Erdogan and an Independent Kurdistan: Strategic Interest or Political Suicide?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Masoud Rezaei
PhD of International Relations, Visiting Research Fellow at
the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

The government of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has publicly announced and frequently indicated during the past weeks that it is ready to catalyze a new development in the Middle East by putting an end to his past opposition to the willingness of Iraqi Kurds to have an independent state of their own.

This issues, at first glance, is reminiscent of the doctrine formulated by [Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu, which was known as “Zero Problem with Neighbors.” By putting forth this idea in 2009, Davutoglu helped the Middle East to see rapid changes and developments in Turkey in addition to new approaches taken by his country to its neighboring states. There were many reasons behind the change in Turkey’s position at that juncture. However, a cursory review of plans implemented by Turks and their achievements in this regard will reveal that, at least after its strategic failures in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and even Armenia, Turkey has decided not only to go back to policies it adopted before 2009, but it has also added sectarianism and violence to the policies it has taken vis-à-vis its neighbors.

This issue has caused some observers to note that Turkey is hasty in implementing its policies and achieving relevant goals and wants to meet its interests in the shortest possible time. The country has rapidly and suddenly changed its past position on Iraq and the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. This has happened while there are serious ambiguities and doubts about the success of Ankara’s new policy. The most urgent reason that has apparently prompted Turkey to support the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan is plans made by Erdogan to run for president in the country’s presidential polls which are scheduled for next month.

It seems that the benefits of taking part in Turkey’s presidential election and winning it are quite high this time. The winner of the forthcoming presidential election, which will be held on August 10, 2014, – and which is strongly possible to be Erdogan – will be the first president of Turkey who is directly elected by people and not by the parliament. By earning such a high degree of legitimacy and considering the domination of his ruling party on the country’s affairs and resilience of the existing laws of Turkey, Erdogan will be able to change the presidential post from a titular position to a powerful executive institution.

Such an outlook is enough to motivate two main opposition parties to set aside their differences and form a new alliance. The Nationalist Movement Party (abbreviated to MHP in Turkish) and the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) have chosen Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the renowned Turkish historian and diplomat, as their candidate for the presidential post. Selahettin Demirtas is the candidate of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which accounts for 20 percent of the country’s population.

It is believed that the local elections held in May were a test for the presidential polls. In those elections, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party won 43 percent of the people’s votes while a coalition of the main two opposition parties, got 44 percent of the votes. The results were good both for Erdogan and his opposition, but they did not provide a guarantee to either side that they will win the presidential election in the first run. Under these conditions, Turkish Kurds will be able to play a key role in elections. For them, making sure about establishment of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and creating better conditions for Kurds in Syria are important goals and Erdogan is currently telling them that he will meet both their demands.

Only a few days before Erdogan announced his candidacy, his government took a bill to the parliament which allows militant Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to leave their hideouts with no fear of prosecution and return to civilian life. This bill, if approved, can potentially put an end to 30 years of armed conflict between Kurds and central government in Turkey. The bill will also allow the Turkish officials to engage in peace talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, who is currently in jail.

The remarks made by Hüseyin Çelik, a senior official in Erdogan’s government, who said last week that the Iraqi Kurds should be allowed to determine their own fate, are also of high importance. Of course, Çelik is not Erdogan and encouraging disintegration of Iraq is opposed to the policy of the United States, though Turks claim that Washington has accepted it. At the same time, however, such remarks have paved the way for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan without fear of punishment from Turkey. The independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will provide Ankara with an opportunity to import oil from Kurdistan Region and, in return, invest in that region.

For many decades, the mere thought of the establishment of an independent Kurdish country would have angered Turkish leaders. They feared that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq will provide Turkey’s Kurds, who live in a region bordering other Kurdish regions in Iraq, Iran and Syria, to find enough motivation to wage an all-out war for separation from Turkey. Of course, as time went by, geographical dispersion of Turkey’s Kurds across the country and increased economic dependence of Iraqi Kurdistan on Turkey has reduced resistance against the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan Region. [The President of Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud] Barzani can also turn into a useful ally for Erdogan in his peace talks with Öcalan and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

The temporal coincidence is also of high importance here. On the one hand, Erdogan needs the support of Kurds to remain in power for another decade. On the other hand, Kurds need Erdogan to take advantage of the opportunity and help their longstanding dream for having an independent Kurdistan come true. Possible independence of Iraqi Kurdistan may instigate Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 20 percent of the country’s population, to take steps to integrate into Iraqi Kurdistan. As a result of this possibility, Turkish government may take tougher measures against Turkey’s Kurds, which may in turn, create tension in relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey may even carry out military operations in this regard. Of course, in view of widespread presence of Turkey’s businesspeople in Iraqi Kurdistan, the cost of tension in relations between Turkey and this region will be high both for Iraqi Kurds and Ankara. Therefore, making the decision and taking the great risk by Erdogan of lending support to independence of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 may be followed by emergence of new waves of secessionism on Turkish soil in coming years, making that decision seem like a suicide for the political system in Ankara.

Key Words: Independent Kurdistan, Strategic Interest, Political Suicide, Iraq, Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Presidential Election, PKK, Rezaei

Source: Iranian International Relations
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Masoud Rezaei:

*Will Referring the Case of Syria to the ICC Be of any Help in Resolving the Crisis?:

*Photo Credit: Press TV