Turkey’s rapprochement with its Kurdish minority – March 15, 2013


Most analysts agree that the so called Arab Spring has been a period of unprecedented upheaval in the Middle East. Iran, a major country of around 70 million is being targeted by the United States and Europe with UN cover, for allegedly developing a nuclear weapons capability. Israel, in yet another example of the tail wagging the dog is pressing the United States to launch a military attack on Iran to destroy its nuclear installations. Meanwhile Iran has vehemently denied that it is developing nuclear weapons. If the Obama administration, succumbing to Israeli pressure launches an attack on Iran, there would be more turmoil in the Middle East with unpredictable consequences for international peace and security.

With or without this stark scenario, Turkey remains the most economically successful and politically stable country in that turbulent region. For those who are familiar with modern Turkey’s history, they would know that Turkey had to fight long and hard against military praetorianism combined with bouts of left wing and right wing extremism which had stifled its democratic aspirations. In a country whose contours were clearly defined by Kemalist secularism, one enduring downside was Turkey’s attempts to deal with its Kurdish minority. The denial by successive governments to recognize the separate ethnic identity of the Kurdish minority led to severe repression imposed on the Kurds by Ankara, which incited terrorist rebellion on their part. This no win situation on both sides is about to change which will have far reaching effects on Middle East politics.

Dan Dombey reporting recently in the Financial Times (FT) has pointed to an important development in Turkey’s fractious relationship with its Kurdish minority. The Kurds represent approximately 15 % of Turkey’s population of 80 million. The Kurds whose ethnicity was hitherto not recognized by Turkish leaders – who disingenuously referred to them as “Mountain Turks”- had been battling Ankara militarily for decades. Dombey has stated that the Kurds have proclaimed a cease fire in a conflict that has killed 35,000 over three decades. Furthermore the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan has issued a road map which has reportedly been accepted by the Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Dombey suggests that this event will “turn [Turkey’s] internal and external politics inside out.”

The Arab revolutions have had a negative impact on Turkey’s geopolitical standing. Its relations with the Shia (and Alawite) led central governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria had plummeted. In this scenario achieving internal stability through accommodation with its Kurds has revived what Dombey calls “an old Turkish dream.” That is the ambition to extend Turkish sway into the oil and gas rich lands of Kurdish Northern Iraq -areas which the Ottoman Empire controlled for centuries before its demise and disintegration for being on the losing side of World War I.

Currently Turkey pays Russia $2 billion a month for fuel at a time when Ankara’s energy needs are increasing. The rapprochement with its Kurds would make it much easier for Ankara to exploit the oil and gas riches of Northern Iraq literally and invitingly next door across its eastern border. Dombey has stated that as it is, about one of every two foreign businesses in the north of Iraq is Turkish- owned with bright prospects for further mutual economic interdependence. Reportedly Ankara has been negotiating a deal in which state-owned companies could take big stakes in the region’s oil and gas fields “despite furious objections by Baghdad and warnings from the US”.

The realignment of forces going on in Turkey is likely to be momentous. In a region roiled by varying degrees of instability and with Iran, a major power, under severe UN sanctions for its nuclear program, Turkey, as an island of comparative stability, is the beneficiary. It has a burgeoning economy and solid democratic credentials. It is no wonder that Turkey’s standing in the Middle East has increased appreciably. Given its successful profile it is likely to be a major player in the end game in Syria once the Assad regime is toppled


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