Regional implications of PKK’s truce with Turkeyby Othman Ali*

May 22, 2013, Wednesday/ 16:33:00

Although the peace between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) still has many internal challenges and obstacles on the path ahead, so far both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the PKK seem to be fully committed to the signing of a peace agreement that will have far-reaching consequences for Turkey and beyond.

If peace prevails, everybody stands to gain something -- except Iran and Syria. Iran's recent implicit and explicit overtures to PKK leadership in the Kandil Mountains and the Reyhanlı bombing incident demonstrate to what extent both Iran and Syria are willing to go in order to break the regional isolation in which they find themselves. This is why Iran considers the peace negotiations between Turkey and the PKK a matter of national security and will spare no effort in derailing the İmralı peace process.

The Turkish government has been receiving encouraging support from the European Union and the US regarding the process with the PKK, which is a clear indication that the Kurdish question in Turkey has both international and regional dimensions and is not a purely domestic matter.

In an interview last month, senior PKK figure Zübeyir Aydar claimed that the peace process could open the door to collaboration between Turks and Kurds across the region, which could even lead to a redrawing of Turkey's borders with Iraq and Syria. If history can serve as any guide to Aydar's statements, this has some validity and Iran is not fully unaware of this. It was an alliance in the 12th century between the Ayubid Kurds and the Zangid Turks that destroyed the Shiite Fatimid empire in Egypt and North Africa. Furthermore, the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 sealed the fate of any serious Iranian attempt to establish Safavid Shiite state hegemony in southern and eastern Anatolia up to Ankara. Prior to his campaign, Ottoman Sultan Selim II, who led the troops in this battle, had made an alliance with Kurdish emirs (heads of Kurdish principalities). Historians unanimous agree on the view that it was this alliance that made the Ottoman Empire's success possible and this victory aided the Ottoman conquest of the Middle East.

In the past, whenever the Ottoman army invaded Iran, the Iranian Kurds welcomed them and facilitated the region's fall to Ottoman hands. The Iranian government's huge investment in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite groups as well as its repeated statements that the Assad regime's survival is matter of national security for the country is a clear indication that the Islamic republic is thinking in regionally strategic terms and history is a part of this reasoning.

Furthermore, both Iraq and Syria are experiencing a very unstable situation with polarization occurring in its various ethnic and religious communities; it is not unthinkable for Turkey or any other regional country to try to use this situation for its own interests. Taking into consideration that the region is rapidly inching towards imminent civil wars, the Kurds' desire to sever links with Iraq and the region's proven oil and gas reserves, the region is a good target for energy-starved Turkey. The latter cannot afford to depend heavily on Russia and Iran for its energy in the long term and the Iraqi Kurdistan region provides an ideal outlet for Turkey to rid itself of its foreign energy dependency. Therefore, if chaos and an unstable situation escalate into full-fledged civil war, Turkey would not hesitate to grab the Kurdistan region or TO establish a kind of regime in the area similar to that which exists now between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Bold stand in involving PKK leader

Political observers think that Iran was taken by surprise with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's bold stand to involve PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in the peace talks with the PKK and Iran seems to be worried about this matter for several reasons: If Turkey settles its Kurdish question, Iran will be the only country left in the region with its own Kurdish problem unaddressed. Iran is also worried about what will happen with the thousands of battle-hardened PKK militants in the Kandil Mountains near its frontiers if the truce with Turkey holds. This is probably the question that bothers the Iranian and Syrian governments the most. The PKK has two branches in Iran and Syria with their own armed wings: the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is fighting against Iran, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is currently controlling Kurdish areas of Syria.

The Iranian semi-official Fars News Agency claimed in January that “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has started implementing a US and Israeli plan to provoke Iran's Kurdish population against the government in Tehran through the Kurdistan Workers' Party.” Jomhuri-ye Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) in Tehran also published a piece by Ali Rezakaram on April 28 suggesting that Turkey wants to make the Kurdistan region of Iraq its new ally in the region to “create tension in the Iranian Kurdish regions through the Iraqi Kurdistan” and to “align the Syrian Kurds with itself against [Syria's] government.” Acting on this conviction, Iran has been making many overtures to PKK leadership. On April 29, for instance, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a columnist with the Milliyet daily, quoted PKK leader Murat Karayılan, saying that top Iranian intelligence officials had offered him heavy weapons in exchange for reneging on the peace process -- an offer that the PKK field commander claims he declined.

Furthermore, in late April, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard held a two-day drill called “Toward Jerusalem” in the Kurdish province of West Azerbaijan in Iran. Two weeks before that, there was a clash in the same province between Kurdish rebels and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the city of Maku, near the Turkish border. All these incidents indicate that Iran seems to have been viewing the İmralı peace with great concern. Kamil Meresene, a Kurdish Iranian activist was quoted by Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a security analyst, as having warned that “if Iran continues with its oppressive policies, then Iran will not be able to withstand the democratic struggle of the Kurdish people.”

Iran's nightmare of having to soon face thousands of battle-hardened PKK activists supported by Israel, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the West has been confirmed by statements issued by Öcalan in the leaked notes of his last meeting with three deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who went to meet with him at İmralı prison. Öcalan apparently said, “I don't believe that our guerrilla force will [cease being active] when we withdraw -- there are Syria and Iran.” Saleh Muslim Muhammad, the leader of the PYD, made a similar statement that has further fueled concerns in Syria and Iran, saying: “Kurds in Syria have been watching the peace negotiations between the PKK and Turkey with high hopes. We are ready to talk to Turkey without any further conditions and we begin to see indications of a change in the Turkish policy towards us.”

Furthermore, a halt in the conflict in the Southeast could mean that Turkey would be able to free up a large amount of its military and economic resources and this would result in a higher Turkish profile in the region, says Mehdi Talati, an Iranian security analyst.

On the economic front, the Kurdish conflict has cost Turkey more than $300 billion, according to official figures. Turkey could use these resources to finance its ambitious development projects and compete with Iran for regional hegemony. This competition, which has multi-faceted dimensions, is not confined to the Middle East and extends to the Caucasus and central Asia. It has recently taken an alarming sectarian aspect, too. The Kurdish conflict is just one more factor in the already strained ties between the two countries and has the potential to generate a new round of conflict

Triggering movement on the Iranian front

If Turkish Kurds were to be granted their rights, it would encourage the restive Iranian Kurds to agitate for similar rights. Kurds in Turkey are asking for the right to educate their children in Kurdish and the removal of a clause in the Constitution that defines all the country's citizens as “Turkish.” They are also asking for Turkey to become a federal state, with power devolved from central government to regional governments in order to achieve a certain degree of autonomy. Recently, the governing politicians of the AK Party have been hinting that they may be willing to concede on some of these demands. Iranian Kurds have long been struggling for similar rights. The settlement of the Kurdish question in Turkey would be a big motivating factor for Iranian Kurds to look to PYJAK as a successful vehicle to gaining rights for their ethnicity within their own countries.

The Iranian government was very comfortable with Turkey's former security approach to the Kurdish question as it was in harmony with its own and Iran had encouraged the regional collaborative approach to the Kurdish question. The Syrian uprising and Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister who adopted an aggressive stand towards Turkey's friends in Iraq (the Sunni Arabs), spoiled the existing rules of the game in the region. The Kurds in general and the PKK in particular have availed themselves of the new situation. Turkey realizes that the Arab Spring, the inevitable disintegration of Syria and possibly that of Iraq have changed the rules of the game with regards to the region and the Kurds and it is trying to respond to this change by recognizing it and molding it to serve Turkey's national interests instead of standing against it.

Finally, if the current truce between Turkey and the PKK holds or ends in a peace treaty, it has the potential to seriously weaken the Iraqi government's resolve to assert its power vis-à-vis the Kurdistan Regional Government and the peace process may further strain the relationship between Baghdad and Arbil. The Iraqi government complained in the UN Security Council that its sovereignty had been violated by PKK militants who have been withdrawing to the Kandil Mountains inside Iraq, as required by the İmralı peace process. The al-Maliki government had already stated that it was worried that the PKK “might use Iraqi territory to destabilize other countries in the region” and expressed concern that PKK militants might be used in the future in the volatile Kirkuk province, which would exacerbate the situation in the disputed territories. This stance of the Iraqi government is in reality an Iranian concern being aired by Iraqi officials. Iran, as indicated earlier, is afraid that PKK militants will be used against its interests in Iran or Syria. One could also argue that the Iraqi government is worried that in any future confrontation with the KRG, PKK fighters will be an added force that could be used against the Iraqi army.

It is noteworthy that the PKK command in Kandil recently announced that it is willing and able to defend Kirkuk if al-Maliki forces threaten the province.

To conclude, the İmralı peace process seems to have put the Middle East on the eve of a new era with profound changes unfolding.


*Dr. Othman Ali, Ph.D., is head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Arbil, Iraq.