Only a year ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan scoffed at the notion of talks with the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani. He accused Barzani of providing the Turkish PKK (the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party) with havens and jumping-off bases for incursions against Turkey in the Kandil mountains of northern Iraq.
But time and skilled diplomacy have all but erased this grudge.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report an unpublicized encounter between Turkish officials and an Iraqi Kurdish delegation led by Barzani which warmed relations sufficiently to bring together in mid-February more than 100 Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials, academics and observers. They foregathered in Erbil – seat of the KRG – to discuss how to handle the violent PKK and how to cooperate on strategic issues.
The conference was a success: It ended with a statement stressing that “developing relations between Ankara and the KRG would bring peace and stability not only to Turkey and Iraq, but to the whole region.”
Kurdish officials were overjoyed by the friendship offered by their powerful neighbor to the north.
“Up until now no one from the Turkish side has come here to listen to us,” said the culture minister of the northern Iraqi government, Falakaddin Kakeyi. “From this point of view this conference is very important. We want to continue this dialogue.”
Erbil’s governor, Nevzad Hadi, was quoted as saying: “Some walls have been torn down” between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey’s consul general in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Huseyin Avin Botsali, said his country was “Iraq’s door to Europe”, newspapers reported. “This door will never be closed,” he pledged.
Behind the public displays, a secret, far-reaching pact
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Ankara and Erbil report there is much more to these public effusions than a display of affection. The true extent of the profound rapprochement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan is incorporated in a secret strategic cooperation pact signed in early February by the Turkish prime minister and KRG president. Its high points are revealed here:
Turkey will permit the unlimited transfer of oil and goods from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkish ports and air terminals and thence on to Europe. Ankara agrees to lift all restrictions on goods entering the KRG from Turkey.
Kurds will not alter the demographic balance in the city of Kirkuk. In other words, Kurds will stop pressuring Turkmen residents to leave their homes, thereby preserving the city's multi-ethnic character.
Barzani pledged personally that the Kurds would not seize the volatile city by military force or its outlying oil fields.
Barzani enshrined Turkey's status in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and the biggest in the northern enclave. This means that Ankara's political influence in sections of the city's two-million-strong population will be respected and its diplomatic mission in the city, military attaches and an extensive intelligence presence maintained.
In return for these concessions, the agreement states that the Turks will not recognize as legitimate the consignment of Iraqi national troops to areas occupied by Kurdish military forces. Ankara will even help the Kurds resist such an incursion, by air cover, for instance, for its Peshmerga.
This amounts to Ankara's recognition of the positions and boundaries manned currently by the KRG's autonomous Peshmerga Special Forces and the Kurdish units serving with the Iraqi national army.
The smooth working of the new accord was demonstrated this week when the Kurdish PUK party's elderly leader, Jalal Talabani, stepped down as president of Iraq and retired from political life.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources disclose that Talabani was forced out by the disintegration of his party, centered in Sulameiniyeh in northern Iraq.
His intelligence chief and party militia commander Kosrat Rasoul was the first to defect, followed by 11 Kurdish tribal chiefs. When Barzani heard that Iranian agents had arrived in Suleimaniyeh not far from their border in order to seize control of PUK headquarters, he turned to the Turkish prime minister for help to keep the Iranians out.
In no time, Kurdish intelligence officers were flown into the city, well provided with cash for spreading around the community. This episode that would have been undreamed of only a year ago.
Iraqi Kurdish autonomy enshrined without help from Washington
Our military sources translate this far-reaching pact as Barzani's success securing a pledge of Turkish protection for the Iraqi Kurds' de facto autonomy. Erbil is thus the first of Iraq's major religious/ethnic groupings of Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims to acquire an external military protector outside US control and willing to defy the Baghdad regime of Nouri al-Maliki in support of Kurdish self-government.
Equally impressive is the common ground Ankara and Erbil have reached, after decades of bitter disputes, on the status of the oil city of Kirkuk – again without American or central Iraqi government involvement.
The strategic rewards won by the Turkish prime minister for his country are just as formidable:
First, Turkey and the Kurdish region have squared off for a historic reconciliation of their age-old conflict, concluding a pact which promises to weaken the separatist PKK movement waging war on Ankara by reducing their bases in northern Iraq.
Second, Turkey becomes the leading political, military and intelligence power in Kurdish northern Iraq, a region which ranges from the Turkish frontier in the west to the Iranian border in the east.
As such, Erdogan has opened up three interesting new horizons:
Its newly-acquired foothold in northern Iraq, together with its geographical situation north of Syria and west of Iran, empowers Turkey to act as a potential barrier for separating Tehran from Damascus – both physically and strategically.
If, alternatively, Erdogan were to go for a strategic tripartite pact with Tehran and Damascus, Turkey's domination of Iraqi Kurdistan would make it the pivotal partner, with the option of lending the accord an anti-Arab bent.
By acquiring dominant influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ankara becomes a determining factor in potential negotiations on the future of Syrian and Iranian Kurds.
Turkey appeases its own Kurds
Our sources in Ankara report that Erdogan is pressing forward meanwhile with reforms and concessions for Turkey's Kurdish population.
On Saturday, March 7, a landmark sermon in the Kurdish tongue was held at the state-owned 12th century Kurdish Ulu Mosque in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey. It celebrated the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and called for brotherhood among Muslims, saying racism has no place in Islam.
It was the first Kurdish language sermon to be held with official sanction in modern Turkey's history. The language itself was banned completely until 1991 and forbidden in official functions until a few months ago.
This was one of the steps Erdogan has pursued to ease restrictions for Turkey's 15 million Kurds, one-fifth of the total population. More use of Kurdish will be sanctioned soon in the community's schools and universities, particularly in southern Turkey, where most of the country's Kurdish population is located.