In reconciling with the Kurds, Erdogan takes a risky gamble

By Sinan Ulgen, The Daily Star

Conflict in the Middle East threatens not only the security of many of its states, but also their continued existence. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and others, now gripped by sectarian fighting and tension, risk fragmenting into ethnic sub-states, in that way transforming a region whose political geography was drawn nearly a century ago.

Surveying the regional scene, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has conceived of an audacious plan to enhance Turkey’s regional standing and extend his own political dominance at home. Facing the end of a self-imposed three-term limit as prime minister, he is intent on changing the Turkish constitution to introduce a presidential system – with himself at the top as the first incumbent to wield much-enlarged power.

Erdogan’s plan, however, depends on ending Turkey’s 30-year conflict with its own Kurdish population. As a result, the Erdogan government has decided to engage in negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed Kurdish resistance movement.

The hope is to agree to a new, more liberal constitution that will strengthen the rights of Turkey’s largest ethnic minority and which will include substantial devolution of power to regional governments. In return, the PKK is expected to end its three-decade-long fight against the Turkish state. On March 21, at a mass rally attended by almost 1 million people in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Ocalan delivered a message of peace from his prison cell. He called for an end to armed struggle, and invited the fighters of the PKK to leave the country.

For Erdogan, the stakes could not be higher. Erdogan envisions putting the constitutional changes and the terms of peace to a national referendum, a linkage that would transform Turkish politics. If the negotiations succeed, he will be remembered for his historic role in bringing peace with the Kurds, and will likely stand a better chance of realizing his presidential ambition, having gained parliamentary support for revising the constitution from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

If negotiations fail, however, Erdogan will be held responsible for any deterioration in the security environment that results. A recently leaked account of Ocalan’s strategy highlights the risk, for it cites the PKK leader as threatening the government with full-scale war.

At the same time, the Turkish government is pursuing a separate path of negotiations, through a rapprochement with another Kurdish authority – the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The grand vision is to integrate Iraqi Kurdistan into the Turkish economy.

Turkey already supplies most of the KRG economy’s imports, which accounted for 70 percent of Turkey’s almost $11 billion in exports to Iraq last year. But it is the incipient energy deal between Turkey and the KRG that is set to build the foundation for a real strategic alliance.

The undisclosed deal is believed to grant Turkey substantial concessions to explore new oil and gas fields in northern Iraq, as well as preferential rates for energy exports to Turkey. In return, Turkey is to help the KRG build pipeline infrastructure that will allow oil and gas to be exported to Turkey without relying on Iraq’s national pipeline, which is controlled by the central government in Baghdad.

Within the Turkish government, this opening is viewed as an immense opportunity to reduce Turkey’s heavy dependence on energy imports. In addition to securing energy supplies, the deal would help Turkey to overcome its chronic current-account deficit: Roughly 70 percent of the country’s $84 billion trade deficit is due to the import bill for energy supplies.

For the KRG, the deal would secure the region’s future economic wealth without holding it hostage to an increasingly unsympathetic Iraqi government. Under Iraq’s constitution, the Kurdish region is entitled to 17 percent of the country’s oil and gas revenues. But the distribution of proceeds from hydrocarbons is irregular, and the central government has accumulated significant arrears. The KRG hopes that a deal with Turkey would allow it to obtain more regular and predictable hydrocarbon revenues.

But the United States remains adamantly opposed to such a deal between Turkey and the KRG, claiming that it would undermine Iraq’s stability and fuel secessionist tendencies in the north. In late February, during his overseas trip, which included a stop in Ankara, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated these concerns in his talks with his Turkish counterparts.

America’s fears are not shared in Turkish government circles, where the deals between the U.S. oil giants Exxon and Chevron and the KRG are seen as proof that America is more concerned about its share of the pie in northern Iraq than it is about alleged threats to that country’s stability. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s government has decided to pay little heed to U.S. government concerns.

The sectarian strains that are now rending societies across the Middle East are likely to change the regional map. Erdogan has now developed a plan that would take advantage of this development, 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.

Sinan Ulgen is chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

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April 17, 2013 | 5 Comments »

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  1. yamit82 Said:

    Religious and ethnic fighting could last many years. There will be a massive effort of religious and ethnic revenge. Hezbollah can thus be destroyed and eliminated by vengeful Lebanese and Syrian Sunni Muslims. Israel can have a 2 for in that 2 implacable enemies to our north will functionally destroy the threat to us.

    Sweets anyone? L’Chaim! 🙂

  2. As soon as Assad is out of power Syria will go the way of Iraq and be divided along sectarian lines. The result will be the Lebanonisation of Syria and Iraq. Religious and ethnic fighting could last many years. There will be a massive effort of religious and ethnic revenge. Hezbollah can thus be destroyed and eliminated by vengeful Lebanese and Syrian Sunni Muslims.

    Israel can have a 2 for in that 2 implacable enemies to our north will functionally destroy the threat to us.

    Source: Police believe they have identified Boston suspect 04.17.13, 20:19 / Israel News

    A law enforcement source said police believe they have identified a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, CNN reported Wednesday.

  3. I am guessing that the Turks are trading support for Kurds in syria, Iraq and Iran in exchange for no problems in turkey. I expect the Kurds may be invoved next in a destabilizaton of Iran after the weakening of hezbullah. the Iraq partition was doomed from the beginning, only a merciless dictator could hold those e together, and he is gone. I would imagine that everyone has been expecting this but is just playing pretend.