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Turkey’s credibility is at stake in Kurdistan Region

As long as the foreign relations are determined by the two main Kurdish parties — it becomes necessary for KRG to adopt a unified foreign policy with its neighbours and international community.

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The Islamic State’s (IS) onslaught took the Kurdish armed forces (Peshmerga) by surprise earlier this month despite the confidence exerted by Kurdish politicians and military commanders. The widespread rhetoric among Kurdish politicians indicated that Kurdish forces were well-prepared to take on IS militants, should they directly attack Kurdistan region.

The setbacks for Kurdish armed forces in Makhmour and Jalawla were inevitable, particularly because there exists a broken command chain within the Peshmerga hierarchy — lack of communication, coordination, rivalry between the private forces belonging to the two main political parties poses a serious risk to national security. When you consider this in retrospect of the old weaponry and ammunitions Peshmerga forces possessed in the face of an organization armed with American weapons seized from the demoralised Iraqi army in June — losses and setback suffered by Peshmerga forces were inevitable.

In order to stop the IS advancement towards Kurdistan Region, Kurdish forces required better arms, and military hardware. The Kurdish forces were at a clear disadvantage because since 2007, Baghdad has refused to military equip Peshmerga forces, despite their recognition as part of the Iraqi defence system constitutionally.

To change the dynamics and balance of power, Kurds turned to their strategic, energy and economic partner — their northern neighbour, Turkey. Unfortunately, Kurdish leaders were disappointed to learn that Ankara had declined to provide Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with weapons to stop the Islamic militants.

According to the Kurdistan Region Presidency’s Chief of Staff, Fuad Hussein, KRG asked Turkey for assistance to confront the Islamic state, but their request was declined. Hussein reasoned that major issues prevented the Turks to assist Erbil in its fight against the IS — Turkish presidential election and the 49 Turkish diplomats, kidnapped by the IS since the fall of Mosul on June 9th.

It seems Ankara’s willingness to become strategic partners with KRG was tested, and providing their former “enemies” with weaponry was simply too much. Ankara has already granted KRG a lifeline through energy partnership and independent pipeline to export and sell its oil. It is noteworthy to point out that Ankara could simply have assisted Kurds secretly, similar to its provisions of arms to Syrian opposition groups.

In contrast to Turkey, Kurdistan’s eastern neighbour Iran, despite UN sanctions on arms exports did not hesitate to provide KRG with weapons. In fact, they sent artillery units, officers and military advisors to fight side by side with Peshmerga forces in Makhmur and Jalawla to stop Sunni Jihadist ambitions to control Erbil and Khanaqin.

In a press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani, he said, “We asked for weapons, and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons, and ammunition”.

Even though Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made tremendous changes in its policy towards the Kurds, it does not appear to have transcended the traditional mind-sets that Kurds are still considered as a national security concern. In other words, Ankara perceives Kurdistan Region as an opportunity to boost its economic and energy ambitions, as outlined by the current ruling party, in pursuit of becoming the world’s 10th economy by 2023.

In the recent years, Iran’s influence was offset by Turkish economic interests and political influence in Kurdistan Region. Iran has made a comeback as one of the most influential players, not on a Kurdish political landscape, but on a social level.

Many people in Kurdistan region will continue to ask, why did Turkey not protect its economic interests in the region? It reminds Kurds of the closure of Turkish borders in 1991 when the former regime attempted to recapture Kurdish controlled areas that led to the exodus of millions of people. Back then, Iran also proved to be more effective and efficient in responding to the humanitarian crisis Kurdish people faced back then.

If Turkey does not show willingness to aid KRG against a notorious group like IS, how can Kurdish leaders expect assistance in their fight against a sovereign state such as Iraq? KRG has to be prepared for such eventuality in the future, as the unexpected unfolding events could have dire consequences for its survival.

For better or worse, its seems that the traditional unofficial divisive regional policy practised by the KDP and PUK seemed to have worked well this time in favour of Kurdistan — KDP has kept itself away from Tehran and has inclined more towards Ankara dictated by economic interests and geography at least since 2007, while PUK’s historical relations with Iran have remained intact despite the massive Turkish economic interests and incentives.

It can be argued that no one remembers the last trip of President Massoud Barzani to Tehran, but his vista to Ankara, and standing with former Turkish premier, and current President Recep Tyyip Erdogan in 2013 is still reeling in the minds of the Kurds.

To the surprise of most, Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) was allowed and welcomed to join Kurdish forces against the IS on several fronts by the KRG, more accurately by the KDP, whose relations have soured with the PKK and recently tensions skyrocketed over their respective policies towards Rojava.

After the recapture of the town of Makhmur by Peshmerga forces and the PKK guerrillas in which the latter proved effective in defeating IS, Barzani visited the PKK fighters and thanked them for their contribution. The move was welcomed by the Kurds as a gesture of Kurdish unity, but certainly it seems to have been a shock for Ankara, which has been fighting the PKK for the last three decades.

Barzani is positioned in a treacherous geopolitical environment, and seems to understand his leverages very well — meeting with PKK fighters appears to have been in reaction to Ankara’s refusal to assist the KRG with arms against a rising Jihadist threat that refuses to recognise borders of Iraq or anywhere else.

Consequently, the behaviour and policies of the two respective states towards Kurds can be better understood through the historical context of how these regional powers have perceived the Kurds in the past.

The current government in Turkey, which considers itself as the inheritors of the Ottoman empire continues to see Kurdistan Region as an economic opportunity, which is exactly the same policy practiced by the demise Ottoman empire towards the Kurdish self ruled emirates in the past — collection of taxes to the treasury in Istanbul to contribute its expensive military campaigns and fund its administrative functions.

But for the Iranians, Kurdistan is the extension of its national security against Sunni Jihadists and Arab nationalists at the moment. In addition, policy makers in Tehran recognise the fact that Kurds have not only posed national security threat to hinterland persia, but have been a barrier to protect it from the invading forces from western and southern borders. Indeed during the reign of Shah Abass (1587–1629) of the Safavid Empire, some 60,000 Kurds were forcibly migrated and resettled to northeastern borders in today’s Khorasan province to repel Uzbek and Kazakh invading forces.

Furthermore, Kurds have been able to acquire high positing of power from hundreds of years BC in Persia. The most recent Kurd ruled Persia was Karim Khan Zand (1705–1779) who was able to effectively wrist control over today’s Iran to Basra and terminate some 40 years of turmoil and wars in Iran, brought prosperity and peace to the territories he controlled until the onset of Qajar dynasty in 1785 even though under Zand’s son the empire was already in decline.

This is not to romanticise the relations between Kurds and Tehran. As a matter of fact the first collective efforts to establish an independent Kurdish state was in Mahabad (1946) in today’s Iran. Kurdish Iranian opposition forces have fought relentlessly against successive Iranian regimes for their political, economic and cultural rights to be recognised. But compared to Turkey, Kurds in Iran have been in a better position and status in the modern history.

In contrast, Kurds have not acquired high and powerful positions in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire. Probably the most known name in Istanbul was Idris Bitlisi who was a scholar, administrator and advisor during Selim I rule. Even though under AK Party rule, Ankara has sought to reverse the damages made by the former Kemalist regime. Turkey has a long way to go before it can recognise the existence of Kurdistan.

Recent events illustrate that a balanced regional policy and diversified foreign relations for the KRG as the guarantor of its very survival given its landlocked geography. Putting all of its eggs in Ankara’s baskets could potentially repeat the same disaster of 1975 where Kurds depended entirely on Tehran in their fight against the Iraqi central government.

As long as the foreign relations are determined by the two main Kurdish parties — it becomes necessary for KRG to adopt a unified foreign policy with its neighbours and international community. The KRG’s foreign policy should be devised, and relations should be institutionalise within its department of foreign relations independent from fragmented relations practised by the political parties.

Yerevan Saeed is a senior research fellow at Kurdish Policy Foundation. He currently works with Rudaw News Agency. His work has been published in Diplomatic Courier. the New York Times, Rudaw, Global Politician, and Kurdish newspapers. He has worked for American and international news agencies, including STRATFOR, The New York Times, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the BBC, and The Guardian as a journalist and translator in Iraq since 2003.

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