A time for moderates?

April 17, 2008

The twenty fifth Turkish military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan to root out the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) and the way it ended proved that that there can be no military solution to this issue. It has been tried 25 times, with and without the help of the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, and it has not worked. The few times where a ceasefire was mediated–secretly or openly–have yielded some results. But they were not capitalized on or followed with other steps.
An opportunity is emerging this time. It should not be spoiled. The Kurds of Iraq are more and more convinced that the PKK issue is an irritating factor that is hampering progress in relations with their much-needed neighbor Turkey.
For Iraq, Turkey is an important neighbor. For the Kurdistan region, Turkey is the only neighbor with access to the outside world. The Kurds appreciate the importance of long-term strategic ties with Turkey. US troops will one day leave; Turkey is staying. Similarly, a day will come when the PKK presence ends, but the Iraqi Kurds are staying.
Since the early 1990s, the Kurds of Iraq understand that Turkey is a red line that cannot be crossed. They also now know that the United States is not “like a man with two wives” as an Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya told the New York Times in the run-up to the Turkish military incursion into the region. Yet the events that followed and the level of US cooperation proved that this was wrong. America does have two allies: a long-standing Turkish one and a nascent Iraqi one.
The Kurds of Iraq are part of the Iraqi ally. But a military operation against the PKK is not an option for them. Their previous experience of fighting the PKK illustrates this clearly. Since the mid-1990s many operations, joint and unilateral, were conducted against the PKK. The result was bitter memories and a great loss of life. Now, a few thousand lives later, the Kurds of Iraq are not willing to repeat the same military and political mistake.
“I am amazed how short-spanned is their memory,” a local Peshmerga commander said after the failure of the last military operation and the quick pull out by Turkey. “They forgot how difficult the area of the PKK is. They can try for 25 more times. All they can catch is partridges in these mountains,” he added.
The PKK area is an impossible one. It is now dubbed the Tora Bora of Kurdistan. A Kurdish military operation to root the PKK out will only strengthen them and rally people to their cause at a time when their popularity is waning and more calls are raised for them to stop attacking Turkey.
The PKK themselves are looking for a way out of this dilemma. They feel that Iraqi Kurdish public opinion is becoming less tolerant of their presence. No demonstrations were held this time in Iraqi Kurdistan in their support. Also, the PKK has come to terms with the reality that it cannot change Turkey by force. Hence its demands have been minimized to cultural, democratic and political rights for the Kurds of Turkey.
The Turkish stance on dealing with the Kurdish issue has been oscillating between radicals who want the eradication of the PKK militarily and moderates who want to deal with the Kurdish issue politically. Allowing a bigger Kurdish cultural, political and democratic breathing space in Turkey would certainly close down the PKK on both sides of the border.
The Kurds of Iraq do not want to pay the price for, nor do they want to be a party to, Turkey’s internal differences on this issue. But a political step as such would make their lives much easier. It would enable them to rally the public (on both sides of the border) in favor of pushing the PKK into further isolation. Turkey does not need 25 more incursions to accept that a political course of action is the roadmap for a solution and the most effective way to end the PKK issue.
The situation is ripe for a face-saving solution for all parties. The key is direct talks between Ankara and Arbil. The US called for this when Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Ankara and Arbil last month. Earlier, President Jalal Talabani’s visit to Ankara was an icebreaker and a catalyst for a new page in Iraqi-Turkish relations.
A solution is needed today more than any other time. All sides realize that they have a lot to lose if the situation escalates and deteriorates. There are radicals and moderates on all sides. The radicals had their time, and failed. Perhaps it is time that the moderates take the lead.

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