The Latest on Turkish-Kurd Relations

Stephen DeAngelis

January 20, 2009

Today is an historic day in the United States as Americans inaugurate their first president with African roots. Barack Obama enters office with an approval rating of 78 percent — one of the highest in history. The papers indicate that his first full day in office will be spent focused on foreign affairs. It’s not that the economy is not important; but he has already committed a significant amount of time during his transition to the economy. As part of the momentous events in Washington, D.C., Enterra Solutions® is hosting a group of government and business leaders from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. One of the foreign policy issues that President Obama will have to deal with is ensuring that Iraq remains stable and progressive as U.S. troops begin their withdrawal. Some of challenges that Iraq will face will be cross-border disputes, including some with America’s long-time ally Turkey.

 

I have written a number of posts about the on-going tensions between the Turkish government and the rebel group known as the PKK that takes sanctuary in the mountains of northern Iraq in territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). I have also noted that despite these tensions the Turks’ and Kurds’ future (in both Turkey and Iraq) are inextricably linked [see, for example, my post entitled The Symbiotic Relationship Between Turkey & Kurdistan]. The new year has brought new efforts from Turkish leaders to bridge relationships with it Kurdish minority. One of those efforts is a new television station providing Kurdish programming [“Television diplomacy,” The Economist, 3 January 2009 print edition]. This is a big change in a country where stressing your Kurdish identity has been illegal. The Economist reports:

“Rojin is a feisty, beautiful Kurdish bard who belts out nationalist ballads. As a result, private Kurdish television channels that showed her were long penalised or even taken off the air. But now she will be a regular on Turkey’s stultified TRT state television, which this week launched a 24-hour Kurdish channel in the main Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji. A contradiction, yes. But it may just suggest that the Justice and Development (AK) party is regaining the reformist zeal that made it one of Turkey’s most popular and progressive governments. Kurdish hardliners scoff that the new channel is a cynical sop to the country’s 14m-odd Kurds before local elections in March. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK prime minister, told an audience of Kurds in Diyarbakir in 2005 that the state had made mistakes in its treatment of the Kurds, his party won many a Kurdish heart (and vote). But it has lost them since he succumbed to the army’s demands to deal with Kurdish PKK rebels by force, not negotiation.”

For more on the on-going tension between the Turks and the PKK, see my post New Violence between the Turkey and the PKK which also contains links to nine other posts on the subject.

“The army has been relentlessly pounding PKK guerrilla bases in northern Iraq. The PKK’s civilian arm, the Democratic Society Party, which has 20 elected parliamentarians, has been consistently snubbed by the AK government. Court cases bordering on the ludicrous continue against its members and against Kurdish-run municipalities that name their streets after eminent Kurds. One child in a Kurdish family from Germany was refused entry at the Turkish border recently because he had a Kurdish name. Even radical Kurds express hope that the new television channel, however wimpish, may spell a new beginning. Indeed, they hope the AK will renew the reform promises that helped it to win re-election, with a bigger share of the vote, in July 2007. Mr Erdogan is expected to make a statement during the televised launch. Kurdish dissidents are due to host some of its shows. Whether it can compete with the PKK’s hugely popular satellite channel, Roj, is another question. Private Kurdish television channels in Turkey are allowed to broadcast in their mother tongue for only four hours a week. Every show is vetted and has to have Turkish subtitles, making live programmes impossible. But the fact that Shivan Perwer, one of the most renowned Kurdish nationalist singers, is considering appearing on TRT’s Channel Six is being widely hailed as a breakthrough.”

The Turkish government is also reaching across the Iraqi into the Kurdistan region [“President Barzani receives Turkish Special Envoy to Iraq,” KRP.org, 10 January 2009].

“Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani received Murat Özçelik, the Turkish Special Envoy to Iraq, on [10 January 2009]. The two discussed the economic, political and social relationship between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey, as well as the situation in Iraq in general. … The meeting touched upon the implementation of the agreement for the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and the relationship between Iraq and Turkey. Both sides stressed upon the necessity of strengthening their relationship in order to serve the interests of both countries and the stability of the region. The meeting was also attended by Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff of the Kurdistan Region Presidency.”

These, of course, are only small steps towards a more peaceful and prosperous future for the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Nearly 700 members of the PKK were reportedly killed by Turkish military forces last year. Another 237 were captured, while 177 reportedly surrendered. Recently, the PKK has accused Turkish and Iranian forces of conducting indiscriminate attacks on villages in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, any step towards peacefully resolving the region’s future is a step in the right direction. The Kurdistan Regional Government has shown that prosperity is possible and that cooperation rather than conflict is the best way forward.