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While the United States’ government struggles to deal with its budgetary problems, the Middle East has continued to change in ways unnoticed by the “elite” media.
One of the more significant developments since the beginning of the Islamist Awakening – or “Arab Spring” – may have gone unnoticed: The Turks may be closing in on a solution to their Kurdish problem. For decades, the primary internal security problem of Turkey has been the Kurdish-separatist and terrorist organization known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The elimination of this threat will give Turkey a free hand to pursue its ambitions in the strategic global-crossroads that extend in a circumference of 1,000 miles around Istanbul (Constantinople). This is an important region that reaches from Germany in the northwest to Iran in the east.
The recent Islamic Awakening that began in Tunisia is a problem for the PKK terrorist front and its Marxist ideology. The age of petty nationalisms among the various Muslim ethnic groups is drawing to a close; Marx and Das Capital are out, Muhammad and the Quran are in. After spending nearly 30 years fighting for an independent Kurdish state, the PKK has signaled that it could settle for regional autonomy within the Turkish republic. The PKK’s overtures may be a ruse, but perhaps not. In actuality, the diplomacy of Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is showing surprising effectiveness with the influential Kurds of Iraq.
The PKK has drawn its supporters from the often marginalized Kurdish population in Turkey. The Kurds of Iraq, however, have benefited from peace and cooperation. As Turkey cozies up to the Kurds in Iraq, it is signaling to the Kurds in Turkey that the government is not their enemy. This will split the constituency of the PKK, decrease its appeal and reduce recruitment. If Kurdish aspirations can be fulfilled within the existing Turkish power structure, do Kurds need the PKK?
The autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, known as Iraqi-Kurdishstan, is an oil-rich and strategically placed region sharing a border with both Turkey and its rival, Iran. The Kurdish people are distributed over a wide area that ranges from Turkey and Lebanon in the west to Iran in the east. Istanbul has the largest Kurdish population of any city in the world. The old desire for a Kurdish nation-state was always in conflict with the existing powers in the region. However, Iraqi-Kurdishstan is a beacon of Kurdish aspirations, a Kurdish ruled sub-state region. Little wonder the PKK is nervous that Mr. Erdogan has established a relationship that now sees Turkish truckers – instead Iraqi Arabs – transporting Kurdish oil out of Iraq, and frustrates the efforts Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad to control the energy sector. With economic ties comes an implicit Turkish security guarantee to Sunni majority Iraqi-Kurdistan against forced centralization by the Shia-dominated Iraqi central government.
In November 2011, the BBC reported that the Turkish prime minister apologized for the 1936-39 anti-Kurdish pogroms by the Turkish military. The mea culpa is all the more surprising considering the Turkish aversion to any mention of the Armenian genocide. In response to these developments in late 2012, the PKK signaled for talks with Turkey, while they stepped up attacks on Turkish targets, and collaborated with the Assad government in Syria, another Turkish foe – a rather curious trifecta. PKK may be unsure of how to cope with the changing dynamic. Barring a serious setback – for instance the defeat of the Sunni rebels in Syria – over time Mr. Erdogan will likely succeed in bringing many of the Kurds into his orbit as he builds his resume as an Islamic unifier. In that scenario, only the Iranians would pose a credible regional threat to Turkish hegemony; this does not rule out an Egyptian attempt to provide an Arab alternative to Turkish leadership. Turkey is pursuing a dual-track strategy, one of marginalizing the PKK and simultaneous outreach to the respectable Iraqi Kurds. Turkish criticism of Israel’s 2012 Operation Pillar of Cloud defensive action in the Gaza Strip should be viewed in the context of Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions to be a pan-Islamic leader. As Erdogan maneuvers to amend the Turkish constitution, he may step up efforts to win Kurdish support within Turkey for his measures. Erdogan hopes to turn Turkey into a presidential system – like the United States – and run for the presidency.
If the Syrian regime falls, Turkey is positioned to offer its guiding hand to a new government and potentially help the Arab majority accommodate Syria’s three million Kurds and forestall attempts at Kurdish irredentism. This would extend Turkish influence to the borders of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. A neo-Ottoman security umbrella then could be established using diplomacy. But would America be left out in the rain?