The Ultimate concurrence: Obama, Öcalan, Barzani
“The only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war. Put yourself in their shoes and look at the world through their eyes.” This was the call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians coined by American President Barack Obama on March 21 in front of a mainly student Israeli audience in Jerusalem, the second stop of his three-day Middle East trip. The very same day, the very same spirit, the very same call for peace resonated in the streets of Diyarbakir, a southeastern city of Turkey. The jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan’s Newroz (the traditional spring festival) message was read out in both Turkish and Kurdish to tens of thousands on the streets. Öcalan called for a cease-fire and ordered PKK members off Turkish soil, a landmark moment in the ongoing peace process to end the three-decade armed conflict.
These two peace calls were not the only concurrence last week. Öcalan’s call coincided with the 10th anniversary of the U.S. intervention in Iraq in March 2003. This one was an interesting simultaneity due to the correlation between the Iraq War and the ongoing peace process in Turkey.
The changing dynamics after the Iraq war drove Turkish relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a new direction. After 2003, the American presence in Iraq prevented Turkey from undertaking military attacks in northern Iraq against PKK camps, an ordinary habit of Turkey’s during Saddam’s rule. In addition, the KRG, using the U.S. shelter to increase its own strength and legitimacy in the region, ignored Turkey’s demands to take action against PKK elements on its territory. It also became evident that the Kurdish “quasi-state,” the host of vast hydrocarbon resources, had become a permanent feature. Hence the U.S.-led Iraq invasion put an end to Ankara’s freedom of action and made it dependent on the KRG and Washington to curtail PKK activities. This required a change of tact, in other words, the normalization of relations with northern Iraq.
And the other way around: the consolidation of the Kurdish presence in Northern Iraq demanded a solution to the Kurdish question. This would remove a major impediment in full cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds. In addition, unless Turkey accommodates the demands of its own Kurds, Turkish Kurds would have more incentive to demand the autonomy enjoyed by other Kurdish communities.
These new facts on the ground urged the solution of the Kurdish question and made the KRG a main factor in Turkey’s ongoing peace process. Barzani has already played the role of mediator in peace talks between Turkey and the PKK. He is expected to play stronger roles in the future phases of the process, such as observing the disarmament of the PKK.
Yet the change in the region has only started. Hence both relations with the KRG and the peace process will be subject to numerous tests. Barzani’s own agenda, which is his leadership of all Kurds and the Kurds’ inevitable appeal to self-determination, are the dark clouds on the horizon; just a humble reminder to bear in mind.