Turkey Invests in Kurdish Region

Stephen DeAngelis

March 14, 2008

In many of my posts about the security situation along the Turkey/Iraq border, I’ve noted that the solution is more economic than diplomatic and more diplomatic than military. Both the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government want peaceful relationships with Turkey. The fly in the ointment remains the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that continues to mount cross border raids in Turkey from sanctuaries in Iraq. In recent weeks, the Turkish military has mounted a serious incursion into Iraq to attack PKK sites. These raids have raised concerns in Iraq as well as in Washington, DC, although the Turks claim have been made with U.S. approval. The Turks are now trying new tactic to lure Kurds away from supporting the rebels — economic development [“Turkey Set to Invest in Better Relations With Kurds,” by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, 12 March 2008].

“Turkey’s government is planning a broad series of investments worth as much as $12 billion in the country’s largely Kurdish southeast, in a new economic effort intended to create jobs and draw young men away from militancy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. The program is intended to drain support for the militant Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, by improving the lives of Turkey’s impoverished Kurdish minority, Mr. Erdogan said.”

In a recent post [National Integration and Minority Rights], I noted that many ethnic Kurds have turned their support away from the Democratic Society Party (DTP), Turkey’s only legal pro-Kurdish party. The reason is that the DTP hasn’t been as effective at bringing economic benefits to the area as other more mainstream parties. In other words, economics trumps ethnicity. At least that is what Mr. Erdogan is counting on. He is also compromising on some of the harsh anti-ethnic laws I discussed in the aforementioned blog.

“As part of the push, the government will dedicate a state television channel to Kurdish language broadcasting, a measure that Kurds in Turkey have sought for years. The Turkish state has imposed severe restrictions on the use of Kurdish, arguing that allowing that freedom would strengthen the Kurds’ desire to form a separate state. … The television channel will also include Persian and Arabic, Mr. Erdogan said, and should be running in several months. ‘This will be the most important step providing cultural rights to the region,’ he said.”

Turkey is not alone in the desire to keep the Kurds from forming a separate state. With large Kurdish populations, both Iran and Iraq would also stand to lose large chunks of territory if a Kurd state were carved out in the Middle East. If the Kurd desire for a safe ethnic haven is to be realized, the Iraq model is probably a good one to follow. Since achieving a high degree of autonomy, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has helped foster an economic boon. That boon has also bolstered the Turkish economy since many of the workers and most of the imports coming into the area come from Turkey. Mr. Erdogan’s attempts to bolster the economy in Turkey’s Kurdish region, if successful, could be a win-win for both Turkey and its Kurdish citizens. Economies on both sides of the Turkey/Iraq border would benefit from a stronger economy on the Turkish side. Mr. Erdogan is well aware of this.

“‘Turkey is not a guest,’ said Mr. Erdogan, 54, sitting in a cream-colored high-backed chair in his official residence in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. ‘Everyone who has entered Iraq until now will stay for a while and go away, but we will stay.’ ‘We are the most important door for northern Iraq to open up to the world,’ he added. ‘We are the healthiest door.'”

Mr. Erdogan didn’t mean Turks will occupy parts of northern Iraq when he said, “we will stay.” What he meant was that Turkey is a neighbor and that it wants to be a good neighbor. Turkey’s desire to be a good neighbor with Iraq is also the desire of Iraq’s government and the U.S. Government. Mr. Erdogan has faced stiff internal pressure to do something about the continued terrorist acts conducted by the PKK; hence, his recent incursions into Iraq. This new economic effort is an attempt to convince Kurds that the offensive is against terrorism not against ethnic Kurds. This will be an even tougher sell than the U.S. has had trying to convince Muslims that its actions are targeted against terrorists not their religion.

“‘But the fight against terrorism is not only this,’ [Mr. Erdogan] added. ‘It also has a socioeconomic part, a psychological part, a cultural part.'”

These are remarkably liberal statements considering the past treatment of Kurds. In my earlier post, which focused on an article by Meline Toumani, she reported, “Turkish law has not allowed acknowledgment of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group; from 1983 to 1991 it was even illegal to speak Kurdish in public. Until 2002, broadcasting in Kurdish was essentially banned, and only in 2003 could parents give their children Kurdish names (except … for names using W, X or Q),” letters which do not occur in the Turkish alphabet.

“Mr. Erdogan was the first public figure to speak openly about Turkey’s troubles with its Kurdish population in a speech several years ago that won him a measure of respect among Turkey’s approximately 12 million Kurds, about a sixth of its population. Kurds voted in large numbers for his political party in a national election last July. Since then, many say his efforts have stalled, replaced by frequent military operations just over the border. Mr. Erdogan sought to allay Kurds’ fears Tuesday, emphasizing Turkey’s efforts to engage them on both sides of the border. Turkey has chosen not to negotiate directly with the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, led by Massoud Barzani, despite the fact that many of the militants it is chasing hide in that territory. Mr. Erdogan added, however, that informal contacts had been made with the area’s representatives.”

As I pointed out in the earlier blog, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that almost every Kurdish family in Turkey has a relative in prison or in the mountains with the PKK. The end game will likely provide the Kurds with some autonomy (like the relationship between Scotland and England), it will also require improved economic conditions, releasing people from prison, and getting people out of the hills.

“Efforts to improve relations with Iraq include plans to open a consulate in the southern city of Basra, Mr. Erdogan said. Turkey has an embassy in Baghdad and a consulate in Mosul, a major city in the north. Mr. Erdogan is still identifying funds for the economic effort, which was started years ago by a previous administration but languished. The state will invest between $11 billion and $12 billion over five years to build two large dams and a system of water canals, complete paved roads and remove land mines from the fields along the Syrian border, he said. Plans for the project will be completed within two months, he said, at which point construction on the two dams will begin. He said he had dedicated one of his deputy prime ministers to visit cities across the largely Kurdish southeast to work on it.”

Economic investment in the Kurdish region of Turkey is a good idea, but it is only a first step. The Kurds are likely to remain skeptical of real improvements in their quality of life until they see businesses spring up and jobs created. Civil infrastructure projects are necessary and will undoubtedly spur some employment opportunities, but commerce-based jobs are also necessary. The Kurds know that they can become economically successful, just look at their Iraqi cousins. Both sides must demonstrate a good faith effort to make things work if the current situation is going to improve. Mr. Erdogan’s actions are at least setting Turkey on the right course.