x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Turkey and Iraq seek to end Kurdish rebellion

A fresh effort to end an armed conflict includes a plan to disarm Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and have most of their members return to Turkey.

Abdullah Gul, right, Turkey's president, meets with Tariq al-Hashemi during the Iraqi vice president's official visist to Turkey.
Abdullah Gul, right, Turkey's president, meets with Tariq al-Hashemi during the Iraqi vice president's official visist to Turkey.

ISTANBUL // Turkey and Iraq are said to be working on a new plan to disarm Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and have most of their members return to Turkey in a fresh effort to end an armed conflict that has plagued the region for decades. There has been no confirmation of the plan, but speculation that an agreement may be in the cards was strengthened after statements by both Iraqi and Turkish officials this week. A changing international environment is creating pressure to find a solution, said Dr Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul's Koc University. "There is something concrete behind this talk" about a possible agreement, Dr Somer said. For years rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, have planned and co-ordinated attacks on targets inside Turkey from their headquarters in the Kandil mountain range of northern Iraq. The PKK took up arms against Ankara in 1984 to fight for Kurdish autonomy and tens of thousands of people have died since then. Disarming the PKK would relax relations between Turkey and Iraq and provide a unique opportunity for Turkey to solve the problems in its impoverished Kurdish region by peaceful means, something that has eluded the country's leaders so far. Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, told a visiting delegation of Turkey's main Kurdish party last week that he had a "hopeful expectation" with regards to the rebels. "I believe we will secure a positive development shortly. I do everything I can to have the PKK lay down its arms," the president told the delegation, according to reports in the Turkish press. In Ankara, Burak Ozugergin, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, told reporters that Turkey wanted to end the PKK's presence in northern Iraq in co-operation with the Iraqi government. Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, is expected in Ankara in the near future, the spokesman said. Iraq's vice-president, Tariq al Hashimi, arrived in Ankara last Saturday for talks about the creation of a joint Turkish, Iraqi and US mechanism to deal with the PKK in northern Iraq. Mr Ozugergin said this mechanism would be in place soon, but did not give any details. A trip by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, to Iraq had been planned for the coming days but was cancelled because Mr Gul has an ear infection. While the diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Baghdad is gathering pace, the Turkish army has been keeping up the military pressure on the PKK in northern Iraq. Fighter jets bombed PKK targets in the Kandil mountains on two consecutive days last week, the general staff in Ankara said on its website. According to reports by Taraf, a daily newspaper, and the CNN-Turk television channel, Turkish representatives and their counterparts in Iraq have agreed on a plan that includes a demand by authorities in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq that the several thousand PKK militants lay down their arms and leave the country. Also, the PKK is to be officially defined as an "illegal organisation" in northern Iraq. Ankara is to make sure that low ranking PKK fighters who heed the disarmament call can return to Turkey without being prosecuted. As for the PKK leaders, one possibility under review is to send them into a third country, Taraf reported. An agreement along those lines could help to end chronic tensions that have characterised Turkish-Iraqi relations for years. Ankara says authorities in Iraq and US troops there are not doing enough against the PKK. Turkey sent ground troops into northern Iraq for a week-long operation against the rebels last winter and has attacked PKK positions in the neighbouring country intermittently for more than a year now. Despite the military pressure, the PKK has been able to attack and kill Turkish troops inside Turkey. The PKK is also blamed for a bomb attack in Istanbul in the summer that killed 17 civilians. Some observers say there is a growing realisation on both sides that the conflict cannot be decided by military means. "The PKK cannot defeat the Turkish army," Taraf editor Ahmet Altan wrote in a column for his newspaper, "and the Turkish army cannot solve the Kurdish conflict with arms." At the same time, the international situation is pushing Iraqis and Turks towards new efforts to end the armed conflict. "The environment has changed," Dr Somer said, referring to the recent agreement between the US and the Iraqi government on a withdrawal of US forces from the country by the end of 2011. "The Iraqi Kurds have come to realise that they have to come to terms with Iraq's neighbours, especially with Turkey. The PKK problem needs to be solved somehow." The success of any plan to oust the PKK from northern Iraq will depend heavily on how Turkey will treat rebels returning to its territory and how and if Ankara will fulfil Kurdish demands. Mr Talabani, in his meeting with members of the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, called on Turkey to provide constitutional protection for its Kurdish minority, a position that is also taken by the PKK. "They may want out, but not without some kind of recognition and exit option," Dr Somer said about the PKK. tseibert@thenational.ae