Turkey has vowed to further expand cooperation with a former adversary, the Iraqi Kurds, strengthening solidarity with the Kurdish administration ahead of June elections at home.
“A strong Turkey means a strong Iraq and a strong Iraq means a strong Turkey. Our investments in this region shows how our hearts are united,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who became the first Turkish prime minister to visit the Kurdish region, said at a ceremony marking the opening of Arbil’s new, Turkish-built airport on Tuesday. “God willing, we will do more. We will see better days.”
Erdoğan’s visit to Arbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, comes amid pre-election tensions at home as Turkey’s main Kurdish party has launched a “civil disobedience” campaign in southeastern Anatolia, demanding, among other things, the release of outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan from prison.
Speaking at the ceremony, Erdoğan referred to his government’s efforts to improve the situation in the Kurdish-populated Southeast. “If there is no internal peace, if the mechanism of justice does not function, there can be no economic or social development either,” Erdoğan said. “We have ended the Turkey’s old policy, which used to deny the humanity of the people. Decades of neglect and policies of denial have ended in areas dominated by our Kurdish citizens. Thus, state and nation are embracing each other more warmly,” he went on.
Many Kurds in Turkey have long looked up to Kurdish-run northern Iraq, which has enjoyed an economic boom in recent years, and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani is a respected figure for Turkey’s Kurds as well. Barzani, who praised Erdoğan’s visit as a historic event, appeared to announce his backing for Erdoğan’s government. He said: “Turkey now has a big position in the region and this is because of your wise policies. We hope that these developments will continue after the next Turkish elections in the service of peace and the service of the people of the region.”
Barzani’s remarks were primarily addressed to Turkey’s Kurdish voters, Cengiz Çandar, a columnist who accompanied Erdoğan on his visit, commented in the Radikal daily on Wednesday, noting that Barzani is widely seen as the “national leader” of the Kurds. Although he avoided the word “Kurdistan” during his speeches in Arbil, Erdoğan praised ties with Iraqi Kurds and called Barzani “my brother.”
“We have a historic relationship with Iraq and with this beautiful region,” he said. “We have started to establish the basis for brotherhood between the peoples of Turkey, which was the basis for economic development,” he added.
Turkish foreign policy was long marked by a deep suspicion of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, set up in the 1990s after the first Gulf War. Turkish troops have conducted operations in northern Iraq against the PKK, designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU. Iraqi Kurds were harshly criticized in the past by Turkish political and military leaders, who accused them of doing too little to shut down PKK bases operating on the Iraqi side of the border.
But those disputes have eased in recent years with the creation of a joint US-Turkish-Iraqi intelligence body to fight the separatists. Economic ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds have also developed rapidly, with Turkey seeking to act as a conduit for Iraqi oil and gas, and Turkish firms investing in construction and other projects in the Kurdish zone.
Ending years of ignoring the Kurdish administration, Erdoğan officially opened the Turkish Consulate in Arbil. He also attended a ceremony to mark the opening of the first two Turkish banks in Arbil and announced that Turkish Airlines (THY) would begin direct flights to Arbil on April 14.
Highlighting the depth of ties, Erdoğan said there are about 35,000 Turkish nationals holding permanent residence permits issued by the Kurdish administration. A total of 20,000 of them are in Arbil, while the rest are based in two other Kurdish provinces, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya.
Erdoğan also said the government is planning a visa-free travel regime with Iraq. “Today, our consulate in Arbil issues about 500 visas daily for our Iraqi brothers who want to visit Turkey,” Erdoğan said. “We are planning to abolish visas with Iraq, just as we already did with other countries.”