For the past decade, the relationship between the Kurds in Iraq and the Turkish government has been characterized by mistrust on the Kurdish side and paranoia on the Turkish side. Now that could change, especially with the new interim government in Baghdad.
Since 1992, Turkey has had a Kurdish self-governing enclave on its border that it can neither live with nor live without. On the surface, the political situation today does not seem to have changed. But there are indications that the ebb and flow of Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds could settle into a more livable, stable relationship with increased economic interdependence.
There are, however, a few hurdles that could hamper the opening of a new chapter in relations between the two sides. The average Iraqi Kurd feels that Turkey’s “Kurdophobia” blocks any step that could create a strong and stable Kurdish element in Iraq. Popular Kurdish resentment toward Turkey today is mainly caused by Turkey’s deplorable treatment of its own 20 million-strong Kurdish population, and its stance on Kirkuk and the Turkomans who live there. But the Iraqi Kurdish leadership is convinced that the only way forward is to have a stable relationship with Ankara based on a solid foundation of mutual trust and economic interests.
Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, which has been stripped of all cultural and political rights, is a cause of great concern for Ankara. Iraqi Kurds have carved out an autonomous place for themselves in Iraq, and Turkey fears “its” Kurds will demand the same for themselves.
Over the past 12 years, the ruling Iraqi Kurdish political parties–the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan–have been mindful of these concerns and have even gone to the extreme of fighting their fellow Kurds from Turkey to prevent them from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks against the Turkish army.
On the other hand, the sizeable Turkoman (ethnic Turk) population in Iraq, mainly in Kurdish-governed Arbil and in Kirkuk, describes its situation there as the “golden age of the Turkomans.” They have Turkoman-language schools, newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio; cultural and political associations; and a minister in the Arbil-based cabinet.
The Kurdish public, which juxtaposes the situation of the Kurds in Turkey with that of the Turkomans under Iraqi Kurdish rule, says that Turkey has no right to scream– as it has been doing in the regional press–about the rights of the Turkomans in Iraq. Iraqi Kurds often say that when the Kurds of Turkey enjoy a fraction of the freedoms and rights that the Turkomans of Iraq enjoy under Kurdish rule, the Turkish government can voice concern for the Turkomans of Iraq.
Turkey has been expressing its opposition to “changing the demographic structure” of Kirkuk with the return of thousands of ethnically cleansed Kurds. Many expelled Kurds–and Turkomans–point out that when Saddam Hussein was changing the demographic composition of Kirkuk through the expulsion of both ethnic groups, Turkey was silent. But now when Kurds and Turkomans are trying to return to their homes, Turkey considers it a change in the demography of the city.
Kirkuk’s Kurds and Turkomans also feel that Turkey is not really concerned about Iraq’s Turkoman population (as it professes) but rather about the Turkoman Front, a political party referred to by many in Iraq as the “Turkish Front.” Former members of the Turkoman Front who resigned in protest, and Iraqi Turkoman parties and associations without ties to the Turkish government, say that Turkey has pressured them to accept its policies. Remarks in the local press, along with Turkey’s history of continued military interventions in Iraqi Kurdistan, have created a strong feeling of resentment on the Kurdish street.
Many Kurds, however, believe that the new era in Iraq should be signaled by a change in Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds–and they say they are seeing hints of it. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish foreign minister, was the first phone caller to congratulate the new deputy prime minister of Iraq, Dr. Barham Salih, who was the prime minister of the Sulaymaniyah-based Kurdistan Regional Government. Many Turkish companies and businesses have set up shop in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds welcome them and see their presence as a catalyst for more stable and sustainable ties with Turkey. While hints of Turkish soldiers on Iraqi Kurdish streets sent shockwaves through the Kurdish population last year, the sight of Turkish businessmen in the same cities today is welcomed.
Turkey needs to treat the Iraqi Kurds as partners and not adversaries. The Iraqi Kurds’ attempts to keep good neighborly relations with Turkey should be acknowledged, and their efforts to build a secular democracy should be supported, not hampered. Turkey should not meddle in Kirkuk, which is a purely Iraqi internal affair. It could be very explosive, and the outcome might not be what Turkey wants. Turkey is much better off with a secular, prosperous, and stable neighbor than a Fallujah-type situation on its border.