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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Turkey develops ties with Iraqi Kurds

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Last week’s column ended on a note about how, in a rapidly changing Middle East undergoing strategic realignment, Turkey has been moving away from Iran and the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Moreover, Turkey shares some strategic interests with Israel. 

There is another major piece of this picture. Turkey has also soured on the Iranian-influenced central government in Iraq headed by Shia leader Nuri al-Maliki, and is instead developing strong ties with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil in northern Iraq. Ankara is increasingly relying on oil and gas from this autonomous Kurdish region, much to the consternation of Baghdad.   

Mideast analyst Jonathan Spyer addressed this issue in the Dec. 27 Jerusalem Post: “Ankara, which once viewed the development of a Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq with extreme suspicion, now appears to see Erbil as a possible ally against Baghdad and Tehran.”

This move is ironic given that Turkey has a fractious relationship with its own sizable Kurdish minority numbering almost 20 million in the eastern part of the country. While Iraqi Kurds are semi-independent and may yet strive for complete autonomy from Baghdad, Turkey’s Kurds are still struggling for independence even after having renounced their desire for sovereignty. Since coming to power in 2003, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan made some improvements in the lives of the Kurds (30,000 to 40,000 of whom were killed in clashes with previous Turkish governments, especially in the 1990s). However, in the past couple of years there have been setbacks and Erdogan recently clamped down harshly on Kurdish militants of the outlawed PKK, based mainly in northern Iraq. Clashes last year between the Turkish army and Kurdish insurgents left more than 700 dead, including a number of Kurdish civilians.

So what might be the implications of Ankara’s budding relations with the KRG for Turkey’s own historically oppressed Kurds?

In Iraq, Kurds, Turks and Oil: A Tortuous Triangle, the Economist (Dec. 22) explained that Erdogan’s government is trying to capitalize on divisions among the Kurds: “Turkey’s government is using its commercial clout to press the Iraqi Kurds’ president, Masoud Barzani, to help restrain militant Kurds within Turkey.” 

That commercial clout is significant. “A wide-ranging energy deal is in the works that will see state-backed Turkish firms and western oil majors plough money into Kurdish infrastructure and oilfields, connecting them to Turkey and the world beyond. The deal could eventually allow for up to 2M [barrels per day] of Kurdish oil exports to go through Turkey. [In 2011] trade between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to $8 billion,” the Economist reported.

The term “Kurdistan” conveys its own irony since the Kurds – now more than 35 million strong in Iraq (six million), Iran (10 million), Syria (1.6 million) and Turkey – had been promised a state of their own, Kurdistan, in the aftermath of World War I. It was not to be. They have largely been ignored. No clamour has been raised internationally for their statehood.

Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish Studies Program at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, noted last month in Ha’aretz that “the Kurds in general are an ancient nation who have lived in their homeland from time immemorial. They have a unique language, culture and identity, all of which differentiate them from their [Arab] neighbours in the various lands where they live.” According to Bengio, historically, they have a claim to self-determination at least as strong, if not stronger than that of the Palestinians. But, unfortunately, they lack advocates and proponents.

Many years ago, the New Republic remarked sardonically that the real plight of the Kurds was not to have had the Jews as their enemy, for otherwise the world would certainly have taken up their cause.

As the face of the post-Arab Spring Middle East continues to change, it will be interesting to keep an eye on important developments involving the Kurds – especially in Turkey – given the model they see in neighbouring Iraq. “Kurdistan” may finally become a more familiar term in the news this year.   

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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