Huseyin Celik: ‘Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq is not good and it looks like it is going to be divided.’
COPENHAGEN, Denmark – The spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) told Britain’s Financial Times newspaper that Ankara is ready to accept an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, as Iraqi forces fought to turn the tide against jihadi-led insurgents threatening to divide the country.
“Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq is not good and it looks like it is going to be divided,” Huseyin Celik told the daily. He said that, in the past, an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would be a “reason for war” for Turkey. “But no one has the right to say this now.”
Turkey, whose own large Kurdish minority has chafed under repression and restrictions for decades, has excellent relations with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region in the north. Ankara is Erbil’s largest trade partner and is keen on Kurdish oil and gas supplies to fuel its growing economy.
During the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Turkey deployed large numbers of soldiers on its southern border, fearing that Iraq’s Kurds would proclaim independence.
But things have changed. Last November, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the word “Kurdistan” when he received Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani in Diyarbakir, marking a turning point for Ankara.
Following an interview with Rudaw earlier this month, in which Celik said that Iraqi Kurds had the right to decide their own future and name their entity as they wished, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid welcomed Ankara’s stance.
"I think it's great that Turkey put their imprimatur over this," Reid was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying. "It's good they did that, gave it their blessing, but the ultimate division of their country, if in fact there is one, has to come from Iraqis."
But while speeding ahead on ties with Erbil, Ankara has been slow to move on a peace process began last year with its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its fight for greater Kurdish rights.
Speaking Kurdish and any expression of Kurdish culture was completely banned in Turkey until 1991, and the Turks feared that an independent Kurdish state could instigate its own 15 million Kurds.
According to Soren Schmidt, lecturer at the Aalborg University in Denmark and an expert on Iraqi Kurds, Ankara and Tehran would both be ready to accept an independent “Kurdistan” in Iraq, as long as they can get guarantees that an Iraqi Kurdish state does not claim to include Kurdish areas of Iran and Turkey.
Today, Kurdistan “is de facto an independent state,” he noted.
“But I also think that the Kurdish leaders are wise enough not to overplay their cards and declare Kurdistan a formally independent state without taking at least Turkey, Iran and the United States for advice,” he said.
Huseyin Seyhanligolu, lecturer at the Dicle University in Diyarbakir, believes Ankara has understood that Turkey’s Kurds are not after independence, but equal rights.
"Studies show that Turkey's Kurds want more linguistic and cultural autonomy within the Turkish State. They do not want to secede from Turkey," he said.
But Amberin Zaman, a writer who has covered Turkey for The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, notes that with Turkish presidential elections due in August, Erdogan will be unlikely to push nationalist voters away by officially supporting an independent Kurdish state in Iraq.
”It’s even less likely after the Kurds’ seizure of Kirkuk, which ethnic Turkish Turkmen claim as theirs,” she said, referring to Peshmerga forces the Kurdistan Region has deployed in the oil-rich city that is at the center of a territorial dispute between Erbil and the Shiite-Arab government in Baghdad.