x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

New steps seen to end Turkish war on Kurds

The presidents of Turkey and Iraq are planning to meet on the sidelines of an international water conference in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // Amid speculation about new steps by Ankara to end a decades-old Kurdish rebellion, the presidents of Turkey and Iraq, Abdullah Gul and Jalal Talabani, are planning to meet on the sidelines of an international water conference in Istanbul that kicked off yesterday, with a long-awaited visit by Mr Gul to Baghdad expected in the coming days. Mr Talabani, in Istanbul to attend the fifth World Water Forum, met the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Sunday evening. Together with Mr Gul, Mr Talabani attended yesterday's opening ceremony of the forum, a meeting of thousands of experts and government officials from around the world aimed at finding ways to save the world's water resources for future generations. The two presidents are to get together for bilateral talks in the coming days. It is Mr Talabani's second visit to Turkey as Iraqi president. Mr Gul is expected to fly to Baghdad on Friday for the first visit of a Turkish head of state in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Turkish media reported. Speculation has been growing that Turkey may soon take some new steps to end the war against Kurdish rebels in the south-east of the country. There have been efforts to improve co-operation between Turkey and Iraq in recent months to get rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who have been hiding in the Kandil mountain range in northern Iraq, to lay down their arms. The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy from Ankara since 1984, in a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. Mr Gul told reporters last week that "there will be good things in the Kurdish question in the period ahead". There has been no official statement as to what Mr Gul may have had in mind, but Turkish media have been reporting that Ankara is preparing a new amnesty. The plan would allow most PKK fighters to return to Turkey from Iraq without the fear of prosecution and would give PKK leaders the chance to receive asylum in European countries in the event that the organisation ends its armed struggle, the reports said. Last month, the Turkish foreign ministry confirmed that there were talks about "the issue of dissolving the PKK" within relevant Turkish institutions as well as between Turkey and other countries and the EU. Relations between Turkey and Iraq have improved recently, the thaw ending a period of tension that began after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Ankara feared a break-up of its south-eastern neighbour and the emergence of an independent Kurdish state there. In an interview with the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah published yesterday, Mr Talabani sought to reassure the Turks that they did not have to fear such a development. "I tell my Turkish brothers: don't be afraid of Kurdistan declaring independence," Mr Talabani said. It was in the interest of Iraq's Kurds to stay inside the Iraqi state. In an effort to drive the PKK out of the Kandil mountains, Ankara has not only intensified consultations with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, but also established direct contact with the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq, which had formerly been ignored by Turkey. Mr Talabani, who is himself a Kurdish leader from the north of Iraq, has stressed that he wants to help to convince the PKK to end the rebellion. "With the mediation of our Kurdish brothers, we will do everything we can to convince the people in the mountains to lay down their weapons and make sure they are given the chance to take part in a political process," Mr Talabani told the Turkish news channel CNNTurk in December. According to press reports, a conference by Kurdish groups from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran is planned to take place in Erbil next month. At the same time, there has been a "change of mentality" towards the Kurdish question in Turkey itself, Fikret Bila wrote in a column in Milliyet, a daily newspaper, after Mr Gul predicted "good things" on the Kurdish issue. In recent years, Turkey introduced several reforms aimed at improving the cultural rights of Kurds, the start of a state-run Kurdish language television channel in January marking the latest reform step. According to Bila, Mr Gul's message was that "at last, [Kurdish] issues are no longer viewed as a taboo, everything can be discussed". Even the Turkish military has said the Kurdish conflict cannot be solved by arms alone. "We did not take economic steps, we were unable to integrate Kurds into the country from a cultural point of view, we tried to assimilate them," the former head of the Turkish navy, retired Adm Salim Dervisoglu, told the Yeni Safak newspaper about his time in the military leadership in the late 1990s. Mr Gul's remarks were also welcomed by the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. "This statement is important," Ocalan told his lawyers during a meeting last week on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul, according to pro-Kurdish media. "I will do what my responsibility requires from me in this issue. I will be more careful in coming weeks."

tseibert@thenational.ae