Erbil, Iraq– On 13 March, the President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani received an official diplomatic visit at the Salahaddin Resort. It might have been a run-of-the-mill event had the visitor not been the new Turkish consul, Aydin Selcen, who had arrived to take up office in Erbil.
The opening of a Turkish consulate in the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region fell below the radar of most press reporting, yet its significance cannot be underestimated. It is a crowning achievement for Iraqi Kurds, who have walked a tightrope of diplomacy over the years, attempting to balance their own interests without compromising those of their brethren, the long-oppressed Kurds of Turkey.
Since the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in 2003, Turkish firms have constituted over 70 percent of the foreign commercial presence in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. Still, that has not impeded the Turkish military’s relentless and ongoing aerial bombardment of Iraqi Kurdistan’s border areas, where fugitive Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants have found refuge. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has condemned the bombardment, and stressed that short of military intervention, it is prepared to assist in resolving the contentious issue.
While reluctant to be seen as traitors to the Kurdish cause, it is also clear that the KRG cannot jeopardize its own security and prosperity by antagonizing its strategic neighbor, with which it shares a long and mountainous border.
Last month, it was announced that the Iraqi Kurdistan Region would export oil at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) through Turkey. This was initially announced in June last year, but the process was delayed by Baghdad. The KRG plans for oil exports from Kurdistan Region to reach 250,000 bpd by 2011. At a recent conference, Ashti Hawarami, the KRG’s Minister for Natural Resources, announced that the KRG would launch a project to construct a pipeline that would pump 1 million barrels of oil to neighboring states.
Most high-level Iraqi Kurdish officials will readily admit that the key to their future lies in maintaining positive relations with Turkey and also with Iran, which already has a consulate in Erbil. As such, disputes and disappointments of the past are being put aside. The establishment of official Turkish diplomatic representation underscores the headway that has been made in transcending these political tensions and building upon the commercial ties that have developed in recent years.
However, while the politicians are being pragmatic in order to preserve stability and enhance economic relations, the Kurdish masses are finding it harder to forget their grievances with Turkey. Many on the Iraqi Kurdish street were dismayed by what they perceive as Turkey backtracking on some of its promises to the Kurds in Turkey, most notably when Turkey’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to shut down the DTP, the only pro-Kurdish party in the Turkish Parliament, in December 2009.
“Turkey is an important neighbor and country. It has helped us in the past. Being neighbors, it’s normal to have issues and difference of opinion. But the important thing is we have seen a drastic change in relations with Turkey,” said Minister Falah M. Bakir, the KRG’s head of foreign relations. “We have always stated we are friends with Turkey and seek good neighborly relations based on mutual benefit and understanding.”
Bakir stressed that the KRG’s policy is not to interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs.
“We respect the sovereignty of Turkey and their territorial integrity,” he said, alluding to longstanding concerns among neighboring countries, notably Turkey, Iran and Syria, over Kurdish territorial ambitions. Bakir lauded Turkey’s ‘opening’ policies toward Kurds and Armenians, but refrained from commenting on the closure of the DTP party.
Regarding the PKK, Bakir reiterated that it is not a military problem and as such does not warrant military intervention.
“This problem is political in nature. We don’t believe there is a military solution for it. We have stated clearly to the Turkish side that short of military operations, we are ready to do anything to solve this problem peacefully. We are ready to lend a helping hand in this regard. Having a safe and secure border is in the interest of both sides,” he said.
Aside from the rights of their brethren in Turkey, an issue far closer to home for Iraqi Kurds is the fate of oil-rich Kirkuk. One of the greatest obstacles to resolving the Kirkuk question is believed to be Turkey, which backs the claims of the Turkmen minority and opposes Kurdish calls for the annexation of the city to the Kurdistan Region.
Earlier this year, the Turkish consul in Mosul – another hotly contested city – said that while his country seeks to help all Iraqis, it gives priority to assisting Turkmen, “wherever they are in Iraq”.
The rail link that runs between Iraq and Turkey via Mosul was re-opened in February 2010 after a seven-year closure following the US-led invasion, reinforcing trade links between Turkey and the south of Iraq.
No doubt the opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil signals the consolidation of many years of mutually beneficial relations. Yet critics are apt to wonder whether this also means that Turkey will recognize the ‘Kurdistan Region’ as such, or simply continue referring to it as ‘northern Iraq’, a term that infuriates Iraqi Kurds as it undermines their political achievements and aspirations.
“When the Turkish foreign minister was here, in a press conference with President Masoud Barzani, he said that we have approached the Iraqi foreign minister and we want to open a consulate in Erbil. They have now followed up on this. They understand that there is great potential in the region and that it can serve as a gateway to Iraq, while the region looks to Turkey as a gateway to Europe. It’s a win-win situation. We in the KRG do not make the issue of the name ‘Kurdistan’ a problem. The essence is more important than the name. The opening of the consulate shows how far we have come,” said Bakir.