and Development Party and the personality of Erdogan. The Erdogan’s team tries to do its best to bolster these expectations. On November 16 the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani visited Turkey to confirm the desire of Ankara and Erbil to establish an alliance of convenience. As the leader of Iraqi Kurds Barzani visited Diyarbakir, the largest Turkish city with Kurdish population. Generally he spoke favorably about strengthening the ties between Erbil and Ankara. According to some Turkish media outlets that refer to the Prime Minister’s Office sources, one of the issues on the Erdogan-Barzani agenda was establishing Syrian Kurds self-rule bodies, the both parties spoke negatively about such development of events in the north of Syria…
By and large the Syrian Kurds are becoming a regional political force to reckon with when it comes to determining the future of Syrian statehood. Damascus understands it well and the idea of Kurdish autonomy has been welcomed there. Fostering further mutual understanding, Damascus may find a natural ally in the fight against rebels and terrorists. If it happens, then it will be much easier to find common ground while tackling any issue related to internal situation in Syria.
(1) On November 8 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda, called for disbandment of its affiliated unit, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The jihadist Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) would continue to function as an independent branch of Al Qaeda in Syria.
(2) One of the options presupposes the Ankara government would set up an escrow account at a state-owned Turkish bank to collect proceeds of Kurdistan regional government (KRG) energy sales. Out of the proceeds of the payments from the sales, the contractors – the KRG and Baghdad – will get their share of compensation. The process of exporting oil from Iraq to Turkey will be controlled by three parties’ oversight committee representing Baghdad, Erbil and Ankara.