BACKGROUND: On a recent trip to the Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did what he often does: he evoked the Ottoman past of Turkey and the Middle East, and he asserted that a “parenthesis of a hundred years that has kept Turks, Kurds and Arabs apart” is about to be closed. Davutoğlu has on other occasions referred to the Sykes-Picot accord, the secret Franco-British agreement of 1916 that drew the boundaries of the post-Ottoman Middle East, and he has predicted that the present turmoil in the region amounts to the undoing the European-imposed Middle Eastern map.
From the vantage point of Ankara, the tremors in the region both pose a threat, and provide an opportunity to extend Turkey’s power beyond its borders, potentially rendering these borders – the legacy of Sykes-Picot – irrelevant. Indeed, the current regional dynamics explain the timing of the peace process, the second “Kurdish opening”, with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
To once and for all neutralize the threat posed by the PKK was something that had acquired a new urgency, as the Kurdish insurgency provided Turkey’s regional adversaries Syria and Iran with an opportunity to counter Ankara’s interference in the civil war in Syria. With Turkey lending critical support to the rebels in Syria, Turkish officials worried that the Syrian regime and its main ally, Iran, were going to attempt to turn the tables on it by exploiting Ankara’s Kurdish vulnerability. Indeed, there were signs that this was happening; Murat Karayılan, the acting commander-in-chief of the PKK, hinted at this specter when, in a recent interview with the Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal, he claimed that the PKK had been preparing to launch a vast offensive against Turkey during 2013, “its biggest ever”, noting that the “regional context” offered the Kurdish militant group new opportunities.
If the Turkish government succeeds in its endeavor to seek reconciliation with the Kurds, that threat will have been permanently neutralized; and peace will, furthermore, enable Turkey to transcend the borders to its south, notably the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Turkey has already established a very close, economic and political relation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq; Turkey is the KRG’s pre-eminent trade partner, supplying most of its imports, and Turkey envisions a northern Iraq that has become fully integrated in the Turkish economy. That would be the realization, with a delay of two decades, of the bold vision of the late president Turgut Özal, who was the first Turkish leader to suggest that a Turkey that had solved its Kurdish issue could grow in territory. The settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey would remove the obstacle that the presence of the PKK, which is based in northern Iraq, constitutes to the fulfillment of Turkey’s aspirations in northern Iraq.
IMPLICATIONS: Reconciliation with the Kurdish minority would not only bring peace to Turkey; the expectation of Turkish policy makers is that it will provide the country with new energy resources. Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, writes that “Erdoğan has now developed a plan that would take advantage of this development [the likelihood that the regional map is going to change], ensure his political control and lock in energy security for his country. He envisions a new regional order under Turkish leadership, based on a realignment between Turks and Kurds that underpins a strategic partnership for exploiting the region’s last untapped energy resources”.
Recent explorations have revealed that the Kurdish self-governing region has oil reserves of 45 billion barrels, which is the equivalent of a third of Iraq’s total reserves. Erbil, the capital of the KRG, and Ankara are both eager to develop an energy partnership; for the KRG, developing such a partnership with Turkey would help the region in its quest to gain de facto independence from Baghdad. If the KRG’s hopes are realized, its oil will flow north, to Turkey, and it will have secured a possibility to evade sharing proceeds with the central Iraqi government, as present Iraqi constitutional arrangements dictate. For Turkey, becoming the transit country for the oil from the KRG and gaining access to the oil resources of the KRG would mean that its dependence on Russia and Iran for energy supplies and its current-account deficit – seventy percent of which is due to energy imports – would diminish.
In March of this year, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited Ankara to hold energy talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although the details of the talks or of any possible agreements are yet to be disclosed, it is believed that the plan to construct a new pipeline from KRG-held territory to Turkey, as well as the substantial oil and gas concessions that Turkish companies are expected to be granted were at the center of the Erdoğan-Barzani talks. However, the United States disapproves of Ankara’s and Erbil’s determination to go ahead with their energy partnership: Washington perceives the Turkish-Kurdish cooperation as a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq. The U.S. fears that if Iraq breaks up along ethnic and sectarian lines, the Shiite-populated part would gravitate even more toward Iran than what is the case today.
Ironically, the positions of the U.S. and Turkey have thus been reversed; a decade ago it was Turkey that feared the break-up of Iraq, with the Turks accusing the Americans of willfully fueling the secessionist tendencies of the Kurds. Today, Washington is instead working hard to dissuade the Kurds from breaking away from Baghdad, and is attempting to broker a deal between Erbil and Baghdad.
However, there are so far no indications that Turkey has decided to pay attention to the United States’ concerns. Although Turkish officials reiterate that Iraq’s territorial integrity is a Turkish interest, Turkey remains determined to deepen the economic integration with northern Iraq. Indeed, the peace process with the PKK demonstrates that the Turkish government is prepared to take bold steps that are not politically risk-free but that hold out the promise of securing vital geo-strategic and geo-economic goals. It would simply not be possible for Turkey to aspire to integrate the self-governing Kurds of northern Iraq in a common economy while still continuing to deny its own Kurdish population the kind of rights – education, local autonomy – and status that the citizens of the KRG enjoy. To put it simply, economic interests, related to regional interests, dictate that Turkey becomes less of a nation-state and that Turkishness ceases to be the sole, official norm of society. The economic imperative is a powerful incentive for Erdoğan to see the peace process through.
CONCLUSIONS: While the prospect of economic growth and secured energy supplies may entice the Turkish state to seek a democratic resolution of the country’s ethnic conflict, the economic imperative conversely sustains an imperial, neo-Ottoman world-view and an assertiveness that, when put together, provoke regional instability, and contribute to exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tensions.
Moreover, what makes economic sense, and what is “rational” in terms of state power may still prove to be a hard sell; strategic considerations, fulfillment of dreams of empire and the need to secure energy for a growing economy may ultimately matter much less for ordinary Turks; they may not be prepared to exchange an accustomed national identity for oil and regional clout.
Although there is majority support for ending the conflict with the Kurds, the signs are accumulating that a Turkish nationalist backlash is building up against what is perceived as the denigration of the Turkish identity in order to satisfy the demands of the Kurds. The public gatherings that are being held where the emissaries of the government, the so called “wise people”, promote the peace process, have revealed the depth of the Turkish nationalist frustration and the attachment to the officially enshrined symbols of Turkish nationalism – like the references to Turkishness in the constitution, whose removal the Kurds demand. It should not be assumed that nationalism will be pacified by the prospect of future gains, in terms of prosperity and power, made possible in part by secured access to Kurdish oil. Coping with a nationalist psychology that does not necessarily heed what is “rational” is going to be a major challenge for Turkey’s peacemakers.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".