From Northern Ireland To Northern Iraq: Inside Turkey’s New Kurdish Policy

The Turkish government wants to isolate the armed Kurdish rebel group PKK, while opening up to the Kurds themselves. Ankara takes a lesson from Europe's recent past, with an eye on how Kurds in Iraq and even Syria will affect the outcome.

Newroz celebrations last year in Diyaribakir (wgauthier)
Newroz celebrations last year in Diyaribakir (wgauthier)
Deniz Zeyrek

ISTANBUL - Across Turkey, the Kurds' traditional celebration of Newroz has sparked unrest and a police crackdown. It also has forced Ankara to show its hand on its Kurdish policy that is undergoing major changes.

The Turkish government has decided to halt talks with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a move that would elevate the civilian Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to the position of sole negotiator for the Kurds. This new approach also has the effect of giving Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani new prominence in the push to find a resolution.

In the run-up to Newroz, Turkish intelligence sources indicated that the PKK was planning to use the New Year's festivities to provoke violent unrest across the country. According to these sources, BDP demonstrations were set to be followed by "freedom marches' that would converge on city centers.

Meanwhile, the PKK had ordered armed attacks on police personnel across the region, with elite forces identified as priority targets. Based on this information, the government decided to ban the BDP from holding early Newroz celebrations on March 18.

Northern Ireland, Basque country models

Since elections last June, the government has increasingly viewed the Kurdish problem as a national security issue to be confronted with military means. However, until recently, the authorities also agreed on the importance of a political initiative to end the conflict.

These efforts were termed the "Kurdish opening" and were coordinated by Vice Prime Minister Beşir Atalay. The new strategy would combine both political and military dimensions drawn from the experiences of conflicts in other countries. Ankara looked to British policy in Northern Ireland and Spain's approach in the Basque country as examples for delivering political rights to the Kurds. It also took the conflict in Sri Lanka as a model for forcibly subduing the PKK militants.

The result was a policy that answered Kurdish demands for "basic rights and freedoms' while simultaneously redoubling efforts to defeat the PKK militants. This strategy made it clear that expanding Kurdish rights was not a concession to the PKK, but rather a principled policy based on universal values.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described this approach as "fighting terror while welcoming negotiation." In this strategy, the primary emphasis was placed on emboldening the BDP as an independent actor and establishing them - as well as other unarmed Kurdish political groups - as legitimate members in parliament. The fight against the PKK was to continue, but only at an intensity that would not harm progress on the political front.

However, this approach unraveled in the face of a series of setbacks. First, a group of BDP members were arrested prior to the June election, undermining the confidence that had grown between the government and the BDP. Shortly after, politically compromising audio recordings of meetings between the PKK and Turkish intelligence were leaked.

Meanwhile, a criminal investigation into the KCK – the political wing of the PKK - led to arrests of BDP leaders, journalists, and academics. Another serious setback occurred in July when the PKK launched a devastating attack on Turkish soldiers in Silvan, turning public opinion against any further negotiation with the PKK.

Iraqi, Syrian angles

Reacting to these setbacks, the government decided to abandon its ‘democratic opening" in favor of a new approach with the single aim of fighting the PKK to the bitter end.

The greatest unknown surrounding the new strategy centers on whether the BDP constitutes an viable negotiating partner. The security bureaucracy is well aware that part of the BDP constituency falls under PKK influence. But the authorities also know that the BDP is the only political party that commands wide support among the Kurdish population.

Northern Iraq is another potential path for negotiation with the Kurdish leadership. Ankara is eager to step up cooperation with Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Regional Government based in Erbil, Iraq. Barzani is committed to working toward PKK disarmament, and has called for a conference of Kurdish leaders that will aim to pressure the PKK for peace. "If the PKK refuses these calls for peace, it will be ostracized and unable to sustain itself in the region," he said.

The United States backs this initiative and Barzani's call for a conference in Ankara in July. Yet as Barzani builds ties with Turkey, the PKK is shifting its center of gravity away from Northern Iraq and moving toward Syria. Intelligence reports indicate that this process is already underway, with PKK forces looking to capitalize on the vacuum in Syria to make up for the losses they have sustained in Iran and Iraq.

Read the original article in Turkish

Photo - wgauthier

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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