Sunday, June 13, 2010

Northern Iraq Observations 3: How do the Iraqi Kurds Perceive the Developing Relations with Turkey?

There is a positive change in the relations between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government in recent times. The most concrete indicators of those change are, Turkey’s decision to open a consulate in Arbil, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Arbil, and the Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani’s visit to Ankara. This process is welcomed by the Kurds. They expect that the relations will deepen in the future. However, it is possible to say that the steps taken by Turkey are misinterpreted by the Kurds. This misinterpretation causes Kurds to have different expectations, which pose a risk for the relations in the case that they are not met.

Kurds explain the positive change in the relations with the change in Turkey’s perspective of the region. According to the Kurds, Turkey’s security perspective has been replaced with a perspective focusing on politics and economy. In this process, common interests and dialogue are emphasized. While this evaluation is not totally false, Turkey thinks that the reason of the bad relations is not unilateral. In fact, Turkey still looks towards the region in a security perspective; however it seeks to develop relations by creating economic interdependence. It is expected that problems related to security and politics will more easily get solved in the process of good relations. While Turkey self-confidently initiates an opening policy, it is inevitable that it will expect some steps from the Kurds in the medium term. PKK, federation, Kirkuk, Article 140, the status of Turkmans are the issues that Turkey might have expectations about. As a response to our questions about how the Kurds will react to Turkey’s decision to open a consulate in Arbil and contributions to the stability and reconstruction in the Kurdish region, the Kurds merely said that “Turkey acquires five million dollars of commercial income from the Iraqi Kurdish region”. The Kurds are hesitant to take steps about the issues that Turkey has expectations. For example they think the PKK issue is out of their reach and the source of the problem is within Turkey. Therefore, the Kurds do not take responsibility in the PKK issue. The Kurds are hesitant in the Turkman issue as well. They reply to our questions about whether they will initiate and opening towards the Turkmans, that “Turkmans under the Kurdish administrations already have all kinds of rights, they receive education in their own language and are faced with no oppression. If Kirkuk is integrated in the Kurdish region, those Turkmans will have all kinds of rights as well.” That is to say, the Kurds feel no responsibility regarding the status of Turkmans. One last example for misperceptions is about Barzani’s visit to Turkey. Some Kurds claim that “Turkey has at last seen that Iraq cannot preserve its unitary structure”, since Barzani is invited as the President of the Regional Government. Misinterpretation and lack of understanding among the sides will influence the stability of relations.

The Kurds think that they showed the best of intentions to Turkey in the past periods. What they mean by that is that Turkish companies receive the biggest share in the economy of the Kurdish region. They perceive the situation not as a mutual interest but as a concession. The perception that Turkey focuses on economic interest drives the Kurds to think that Turkey do not attach importance to security and border problems and it is a country that can be satisfied by providing economic advantages. For example, they constantly emphasize that Turkey is going to take the biggest share from petroleum in the case of Kirkuk’s integration to Kurdish territory to convince Turkey. This situation increases the risk of disruption in relations when the security problems become current issues.

Despite the risks, it is obvious that Kurds give importance to the relations with Turkey. In addition to Arbil and Dohuk, where Turkey has much influence, even in Suleymaniyeh the young people show interest towards Turkey. The Kurds attempt to take the West as a model in all areas such as lifestyle, culture, politics and economy. It is possible to say that Kurdish public completed the separation from the Arabs in their minds. The implementation of that separation can be seen in many fields. As an example, Kurdish children take English language courses beginning from primary school. Most of Kurdish teens do not know Arabic and react negatively to this language. Even the attempts of replacing Latin alphabet instead of Arabic were started. The Kurds, who seek to “separate from the East” in every sense, consider Turkey as “a door that opening to the West”. Turkey geographically constitutes a link between the West and Kurds, and presents a model with its democratic system, economy and culture. Consequently, Turkey is, on the one hand emulated, while on the other side accepted as the greatest obstacle in front of their independency desires by them.

This situation described such as with the words of a journalist from Suleymaniye, Asos Hardi:
“The positive things for Kurds will come from Turkey, but negative things also will come from Turkey, too.” Another importance of Turkey for Kurds is the need for Turkey after 2011, the total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The Kurds prefer Turkey, which they trusted mostly among their neighbors, to fill the gap that will occur after withdrawal of US troops from the region. Siwan Taveng, chairman of Turk-Kurd Friendship Association, stated that “emergence of Turkey as a soft regional power in the region is important both for US and Kurds, in that point, US’s idea of entrusting Kurds to Turkey commonly is argued in that point.” Besides this, the Kurds, who attempt to achieve stability and economic development, hesitate that PKK question may risk the relations with Turkey and wants a solution to this question. However they believe that they donot have much power on this issue. They consider that the solution of PKK question depends on Turkey’s resolutions to the problems with the Kurds and for this reason they pay importance to the process of Turkey’s democratic opening to the Kurds. In terms of indicating this interest, one of the important television channel in the Kurdish region, Gele Kurdistan, broadcasted The Grand National Assembly of Turkey’s sessions regarding the democratic opening live for 7 hours.

As a result, it is possible to say that the Iraqi Kurds have contradicting views about Turkey. Turkey is considered differently compared to other neighboring countries. The Iraqi Central Government is also defined as a “neighbor” by Kurds and perceived as the biggest threat towards the acquisitions of the Kurdish region. Iran and Syria have never been accounted as fully trusted actors. These countries do not have potential to become a center of attraction for Kurds as of their political structures, economies and foreign policies. From this perspective Turkey is a more preferable neighbor in the region. On the other side, perspectives of the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey to the Iraq completely contradict with each other. They consider Turkey as a great power of the region and an obstacle in front of their goals. This fundamental difference casts doubt on the future of relations that recently have a positive trend. Regardless, Turkey’s good relations with the Kurdish Regional Government will weaken the separatist trends among the Kurds by ruling out their sense of isolation after the elections.

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