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Kurdish Card Played by Washington

By Olga ZHIGALINA (Russia)

Kurdish Card Played by Washington

Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies have an interest in the project to establish a “Greater Kurdistan,” which is an important part of America’s “Greater Middle East” doctrine. These monarchies want Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey to be quickly dismembered. This is not the first time Washington has tried playing the “Kurdish card” in the region, and it intends using the Kurds as a “fifth column” to increase the pressure on the regimes in power, especially those in Iran and Syria.

Greater-KurdistanMarked changes got their start this century in the Kurdish national democratic movement. The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and its occupation by the US-led coalition forces was a major factor in sparking nationalism among the Iraqi Kurds. Iraq’s political process contributed to the acknowledgment of Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy in the new federated state’s 2005 constitution. The Kurdish national elite agreed to federalism for post-Saddam Iraq and proposed a new nationalist version of semi-independence for their region. In 2012, the Kurds in Syria seized part of Syrian Kurdistan and formed a self-governing Kurdish region. The Iranian government approached the Kurdish opposition with a proposal to open negotiations. New trends underway in Turkey are capable of facilitating progress on the Kurdish problem.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s interest in keeping the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power and his aspirations towards the presidency have contributed to some easing of his harsh line against the Kurds: He has apparently begun showing a willingness to amend the country’s constitution and alter its political system. The escalating Syrian crisis and the deteriorating situation on the Turkish-Syrian border (which is 500-km long and inhabited mainly by Kurds) have made it necessary for Erdoğan to adopt more drastic measures. He suddenly realized that Turkey’s policy towards Syria, and particularly its support for the Syrian opposition, are playing into the hands of Turkey’s Kurds, especially the PKK, by supporting it and aiding its demographic, political and military growth. This meant that Turkey’s involvement in the extensive international and regional actions aimed at limiting Iran’s influence on Damascus could complicate Turkish-Russian relations and intensify the armed conflict with the PKK. Therefore, out of concern for the Kurdish issue in Turkey and the establishment of Kurdish self-rule in part of Syrian Kurdistan, Turkey’s leaders have been forced to moderate their expansionist intentions toward Syria and take the unprecedented step of opening talks with Abdullah Öcalan despite opposition from Turkish nationalists and the military.

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Abdullah Öcalan

Talks begun by the Kurdish parliamentary faction involving representatives of Turkish intelligence yielded an agreement with PKK head Öcalan. The PKK has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey’s leaders and operates in Turkey illegally.

Although the painful process of achieving agreement is ongoing, it can be said to contain provisions intended to curb the Kurds’ nationalist aspirations. The Kurdish political elite reacted ambivalently towards Öcalan’s reconciliation with the Turkish authorities, with opponents saying that the hopes of the Kurds could only be realized through the “disintegration” of other countries, particularly Syria and Iraq. They were wary of Öcalan’s agreement to disarm and withdraw Kurdish fighters from the Republic of Turkey. Others hold the opposite view — that the cease-fire will help the Kurdish movement expand and provide the Kurds more opportunities to have their demands met within the existing state structure.

The EU, the United States and the Iraqi Kurds see the negotiations process as a positive move. Washington has said that it will support the people of Turkey in their efforts to resolve the problem. The EU has urged the parties to unite in achieving peace and promised its full support for the peace process. Representatives of Iraq’s Kurds have also expressed their satisfaction that the Turkish Kurds have moved in the right direction, although they feel it is early days yet.

Meanwhile, there is tension in Turkey between supporters and opponents of the conciliatory policy on the Kurdish issue. Some Kurds believe the policy may cause a split in the PKK and its gradual elimination, which is what interests Turkish authorities and the West.

There are positive and negative aspects to attempts by Turkey’s government to reach an agreement with the PKK. The Turkish government has acknowledged for the first time that Öcalan is the political leader of Turkey’s Kurds and not a terrorist; it saw fit to initiate negotiations with him on the Kurdish issue. Both politicians have declined to discuss him from a nationalist perspective. They want matters to revert to the way Turkish-Kurdish relations were prior to the Kemal period in the Ottoman Empire’s history, when Kurdistan enjoyed a special status. Erdoğan has even hinted at the possibility of discussing a federated structure in the future.

However, that does not mean the Kurds have gained traction towards achieving their national goal — the establishment of a Kurdish state. In his March 2013 message, however, Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK), said that the end of the armed struggle between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish military is opening the door to a new phase in the Kurdish movement’s development — intensification of the democratic struggle and expansion of the movement. We can assume that by agreeing to constitutional guarantees for the rights of Kurds, they will take a breathing spell to begin a new phase in their struggle.

Meanwhile, neither Turkey (and the other regional leaders) nor the United States is interested in creating a Kurdish state. The United States has always been willing to keep the Kurdish problem alive, and it has successfully taken advantage of it to maintain the balance of forces it needs in the region.

Indeed, Turkey’s loss of Kurdistan would significantly weaken its geopolitical standing in West Asia and prevent it from accomplishing its strategic plans for Central Asia, the Caucasus and Russia. A unified Kurdish state (consisting of the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iraq) would dominate the southeastern and eastern parts of Turkey and block its access to Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and the Turkic republics of Central Asia. Turkey’s rival for influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia is the United States, which has already secured decent positions for itself in Azerbaijan. If the gas pipeline linking Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field with the Turkish city of Erzurum (through which a gas pipeline linking Turkey and Iran already passes) is built, the United States, having gained the support of the Turkish Kurds, would be able to control the supply of energy resources from Central Asia to Turkey.

By taking the policy initiative in placating the Turkish Kurds away from the United States, Turkey’s leaders are striving to prevent the United States and Israel from using the Kurdish factor to block Turkey’s interests in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea region. They are also ignoring US criticism about bypassing Baghdad to conclude direct oil contracts with the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Turkey is continuing to strengthen its trade and economic contacts with the Iraqi Kurds despite concerns by the Obama administration that they will destabilize Iraq. In a telephone conversation with Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the Iraqi Kurds not conclude contracts to supply Turkey with crude oil that bypass Baghdad, arguing that it could lead to the country’s disintegration. Out of a desire to remain the sole regional arbiter, the United States is attempting to block and weaken Turkey’s position in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan, where Turkey has begun laying claim to a new and more meaningful role.

The peace process in Turkish Kurdistan, which was sparked by the events in Syria, favors Erdoğan, who wants to run for president, as well as some in the Turkish political elite, who are seeking to expand their political and economic projects in the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, it is still too early to assess its impact on Turkey’s Kurds.

Olga Zhigalina, Dr. Sc. (History), is Head of the Branch on Kurdology and Regional Studies of the Middle East and a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Middle Eastern Countries of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Source: New Eastern Outlook

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