The Atlantic Council of the United States
Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in a Changing Middle East
Welcome and Moderator:
Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center,
Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor,
Representative to the United States,
Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq
Location: Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.
Date: February 23, 2012
Federal News Service
ROSS WILSON: Good afternoon. I’m Ross Wilson. I’m the director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center here at the Atlantic Council. And on behalf of the council’s chairman and president, Senator Chuck Hagel and Fred Kempe, I’m very pleased to welcome you all to this event, Kurdish Issues: Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in a Changing Middle East.
The council is extremely pleased to be hosting today’s meeting together with the Middle East Institute. I’m very grateful to my friend and colleague Dr. Gönül Tol for making today happen. Dr. Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. She is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University and the U.S. National Defense University. MEI’s Turkish Studies program, I would say, is not one of the larger Turkish programs in town, but it has had a significant impact in helping to modernize people’s thinking in this town about Turkey, a country that – of tremendous contradictions that’s undergoing rapid change within and without, as I think today’s conversation will illustrate. Thank you very much, Gönül.
Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, few issues have been more complicated, vexatious or frustrating for Washington policymakers responsible for Europe and the Middle East than those having to do with Turks and Kurds. One piece was the U.S.-Turkish dynamic. When I arrived to take up duties as American ambassador in Ankara in 2005, it seemed commonplace in the media and in the public imagination to talk about a secret American plan to bring about the independence of Kurdistan, and from this, to rearrange borders and separate off a chunk of Turkey’s southeast to form a new, larger Turk-Kurdish state.
A corollary held that Washington supported, or at least tolerated, in its own diplomacy with Massoud Barzani and other leaders of the Kurdistan regional government terrorists of the PKK, the so-called Kurdistan Worker’s Party, who operated out of Turkey and Iran – who operated against Turkey and Iran out of hideouts in remote areas where the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi borders come together. As someone who was intimately involved, I can say with some authority that it would be nearly impossible to overstate how much this complicated U.S. diplomacy with Turkey on Iraq, which was then, of course, America’s number-one and most urgent foreign policy priority.
A second piece had to do with Turkish relations with the KRG or the lack thereof. Alleged KRG support for or at least tolerance of the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq and therefore implicitly of its terror attacks in Turkey seemed in 2005, 2006 and 2007 to poison the prospects for any kind of productive relationship between Erbil and with Baghdad for that matter. Despite the presence of hundreds of Turkish troops in northern Iraq, pursuant to a Saddam Hussein-era set of agreements between Baghdad and Ankara, the official dialogue was nearly zero. Turkey’s ambassador did not – and as far as I know, could not – even go to Erbil during this period. In the context of a remarkably limited February 2008 land incursion against the PKK in northern Iraq, Turkish and peshmerga forces came much closer to blows than anyone in this town wanted to see, as we thought about where Iraq was headed and where we wanted it to be headed.
A third piece concerned Turkey’s own ethnic Kurdish issues, which in turn have two parts. The history of Turks and Kurds in the modern republic going back to the 1930s was difficult and certainly not necessarily a pretty one. Concentrated in the country’s marginalized southeast, Turkish Kurdish population was or found itself in many respects marginalized from the country’s political, economic and social mainstream. For a time, it was marginalized in the vocabulary too, the euphemism “Mountain Turks” being the most infamous example. And this wasn’t just history. During my years in Turkey, people were hauled before prosecutors for giving political speeches in Kurdish to their ethnic Kurdish constituencies or more notably for me displaying the letter W, whose absence from the Turkish but not Kurdish alphabets made this in some eyes at least a dangerous political act.
The PKK exploited and fanned the sense of alienation that some Kurds felt. Its leaders promoted the organization through separatist and Marxist-Leninist messages of empowerment for downtrodden Kurds and through violent and brutal intimidation or worse against all those Turks – Kurds in Turkey, Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere who stood in their way. PKK-related violence claimed the – has claimed the lives of over 40,000 people in Turkey alone, most of them Kurds of course.
Fast forward to today – and we’ll skip a long talk about the intervening events – for the – the United States has left Turkey. Because of that and for other reasons, Iraqi Kurdistan is a problematic issue in America’s relations with Turkey, the KRG or Iraq as a whole is a thing of the past. Trade and investment ties between Turkey and northern Iraq have developed exponentially. And their bilateral contacts are frequent and extensive as well. Both sides seem to have figured out that this close relationship serves important interests.
My judgment is that for Iraqi Kurds, close ties with Turkey are part of a hedging strategy vis-à-vis Baghdad, against Iranian domination and against the possibility that centrifugal forces may again threaten Iraq’s future. Ankara shares these motives, in my opinion. It seeks to support the success of this relatively friendly and stable neighbor, to ensure Kurdish regional energy exports flow north and to maximize cooperation on the PKK. Regarding the last point – this may come up as well in conversation – it’s noteworthy to me that just a few days ago, KRG President Barzani at a conference in Erbil, bringing together Kurds from several countries including Turkey, publicly called on the PKK to lay down its arms and to pursue ethnic Kurdish interests in Turkey through politics.
The picture regarding Turkey’s internal Kurdish piece is more mixed and potentially problematic. Millions of ethnic Kurds have left the southeast and now reside in Istanbul, Ankara, Mersin, Adana and other large cities. This has made, in my opinion, the Kurdish issue a much more nationwide matter than perhaps was the case in the 1980s or 1990s. And it – and it has also put people geographically in the line of economic growth and development that ought to be helpful over time. The authorities have taken liberalizing steps that were unimaginable just a few years ago, including television and radio broadcasting in Kurdish, the teaching of it at schools and universities and an end to the ban on political campaigning in Kurdish. Politically, the issues are not resolved, however. Halting attempts at dialogue with PKK figures that actually go back a number of years have failed to accomplish much besides stirring controversy. The PKK has remained hardline and violent. Turkish authorities have taken their own hardline. These and other developments have kept tensions high.
Today’s event will examine these matters within Turkey, the details and motives, I hope, of relations between Turkey and the KRG and related issues as they’re playing out both on their own terms and against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening and other dramatic events in the Middle East. To elaborate a little bit for us on that regional context and to introduce our guests, I’m pleased to welcome my partner in today’s event, Dr. Gönül Tol. (Applause.)
GÖNÜL TOL: Thank you, Ross, for the kind words. I would also like to thank the Atlantic Council and Ambassador Ross Wilson for making this event possible.
Our panelists today will address important issues regarding Turkish domestic politics and Turkish foreign policy, focusing on Turkey’s Kurdish question, Turkey-Iraq relations and Turkey-KRG relations. The Arab Spring has transformed the regional dynamics. It reshuffled the strategic cards of both international and regional actors and changed regional balance of power. And despite initial delays, Turkey has recalibrated its foreign policy course to support the democratic demands of the popular uprisings in the region. But the Arab Spring has also exposed the diverging interests of Turkey’s once close allies Iran and Syria. So within this regional context, Iraq is even more important for Turkey’s Middle East policy today.
And without any further ado, I would like to introduce our first speaker, Dr. Henri Barkey. He’s the Bernard and Bertha Cohen Professor at Lehigh University, and he served as a member of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff. And he has a – (inaudible) – he has most recently co-authored with Phebe Marr and Scott Lasensky, “Iraq, Its Neighbors, and the United States.” Please join me in welcoming Dr. Henri Barkey. (Applause.)
HENRI BARKEY: Thank you.
Let me start off by confessing something. I have rarely been as confused as I am now about this issue. And Gönül asked me to talk about the domestic situation and then after talk about the wider regional perspectives. But when you look at what’s happening domestically in Turkey and what’s happening regionally with Syria, it is very, very confusing. So I want to say don’t expect very crisp answers from me today. And if you want a refund for your – this is the moment to ask for it.
But the reason I say – I say – I talk about this confusion is if you look at the last couple of weeks, you will see that Turkey has been shaken by this gargantuan struggle between the security services and the prosecutors and the judiciary on one side against the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, the government on the other side, culminating in a rather bizarre crisis – I wouldn’t call it constitutional, but certainly crisis of the state, where the prosecutors decide to call the head of the TNIO, the Turkish National Intelligence, and his predecessors to answer questions as suspects, and then sent – to essentially issued arrest warrants when they didn’t show up. And then the government had to go to parliament and pass emergency laws to protect these guys.
This is – it seems, at least, and on the surface that the main division and the main issue over which this is being fought out is the Kurdish issue and what to do about the Kurdish problem in Turkey. And in some ways, it also encapsulates or represents the kind of confusion that exists today in Turkey with respect to the Kurdish question as to what to do with it. I mean, it’s no longer a question of whether or not there’s a Kurdish problem, but it is what to do with it. And that is – but the lack of clarity, if you want, on the part of the Turkish state, on the part of Turkish society is also reflected by the way – and on – among the Kurds as well – I mean, there is no clear consensus as to what it is that the Kurds want or at least how to get where they want. I mean, they know what they want, and we can talk about this maybe later on in the question-answer period.
But in order to better understand the current picture, let me just try to see if I can piece together essentially how we got to where we are – we are today. And I would – I would go back to 2007 as a critical turning point. 2007 is when there were elections in Turkey – elections that were caused essentially by when the military decided to gamble and lost on the issue of who was going to become the president of Turkey. The government, when the – when the military objected to Abdul (likely ?) to becoming president, the government, as you remember very well, at the time essentially called their bluff, went to elections and won a decisive victory. That victory by the government was a victory against the military.
And from that point onwards, you see essentially the change in the balance of power in Turkey between the military and the civilians. The military, which until then had much say both in terms of foreign security and domestic security policy and other ideological issues in Turkey, started to lose ground. And of course, then came the famous Ergenekon investigations that furthered undermined the role of the military. But that process – I mean, I should say that election and what started afterwards allowed the government to essentially civilianize not just Turkish foreign policy, Turkish domestic policy and also some of, for instance, the institutions.
And one of these institutions is the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, which was traditionally a very much a military-influenced, a military – with lots of military folks in the organization. And the TNIO became much more of what we would normally see as an intelligence organization, just doesn’t just collect information but also does analysis. And you see an evolution in the TNIO’s thinking so much so that about four or five years ago, the former head of the TNIO comes up with a – with an analysis that very starkly says unless Turkey democratizes by the end of the second quarter of this new century, it will face very serious – the very serious possibility of a division along Turkish-Kurdish lines and division of the country. This is in many ways – is a wake-up call.
But when you look also at foreign policy, what happens after 2007 is, the Turkish government initiates a new relationship with the Kurdish – Kurdistan regional government, something it couldn’t do before because the military and the president of Turkey prevented them from doing.
And that relationship, which is – as Ambassador Wilson said, it was a – for the Kurds was a hedge, but it was also a hedge from the Turkish perspective – (audio break) – was a hedge against Turkish domestic – Kurdish politics, enlisting the help of the – of Kurdish leaders, whether it’s the Iraqi president, Mr. Talabani, or the Kurdish president Mr. Barzani, in terms of pushing Turkish Kurds towards a nonviolent solution to the problem.
So you see a – the change in Turkish foreign policy, and also domestically the repression that has traditionally been visited upon the southeast also started to come down. Concomitant with that, there was also a change in Turkish public – domestic – public opinion, in the sense that people started to express a willingness to look at alternative ways of resolving the problem, other than military.
And again, I don’t want to generalize. I don’t want to say that everybody felt this way; that even in these Turkish institutions, as the government was moving away, it doesn’t mean that everybody was on board. But it was a significant shift nonetheless. And I would even argue that even within the military as well, there were pockets – including the former chief of staff who’s now in jail, Īlker Başbuğ – who started to think differently about the domestic Kurdish question.
And it is also about this time that the Turkish government starts initiating secret talks with the PKK in 2009. And in many ways you have to look at this as actually quite revolutionary from a Turkish perspective. I mean, this is, after all, the organization that is vilified every day, whose leader is always called a baby killer. And, you know, the thing – the press hasn’t change its attitude; but here was the government initiating a secret dialogue with the PKK.
And when this gets ultimately revealed, there’s no reaction in the public. There is no great: Oh my god, you’re talking to terrorists, I mean, how can you do this? You know, you have a lot of right-wing folks who may – who may say this, but in the end they are marginalized. So it is in this context that – this is a – the major changes that are – that are taking place.
On the Kurdish side, the big change is also a realization on the part of the PKK, first of all, that this is not going to be won. (Öcalan ?) is – for obvious reasons would like to get out of prison. But most importantly, two important developments. One is what Ambassador Ross mentioned, the fact that now the Kurds are everywhere. Istanbul is the largest Kurdish city in the world, with 2 (million) to 4 million people. So you can’t talk about a regional issue anymore. And the danger, of course, of violence now would affect the whole country.
But secondly, one of – in a way this should have been expected. You see the beginning of very, very serious political organizational capability among the Kurds. And this creates with the PKK this organization called KCK, which is – I can never keep track of what it means – the Kurdistan community of – unions of communities or something like that. But anyway – but it is a very serious organization that encompasses all of the Kurdish civil society, political – you name the organization; they’ll all subsume under this.
And this is, in a way, the creation of a parallel organization, parallel government in all those locations where the Kurds control the municipalities. And it is serious. And it has – it has decision-making powers. And it is – it takes decisions in parallel with the municipalities, very often in – contrary obviously to the – to the central government.
But this kind of political development in some ways is a natural result, if you want, of years of political organization, fighting, right, looking for – as the Kurds started to think about the political solution, they started to also think about, what is that political solution going to look like, and what is it – the mechanism that they will have to lobby for this, to – especially if the PKK is demilitarized? All right, so the KCK, it kind of would replace the PKK and will subsume everything – everybody underneath.
So this is – this – these are the big changes. And in some ways the government also responded to creation of the – or to the should I say the development of the KCK or the strengthening of the KCK. But something goes – something goes wrong. In large measure I think – look, when you look at the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, I – in some ways it’s – you need to think of it a little bit like a soap opera. I think Tom – I mean, I’m using this; Tom Friedman had said this back in 1993 about the Arab-Israeli issue that – is that, you know, stay tuned, because, you know, one day there’ll be this crisis, and then they will – they will resolve it, but there’ll be another crisis, and the – and the story goes on.
But the problem is, of course, this is a very dynamic situation. And to a large extent, events – both domestically and also internationally – have influenced the costs of the development of the – of the problem. And actors very often tend to react to tactical, immediate changes in situations rather than the larger picture – because the larger picture hasn’t changed that much in the last 20 to 30 years. But the tactical, the daily – the issues have changed.
So, having said this – so what has changed? To some extent, you do see within the state, the Turkish state, there is a serious conflict as to what to do with the Kurdish issue. Do you go with a negotiated solution? Or do you go with a policy of hitting the PKK hard, defeating them on the ground? Or do you go with a policy that does both – you negotiate and you hit them hard?
And it seems to me that’s where all – there are essentially three groups, if you want. And I – and I suspect the government is today – although it wasn’t there before – is today in the last category: Hit them hard and negotiate at the same time. And the security services and the judiciary is obviously in the “let’s hit them hard” camp. And you have – in the middle you have – you have some others, but they’re not significant at this stage.
But I think the big breaking point has been the last election. Erdoğan ran in the last election promising a new constitution. The night of the victory speech, he said: This is what I’m going to do first. And the constitution, as you know, has been a nonstarter for the time being. Meanwhile, there’s been a hardening of the repression. The government which had relaxed a little bit – and maybe it is – again, it’s a reflection of the division within the – between the security services and the government. There’s been an enormous amount of pressure being put on the KCK.
Now the KCK, as I said, is a parallel organization. And it’s – it is perfectly legitimate for the government to go after it – except they’ve cast a net that is so wide that anybody becomes KCK. I mean, if you take part now in some political activities of the legal Kurdish political polity, the BDP, you get – you get tagged with the KCK line. And that essentially means you get kicked out of university; you get kicked out of places.
So it is – it – and lots of people are getting arrested. I mean, you have thousands and thousands of people now in prison. And when you look at – you look at the indictments in most cases – and as I have done this, and I’ve this before in public – the indictment is a joke. I mean, it’s not because there is not something there; it’s because the evidence is so murky, so ephemeral, that, you know, you wouldn’t be able to – I mean, but – nobody in a – in a normal society – (audio break) – go to – would be arrested on the – on the base of this, let alone kept in jail for three years or more. But there was a reaction to that.
Meanwhile, as I said, the PKK itself is also confused. And there is also conflict between the PKK and civil society organizations in Turkey. And if there’s one thing that ironically the PKK and the government agree upon – to me at least, it seems – is that they do not want to encourage legal political party, BDP, to be autonomous and to negotiate. And both the government and the PKK have done everything in their power essentially to bypass the BDP. And the BDP has to pay lip service to the PKK because that’s – PKK is still the most important political organization in – or most popular organization among the Kurds.
But so within the PKK, with the divisions in PKK, you know – and the PKK as it gets hit wants to show that it is still strong, so it attacks. It – you know, it did some two spectacular operations in 2011 that end up with the death of, what, 37 Turkish soldiers. So that created a backlash in Turkey. And this is what I mean by the tactical issues taking over the process. So this is where we are now. And it seems to me that I – I’ve heard the stories; I – obviously I don’t know – that the Turks – Turkish government was going to restart negotiations with the PKK sometime in April. But this latest brouhaha between the services has stopped this.
But, again, this would be missing the main issue. The main issue and – is what the – what the prime minister promised with the elections. And that is a constitution – because ultimately it is a constitution that excited a large chunk of the Turkish population, because a constitution is not just for the Kurds; it’s for everybody. But it is also – the Kurds really expected something that would happen. And that constitutional process has bogged down.
In part it may have bogged down because the prime minister hasn’t decided what kind of constitution he wants, primarily because of his own political interest. And he wants to be president in 2014. And does he want to change the – does he want to make Turkey a presidential system à la France, or does he want to continue the parliamentary system?
So, given this confusion, this constitutional process hasn’t moved anywhere. And as it hasn’t, all right – and this is really the first step in terms of resolving the Kurdish problem – when you look at what the Kurds want, everything starts with the constitution. And the constitution is essentially the door that will open up everything. You can have negotiations with the PKK. In that sense, that was – that is very, very important. But in a final analysis, you need to empower domestic political groups in order for them to participate.
And I will stop here and talk later – answer questions.
MR. : Thank you.
MS. TOL: Thank you, Henri. I would like to now introduce our second speaker, Mr. Qubad Talabani. He is the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States. And in this capacity, he works closely with the U.S. government, the media and research institutions, providing critical analyses and up-to-date information on Iraq and the Kurdistan region.
QUBAD TALABANI: Thank you, Gönül. Thank you both, ambassador, Gönül, for inviting us here today, and your respective organizations. It’s an important time for us in our part of the world, and we appreciate the opportunity to talk to you here in the audience. It does seem that, each time I talk on KRG-Turkey relations, there’s always – seems to be a new dynamic to the discussions.
Many of you will remember the days – and Ambassador Wilson reminded us – when the KRG-Turkey issue was a – considered a flash point. And if we were going to have a – the session like this, it was – it was going to be about, well, will they invade; won’t they? Will there be clashes; won’t they? Will this flash point destabilize Iraq or won’t it? And, you know, boy, how things have changed since those days.
But without having to relive the past, it’s important to note that – even though the trade and economic relations had been blossoming for over a decade – when there were discussions and relations between the KRG and Turkey, it was primarily if not solely focused on the PKK issue. It’s not so today. Today, that discussion – the channels of communications and the topics discussed between the various sides are much broader. They include trade; Iraq and its future; oil, gas and energy; obviously the PKK is still an issue. But most recently it’s the regional developments and – in general, and in particular the situation in Syria.
Vis-à-vis trade, the relationship is continuing to boom. Turkish sources told me last year that the trade between Turkey and the KRG was close to $9 billion. And that’s a significant amount of trade. Turkey by far has the biggest footprint in the Kurdistan region. Largely the movement of trade is one-sided; i.e., it’s coming in from Turkey and being consumed by the Kurdish markets. But we’re hopeful that – as Kurdistan develops its oil and gas sector, that there will be a more healthy free flow of goods and commerce and back-and-forth. And I’m – we’re expecting that level of trade, and certainly that economic activity, to remain a strong pillar of the relationship.
Iraq – it’s obvious to any observer that Turkey has played a much more active role in Iraq politically, beyond its kind of – what’s historically been its comfort zone in terms of trade and economic relations. Turkey has been quite an influencing power within the Iraqi political spectrum – sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. But I think, as it’s tried to play a more public role, this has created significant tensions with Iraq’s federal government, the – in particular the prime minister.
And this comes at a time that the Iraqi political process as a whole has seemed to have stagnated. And the tensions between the Shiite political parties and the Sunni political parties is reaching a crippling level in terms of governance and really getting anything done in the country. This is re-igniting fears of the different communities. The Sunnis are fearful that the Shiites are dominating them and are going to sideline them from not just political life, but from economic life as well. And the Shiite political parties are fearful and mistrustful of the Sunni political parties, because of their contacts with the region and because of their efforts to try to get back into the system.
Once again, and not for the first time, we the Kurds were stuck in the middle of the situation. Vice president flees Iraq; he comes up to Kurdistan. It’s – there obviously is an indictment out against him for his arrest. We are in a difficult situation right now because we do sense that some of these charges are politically motivated. And we have to make sure that there is a fair judicial process before we’d feel comfortable about letting the vice president back out to face that justice.
But nonetheless, again, the Kurdish leaders – and in particular President Talabani – has offered to host a national conference to bring the parties together. And I think Turkey has been supportive of this initiative. But the current prime minister seems little less interested to really engage at this level.
It’s ironic that, because of these tensions, the one group in Iraq that has been a longtime supporter of a unified central state – which has been the Sunni Arab community – are the ones now more and more calling for federal regions to be created with powers similar to those that you have in Kurdistan. And you hearing this from Anbar; you’re hearing this from Salahuddin provinces; and even certain circles within the Mosul Province, which is a – you know, again, two or three years ago this would have been a very bizarre occurrence.
So barring the successful national conference, which at this rate looks pretty unlikely, the sense by many is that to avoid violence and the continued power grab for Baghdad would be to allow for these regions – per – as stipulated in the constitution of the country – to grant more autonomy for themselves from the federal government. So this is something that is going on. Obviously Turkey has a vested interest in how that develops. And Turkey, through its many channels – whether it’s the Kurds, whether it’s colleagues and friends in Mosul, or it’s – still has some friends in the federal government – trying to stay engaged, trying to keep abreast of the issues.
Another issue that’s obviously critical to the relationship is the issue of oil and gas. Development of Kurdistan’s oil and gas sector presents an enormous opportunity for Turkey to have access to reliable energy, to reliable gas resources, that is vital for its own domestic consumptions but also for beyond its borders. And, you know, always talk of the Nabucco pipeline, or whether it’s the southern gas corridor – you know, whatever it’s called or whatever framework it falls under, there is still going to be a need for reliable sources of gas for this pipeline. Kurdistan is a – can be a source to that. And I think many in Turkey see this opportunity.
But obviously this is still, at this point, embroiled in the KRG-Baghdad dynamics vis-à-vis how to manage the hydrocarbons law issue as a whole. We are, you know, continuing to go about our business, to keep developing the oil and gas sector in Kurdistan. And I think that this issue has been a real game-changer in terms of making sure that this newfound relationship between Turkey and the KRG remains sustainable, and ultimately will create a very strategic interdependency between the – both sides.
Regarding the PKK – and we’ve touched on this already, there’s been numerous operations against them by Turkey over the last couple of years. But the reality is that the PKK issue still exists – hasn’t diminished, it hasn’t gotten weaker, it hasn’t gotten less problematic. The problem is still out there. And you know, it’s really important that people start thinking about serious, sustainable solutions to this problem.
There is a much broader understanding that this is not a military problem alone. Within the Turkish government, I think, even within elements within the Turkish military, that there is this – there is this understanding that this requires a more sophisticated approach, a more nuanced approach, a more balanced approach. And we’re ready to talk about solutions, as the – as the KRG. As long as they’re peaceful, as long as they’re diplomatic – and you know, we can talk about these issues and we stand ready to help in any way that we can should anyone want our help. Obviously, we can’t impose ourselves on the issue, because ultimately the solution to this issue is inside Turkey.
The president of the Kurdistan region, President Barzani, has publicly condemned the violence on numerous occasions. And he’s called for calm and reconciliation, and has urged all sides not to resort to conflict. You know, we are in contact with the PKK, and we’ll try to exercise our pressure on them to stop their military operations. As Gönül stated, we’ve called on the PKK to lay down their arms and start a civil dialogue. But it is important to state that the KRG is not party to these problems; these are – whether it’s the PKK issue in Turkey or the PJAK issue in Iran. And while they are on this border area, we can only be of help should that help really be requested.
If our assistance is requested, we will – we’re ready to do whatever we can for the sake of peaceful and democratic solutions. And we’ve said time and time again though that, you know, in Turkey there are elections, there are parliaments, there are elected Kurdish politicians. And the best way for people to fight for Kurdish rights is within that parliament, is within that political structure that exists, is to try to apply the democratic tools that are available. But at the same time, the Turkish leadership must be brave at this point. And they must be ready to make decisions that will undoubtedly be unpopular within segments of their society, within nationalist elements within their security services.
And they mustn’t look at this issue as, you know, a popularity contest. This is – this is a – if they want a resolution, it’s going to require making some very tough decisions that will ultimately be quite unpopular within many elements within Turkey – (audio break) – an open discussion and a genuine policy, through a long-term policy with an end goal in sight to address Kurdish demands in Turkey. And there must no longer be the fear of this Kurdish national identity. It’s a reality, whether it’s in Iraq, whether it’s in Syria, whether it’s in Turkey. And if that fear cannot be overcome, then I think that’ll probably make it a little easier to come up with strategies and policies to address them.
Beyond our borders, I actually – it’s for the first time I can remember that Turkey and the KRG are actually in discussions about issues that are unrelated specifically and directly to the KRG or Turkey. We’re now talking about the situation in Syria, for example. We’re in a lot of dialogue with Turkey on what’s going on in Syria. At the same time, we see that Turkey is hoping to galvanize the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime. And they know that Kurdish participation within the Syrian opposition is – will be critical to the success of the opposition. But Turkey also knows that it has little or no influence over the Kurds of Syria. And they know that the, you know, Iraqi Kurdistan – the leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan have much better access probably – you know, let’s say, considered a more friendly interlocutor.
So in that sense, we are in touch with the Kurds of Syria. We’re in regular contact with them. They are somewhat undecided about how they should play out this situation. They’re in a very difficult situation, because obviously the government hasn’t been good to them – the Syrian government hasn’t been good. And it’s unlikely that an Assad-led government will be good to the Kurds. But at the same time, the opposition is not talking about Kurdish issues, is not talking about the need to protect Kurdish rights or to have the Kurdish identity as part of any new Syria.
So our advice to the Syrian Kurdish elements has been to focus on two major principles and stand by those two principles. And those two principles are the principles of democracy and the principles of ensuring Kurdish rights are enshrined in a new Syria. And there wouldn’t – the feedback we get from the Syrian opposition is that whenever they speak to – so from the Kurdish opposition is – (audio break) – speak to the so called Syrian National Congress or the various different Arab opposition groups is that they talk about people’s rights in general, and they’re not focusing on the Kurdish concerns and the Kurdish demands.
And this is creating some hesitation on the part of the Syrian Kurds. They tell us quite frankly and clearly that as Kurds they will now be party to a civil war in Syria, that this is not a place for them to get in the middle. If they start killing each other within a civil war framework, that this – the Kurds of Syria are going to stay out of this. They’re also very fearful of regional powers intervening and coming up with solutions to Syria, because again they feel that in that scenario, the Kurds of Syria – their rights will likely be sidelined for, you know, potential will and the desires of the majority of the opposition.
Needless to say, there is a lot of anxiety about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood within the Syrian opposition. And in any dialogue that they – the Kurdish groups have had with elements of the Muslim Brotherhood – in one particular meeting and a member of the Kurdish – the Muslim Brotherhood basically said there is – Kurds have no issues in Syria. There are no – Kurds haven’t been oppressed in Syria. And that just highlights for us that there is still a real chauvinist trend within certain elements of the Syrian opposition, which is – if people want the Kurds to participate, there really has to be a complete rethink of how you reach out to them. And again, we’ll continue to be a voice of counsel and try to guide them through this process. But others will probably need to do that as well.
And in summary, really, the issue of national ethnic and sectarian identity is today – it’s relevant. It’s much more relevant than it probably – it’s ever been since the fall of the end of the first world war. It can no longer be ignored. It can’t be swept under the rug. And central to this issue in our part of the world is the issue of Kurdish rights in this new emerging Middle East. We’ve proven in Iraq that we can play a constructive role, we can be a force for good for the country. I’m certain Kurds in other parts of the region can also do the same if they’re given this opportunity. And I think, you know, regarding Turkey’s role in this, I think there is a much more nuanced way that Turkey as a whole is dealing with Kurds in Iraq. I think there’s still coming to terms with trying to understand better the Kurds of Syria. And I think that if they can continue to be more nuanced, then the outcome could probably be better than the situation that we’re in right now.
KRG Turkey, kind of looking forward, so long as the dialogue continues on this path and we are engaging each other on a strategic level and the energy issues get worked out in Iraq and Kurdistan continues to develop its own energy resources – its gas, its oil, then this will create this, I think, a much more sustainable and strategic link between the two sides that is, in this rather turbulent part of the world, could potentially create a pocket of stability that probably nobody would have thought of seven or eight years ago when they took a snapshot of this Middle East. And with that, I’m happy to turn it back over to you to maybe answer some of your questions.
MR. WILSON: Great. Thank you. Thank you very much. Both of you, excellent opening remarks. And before I turn it over to questions from the audience, let me just ask two to sort of get the conversation further going here.
Henri, the Arab Awakening has generated expectations in country after country throughout the Arab world. The atmosphere that it is has engendered some think has spilled over even to Russia as an inspiration for elements that would like to see change there; some speculation that it has had an effect on Kurdish communities or elements of the Kurdish community in Turkey in terms of the tactics that they pursue, in terms of the kinds of aspirations that they have and so forth. Could you comment a little bit on what effect – what specific effect do you see, if any, of the Arab awakening as either directly or indirectly as an inspiration on Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish communities?
MR. BARKEY: Look, it’s a hard question to answer in a sense that you haven’t seen a great deal of Arab awakening-type activity in Turkey. And even though the issue is being discussed, is being talked about even – and Kurdish politicians do point to the Arab Awakening, there are two important factors.
I mean, I think the pressure of the KCK investigations, I guess, has really succeeded in really weakening or putting the Kurds on the defensive. And they are much more focused on that than anything else. But there is no question that the Arab Awakening is one – is a potential threat to Turkey. But ironically, I would argue that the Arab Awakening type of activity among Turkish Kurds is a threat not just to Turkish – the Turkish state but also to the PKK and the PKK’s control. PKK is a very hierarchical organization, wants to control everything. And we have seen everywhere that Arab awakening-type activity ultimately is started by people who are not associated with anybody and gets out of control.
And so you would have – in some ways, I almost expected to see much more civil disobedience type of activities. There was at one point – I mean, the BDP did initiate civil disobedience activity, for example, on Fridays, having Friday prayers in Kurdish, open – you know, challenging the state as much as possible. But these have, from what I can tell, have disappeared. Now there may be other reasons as well, including the weather. I mean – but you know, it’s cold and there’s a lot of snow. It’s not – it’s not a joke. I mean, but no – but I think this is something that everybody’s trying to keep under control. And that’s my hunch – (inaudible).
MR. WILSON: OK.
MR. BARKEY: Until spring. (Laughter.)
MR. WILSON: Qubad, I’d like to press you a little bit on your assessment of the importance of change – democratic change within Turkey for a solution to the PKK problem. The PKK as a – as an entity is not just Turkish. You refer to PJAK – I think most people certainly in this town regard it as one in the same thing as the PKK. And so there’s a powerful or strong, important Iranian component to the PKK and an important Syrian component to the PKK that logically cannot in any way be satisfied by anything that happens in Turkey.
There’s also a business empire – maybe empire is too strong a word – but a business operation that the PKK carries out, operating a long these porous borders where there is little control for a whole variety of reasons either on the Iraqi side – the Iraqi Kurdish side or on the Turkish side or the Iranian side for that matter. And PKK leaders – (inaudible) – interested in sustaining that business are not necessarily going to be particularly satisfied by anything that happens on the democracy front in Turkey.
And talk a little bit about how that regional context of – if you agree with that – but if you agree with that, talk a little bit about how that regional context, the Iranian and the Syrian aspects of the PKK, affect KRG diplomacy with Turkey and with your other neighbors.
MR. TALABANI: Well, it’s – you know, Henri started off by – I think he used the word confusion – that there’s certainly a lot of confusion when we look at these various different organizations. One day PJAK has good relations with Iran, the next they’re at war with each other. Sometimes people are saying they’re funded by them then they’re saying they’re working against them. They’re part of the PKK, but they’re not.
The PKK’s with BDP, but it’s not – so it’s – (audio break) – if it’s specifically designed to confuse everybody, but it’s doing a pretty good job. It – you know, it used to complicate relations more earlier on in the day, when the PKK issue was the sole factor in dialogue between the KRG and Turkey. And also, on the Iranian side, there’s always – I mean, every Iranian opposition group has a base in Iraqi Kurdistan today – whether legal or illegal. But they’re there.
So we – I think we have to have a – several tracks in our discussions with neighboring countries. And we can’t allow the issues of the PKK or PJAK to be the channels through which we have a relationship with Turkey, or PJAK being the channel to the discussion issue that we have in our discussions with Iran. These are – these are elements of the various things that we’ll talk about.
There – the – this triangle here, between Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. And in there, the PKK is going to be relevant, because there is a big element of the leadership – the military leadership of the PKK are Syrian Kurds, based on the number of years that the PKK was actually based in Syria. There’s been all kinds of conspiracy theories or even beyond conspiracy theories that Syria will then try to move the Kurd – the PKK against Turkey if Turkey tries to meddle too much into Syria. I can’t speculate on that. Anything is possible in our part of the world. If Iran can work with al-Qaida, then, you know, anything can happen. Ideology is less relevant these days. And it’s something that we have to be mindful of, and that’s why I think the – how – I go back to how the Syrian opposition deals with the Kurdish issues in Syria will be important to whether or not the Syrian Kurds get involved or not. And that will probably sideline any positive or negative pressures from any of the other countries. But it’s there. It’s an issue.
MR. WILSON: Good. Thank you very much. We’ll open it up to questions from the audience. We’ll have microphones that come around, so please bear with me. What I’d ask is that when I identify you, please identify yourself and your affiliation, identify to whom your question is directed, and please ask a question. (Chuckles.)
Maybe Steve Larrabee to begin with?
Q: Steve Larrabee, RAND. I do want to make one comment though, however, to Henri, that you may be confused, but after listening to you I’m confused, but at a much higher level – (laughter) – of analysis. My question really is about the Kurds in Syria, and to kind of pick up where both you left off. I had the impression that the Kurds in Syria have been sort of sitting on the fence waiting to see which direction things were going, that they’re divided.
But I also have the impression that they now seem to be moving more towards joining the opposition. Is this true? If so, what are the implications of that? And what role do you see – both of you – the Syrian Kurds playing? And then finally, just as a – to follow up on what you asked before, is there any hard evidence that Syria or Iran has actually begun to fund again and support the PKK? Thank you.
MR. TALABANI: You know, it’s funny, because I – (audio break) – the Kurds of Syria have always been the opposition – the only group that has been an opposition to Assad. So it’s now – the question is not whether they’re in opposition or not, it’s whether they’re going to join this opposition.
They – I think that any Kurd in Syria would know that Assad is really – he’s not going to reform. There’s certainly not going to be – (inaudible) – gave out this olive branch of, OK, well, now we’ll make you citizens after how many years. People pretty much just scoffed at that. I mean, this is – this is going to take serious reforms for any Kurd to take it seriously.
Again, the challenge is – you know, and there’s a decision for the Syrian Kurds to make – is when will they kind of actively engage in Syrian opposition issues with the other groups? And if you look at the way the state of Syria is, you know, it hasn’t really done a major crackdown on the Kurdish areas, is almost scared to launch big attacks in the Kurdish areas, for fear of flaming up a community against them.
But a decision that they’ll have to make soon – I’d say sooner rather than later – is, they have to fish or cut bait, because if there is regime change, and the Syrian Kurds were not part of the process, then they’ll likely not get any of the proceeds. If there is no regime change, and Assad somehow miraculously stays in power, which is not impossible, but let’s say he does stay in power and the Syrian Kurds were seen as not supporting Assad, then they’re going to be in a very difficult position.
It’s not an enviable position for the Syrian Kurds to be in. And it’s time that they have a leadership that can really make a wise decision. And I think the way to do that is to secure their rights within the discussions with the other opposition groups. And, look, we had the same chauvinist challenges when we were part of the Iraqi opposition. We had fights over the word Kurdistan. We had fights over the word federalism. And it wasn’t easy. It was a 20-year process of trying to tell people, look, federalism doesn’t mean the breakup of Iraq. It’s a political system. You know, Kurds aren’t evil.
And, you know, we’ve by and large been able to succeed. And I think the Kurds of Syria can succeed because they are – they’re a pretty unified bloc. And they can be pretty organized. And having been underground for so long gives you that ability to organize quickly, to mobilize quickly, and to have your roots within the various communities.
And I think that there may be apprehension of getting – by some of the Arab opposition members – of getting the Kurds on board, because we’ve proven in Iraq that we can be the most effective of the groups in the country. And it – wouldn’t it be interesting of the Kurds of Syria ended up playing the role that the Kurds of Iraq played in Iraq in Syria. It would be a fascinating development.
Q: Could I just ask a follow up question there? You noted that senior Syrian figures make up some of the key military commanders in the PKK. Is it fair to say that those Syrians are relatively disconnected from this larger Syrian Kurdish community in – with respect to internal developments in Syria or is there a connection?
MR. TALABANI: I think there’s a connection. I think we can’t rule out a connection. And I think the connection will be strengthened or weakened depending on the role Turkey plays in Syria. If Turkey is seen as kind of stymying or kind of quelling Kurdish identity issues or Kurdish demands, if it’s seen as sidelining the Kurds in their outreach to the opposition and their conferences and so forth, then again, it will give ammunition to the Syrian-Kurdish PKK members to go back in through their contacts to their community and say, look, there – this is going to happen to you, what’s happening to us, so pick up arms.
You know, it’s a – it’s almost counterintuitive. It’s – in this issue it’s probably better – if Turkey wants the Kurds of Syria on board, then it has to be more comfortable with the issue of a Kurdish political identity emerging in Syria.
MR. WILSON: Yeah. Henri, anything you want to add too?
MR. BARKEY: Well, I was going to say first of all, that there is a significant Kurdish PKK party in Syria, the PYD, which is – plays a significant role and has a lot of influence. But the – I mean, I think the way for – let me ask a question. Imagine for a moment if there was a Syrian uprising without the presence of the KRG next door.
I think the presence of the KRG is very, very significant because, for the first time, even – I’m not saying the KRG’s a major world power, but still the Iraq – the Syrian Kurds do have instinctively an – or I should say a natural ally that will look out for them, will protect them. This is the first time that you see such a thing developing in the region, because the KRG does have influence. So that’s one very important development.
The second – the second is if you take what Qubad said a few steps forward, and Syria does end up becoming a federal arrangement, with the fall of Assad, say three, four, five years down, what impact will that have on Turkey? And this is something that the Turks have to worry about, because if you have now two Kurdish federal regions in the region, and if you also look at what Turkish Kurds say, I mean, the Turkish Kurds are talking very, very openly now – more so than ever – about provisional assemblies, provisional autonomy – not – but not just for themselves, I mean, for all the six or seven different regions of Turkey.
So this will – this will essentially kick the nature of the debate – the – at a much – to a much higher level and much higher level of antagonism. So – you know, so, you know, the Turks do need to worry about this phenomena of Kurdish nationalism that is going to get stronger as – but Qubad is right. I mean, it’s not clear that Assad is going to lose. It’s not clear that the opposition is going to – if the Kurds do not take a position – a clear position immediately.
On the issue of – Steve’s question regarding the PKK and Syria and Iran, look, I think in the PKK there are divisions. There are divisions between the hardliners and those who are more interested – at least that’s my guess. I mean, sometimes you talk to people who are – who say, no, no, there are no divisions. They’re all talking out of the same – the same talking points.
But it does seem to me, at least logically when I – when I parse out everything that’s been said, et cetera, that there is a division. And the hardliners are led by – (name inaudible) – who happens to be very close to the Iranians. So I do imagine that the Iranians and the Syrians are trying to put a lot of pressure – the PKK is not a very formidable – I mean, it’s not very strong, so it is susceptible to a lot of pressure.
But whether or not they are being armed by the Syrians and Iranians, I’m not sure. I mean, I think the Syrians are in such trouble now that that’s not really a priority for them. I mean, it’s – they can’t send forces to enough places to quell the violence. So my hunch is that they’re not. But there are pressures – political pressures, certainly – on the PKK to do – to say things. And – (name inaudible) – certainly has said very – but he also – I mean, he’s all over the place, I should say. But he has said some things against Turkey.
MR. WILSON: OK. In the back.
Q: Thank you very much. My name is John Oz (ph). I’m with the Turkish embassy. Thank you very much for all your comments. There are two things, one is for Qubad Talabani and the other is for the rest of the panel. The first one is, Qubad said that the PKK is not making an issue of Iraq, and you know, for that matter, KRG. But, you know, President Talabani – it’s a common enemy. And it’s declared by a common enemy – but Turkey, United States, Iraq and the KRG. And President Talabani himself said – called it as a “bela” for the KRG.
So it is not (mainly ?) – obviously, Turkey has issues to deal with – has its fight against the PKK. But we cannot fight – win this war alone, because PKK is still, you know, located in the northern part of Iraq, which is under the control of KRG. And it is staging their attacks starting from there. And while we’re talking about, for example, the constitutional process, let’s not forget that the latest attack took place on the day that the constitutional process started. So on the one hand, we have violence. On the other hand, Turkey’s trying to deal with this issue democratically. But if we undermine the fact that – or overlook the fact that there is violence, I mean, I don’t think that we would gain much ground – cover much ground.
And the other issue is about the Arab Spring. Now, it is the popular term of the last seven or eight months, and there are people even making analogies about Arab Spring whether, you know, start in the United States with the occupation – Occupy Wall Street movement.
But let’s not forget then again the fact that Turkey is fundamentally and radically different than the countries in which Arab Spring started. You know, Turkey is a democratic country. It may have shortcomings in democracy, but then again, we have a parliament. So we are dealing with issues within the democratic system, but we are also under attack of a violent terrorist group. So I just wanted to point out those two issues that attract my attention. I would welcome your comments – and with a question mark. (Chuckles.)
MR. WILSON: And maybe a way to pick up on that, Qubad, is to – is to talk about the PKK as a – as a phenomenon in Iraq – in northern Iraq itself. Both the Iraqi-Kurdish parties in Saddam – in the Saddam era fought against the PKK at different points. Can you talk a little bit about that pass and how or to what extent, if any, that reflects now in how the authorities in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah deal with it?
MR. TALABANI: Well, I think beyond the – kind of the disappointment of – when you look back on, well, you know, Kurds fighting Kurds – I mean, we’ve – just within Iraqi Kurdistan we have our terrible history of fighting each other. But, you know, the PKK may be Kurds from Turkey, but they’re still Kurds.
So I think there is a psychological block to initiate a policy that would result in Kurds fighting Kurds again, especially, you know, when there is no end in sight, because they’ve tried – the KDP has fought the PKK numerous times over the years. In 2000 the PUK fought the PKK, both sides suffered casualties and, you know, to the surprise of many, or not, Iran aided and assisted the PKK in that fight.
And it’s a – you know, and it – for us, it summed – you know, it just summed it up that this is not – this cannot be resolved militarily. And this is when we’re just talking about this group that is in Iraqi Kurdistan. We’re not talking about the – those that are sympathetic members, underground or not, that are inside Turkey.
And I made a comment in the Turkish press a little while ago, saying that, you know, rather than focus on 3,000 PKK members in Kurdistan, we should look at ways to deal with the million PKK members inside Turkey. I actually thought it was lowballing that figure. There could be much bigger support within the 20 (million), 30-plus million Kurds inside Turkey for the PKK. Maybe they’re not members, they don’t pay their membership dues or have a membership card, but the sympathy is there. There’s an issue there.
And that’s why I think that we cannot underestimate the violence. The violence is there, the violence is a hindrance to any political settlement. It will always be. And the difficult factor is, the PKK – extreme elements of the PKK will strike Turkey when they see a political process making progress. The nationalist elements inside Turkey will throw a wrench in the works when they see the peace process between the AKP and the Kurds working.
And this is when we talk about having to make brave decisions – brave decisions that are going to be unpopular, whether it’s the PKK unpopular to its base or whether it’s Turkey unpopular to its opposition, that regardless of an attack here or an attack there, and regardless of how egregious that attack is, that peace process mustn’t stop – mustn’t be derailed. The dialogue must continue.
And everyone that participates in this dialogue – and it’s – you know, it’s easy for me to say here in Washington at the Atlantic Council – but the lead – this is – this is what leaders do. Leaders make difficult decisions. And they have to make a decision that – they have to expect this violence to continue every time there is progress on an issue.
MR. BARKEY: (Off mic) – to add one –
MR. WILSON: Go ahead.
MR. BARKEY: — sentence. I mean, I’m glad Qubad said this because I meant to say it and I forgot. Whenever you have such a peace process, an extremist will always try to sabotage it. All you have to do is look at other cases. (Inaudible) – IRA that emerged, Hamas in ’96 that – so you will have all – and the question is, do political leaders manage to overcome this? Do events overtake – events overtake your goals and your policies? And it happens. I mean, we should not be surprised. It will happen, and it will continue to happen.
MR. WILSON: OK. Let me take a couple of questions and then some answers. Back in the back, yeah.
Q: My name is Peter Humphrey (sp). I’m an intelligence analyst. One of the most undeniable currents in recent human history is self-determination. And as such, there’s essentially zero chance that Bosnia and Iraq will look the same 50 years from now. And the trigger for that will, of course, be a Sunni-Shia (conflagration ?) in Iraq, at which point do the Kurds in northern Iraq, like the Kurds in Syria, will say: Not our fight. We’re out of here.
Given that probability, isn’t it time for the Kurds to sort of whisper in the ear of Turkey and say: If this thing goes south, we want you to know two things. One, we’re not going to ask for a square centimeter of Turkish territory. And two, we’re going to join together with Turkish intelligence and crush the PKK on our territory.
In exchange for those two promises, you keep Turkish tanks out of Erbil. And any Turkish Kurds who feel strongly about moving – about living under Kurdish rule can move to the new Kurdistan. Isn’t it time for the Kurds to sort of whisper that into Turkey’s ear? Because this could go down very fast. Second of all, for those Kurds that don’t move to the new Kurdistan, isn’t a northern – a Northern Ireland solution possible in Turkey?
MR. WILSON: Several different issues. Let’s take another question and then – and then respond to that. Lady in the back?
Q: Hi, Joanne Cummings, Department of State. Qubad, nice to see you; it’s been a while since I saw you in Erbil. The question is really for you. Since members of the Kurdish National Council of Syria have agreed to go to the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis tomorrow with the SNC and other oppositionists, do you see that as being a positive move – either in terms of the opposition as a whole, or also in terms of the Kurdish role within it?
MR. WILSON: Those two – re-imagining the future and – (laughter).
MR. TALABANI: Yeah, I’ll take the second question first. (Chuckles.) Yes. No, it is a positive move. And, you know, I think hopefully through this framework they can, you know, be – play a meaningful role within that framework. It’s – you know, I think the – because the – if the Kurdish right is protected in Syria, then you can almost guarantee that other people’s rights will be protected in Syria. You’ll have Christian rights protected in Syria. They will probably have another counter towards kind of the secular Islamic trends, and the push and pull that will likely evolve when – let’s hypothetically pretend that Assad’s regime falls.
So these are – you know, again, like, we’ve – in Iraq we’ve been able to play this bridge between the Sunnis and the Shiites, between the secularists and the Islamists, and sometimes even between other communities, sometimes between the neighboring countries. The Kurds of Syria can, if – you know, if inclined, could play that kind of role as well.
Regarding, you know, whispering things in Turkey’s ears, I think first we should have – we should whisper these kinds of things in our own ears – (chuckles) – before we start talking about them with other people. Look, we’re not – we’re not completely blind to what’s happening in the world. We are looking at the region that we’re living in. We are looking at certain possibilities and contingencies, and what if this happens, and what if that happens. We’d be – we’d be foolish if we – if we didn’t do that. But that doesn’t mean we have to act on it.
But we’re looking at – look, we don’t know where Iraq is going. Iraq was stable a year and a half ago, and now there is a major political crisis on its hands. And there’s stagnation in the government. And there’s fears of a – of a – of a – more conflict brewing. And now you’ve got Syria with no – and if anyone tells you they know what’s going to happen in Syria, take it from me, they have no idea what’s going to happen in Syria. It’s so fluid; it’s so many factors to it.
All we can do is sit there, watch and just be prepared for any eventuality. But we don’t need to do anything that would upset our own apple cart. And, you know, the success that we’ve had over the last five or six years in building up this relative island of stability is front and foremost our priority to protect that and to build on that.
And we don’t want to be entering into any ventures that could potentially jeopardize that – because everyone thinks that’s what we’re planning for anyway, whether we whisper it in the Turks’ ears or not. This has been the conspiracy theory that the ambassador highlighted in his opening remarks, that this was all a preconceived plan to carve up a new Middle East and draw new boundaries and create new countries and –
MR. TALABANI: (Chuckles.)
MR. WILSON: Henri, do you want to add anything?
MR. BARKEY: Look, I think I – if Iraq were to go – were to break up, clearly, or will go into a civil war, the Iraqi Kurds will – would move towards independence de facto. They’re not going to do it on their own; they’re not going to say, oh, we’re going to become independent. They going to become independent because the rest of Iraq disappears – (inaudible).
But I am not – I also am not sure that the Turkish government is necessarily going to be opposed to that. And the relationship between the KRG and Ankara has gotten strong enough that the Turkish government understands that there is not much that the KRG can do to stop, essentially, what’s going on in Turkey.
And by that I say – which means I disagree with you in terms of the PKK – because, as Qubad already has said, the issue in Turkey is not the 3,000 PKK guys who are in Qandil Mountain. But it is you – you know, it’s a – it’s a 20 – it’s a 20 percent of the Turkish population, some of which are strongly in favor of some kind of demands. And that will continue no matter what, even if there was not a single PKK guy in. And so they will – Turkey will move towards a solution.
And the important thing to underline here – and this is a role that the KRG has played very positively. And I know that a gentleman by the name of Talabani – not here, and I’m not – you might know him – the senior, right, has been telling the Turkish Kurds: Look, the AKP is your best chance to get a deal. Get a deal; get a deal now, because you may not get a – this chance again. The military has been defeated. This government wants to move forward, wants to liberalize. So this is your opportunity. So the KRG has already been playing – or the Iraqi Kurds have already been playing a very positive role in terms of pushing the negotiations along.
MR. WILSON: If that’s what the PKK wants. Let’s maybe have one over here, and then – and then we’ll take, again, two questions.
Q: (Inaudible) – Mr. Talabani, quickly, would you be able to tell us what exactly Syrian Kurds right now ask from the Syrian National Council? It is autonomy, it is self-determination, it’s federalism – what exactly it is? And you talk about limited options that Turkey plays regarding Syrian Kurds. How – last month there was a conference in KRG region. Could you please tell us what is your guidance, or KRG guidance, to Syrian Kurds right now?
Is – you know, they have been also criticized by other Syrian opposition by watching what’s unfolding but not participating enough. On the other hand, PYD also – many say that they play like – (inaudible) – accusing – attacking on other Syrian Kurds while they are protesting. Is there any truth to that? Would you be able to confirm those? Thank you.
MR. WILSON: Let’s take – let’s do one other question. Back in the back – yeah, please.
Q: My name is Yarev Anzeit (ph), and I’m from Kurdistan, Iraq. And I am a Fletcher student at – sorry, a master’s student of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I have one question for Mr. Talabani, and also one question for Mr. Berkeley (sic; Barkey). My question for Mr. Talabani is why KRG was successful in making agreement between PJAK and Tehran for stopping violence, and KRG – but at the same time, KRG was not able to make PKK stop violence against Turkey.
And my other questions for Mr. Berkeley (sic; Barkey) is: Mr. Fidan Hakan, the chief of MİT – now the Turkish public prosecutor has demanded him to attend court for talking to the PKK. To what extend do you see the military (influence ?) within the judicial system of Turkey nowadays? Thanks.
MR. WILSON: OK.
MR. TALABANI: OK. I think there’s probably a range of what the Syrian Kurds are asking for. It’s natural. I mean, when we were negotiating in Iraq for what Iraqi Kurds wanted, there were some that said independence; some said federalism; some said autonomy; some said, you know, something of the other. So there isn’t – you know, I wouldn’t say there’s one clear, unified position on what the Syrian Kurds want, in terms of a set structure.
I hear a lot of people talking about autonomy. You know, you can get into the weeds of that. Is – does that mean autonomy, or does that mean like the federalism that Kurdistan has, because it – you know, one could be construed as a power granted to a region, in the sense of autonomy, whereas federalism is more of a power that the federal region gives back to the central government.
So this – you know, and that – those – the fun and games of that will begin if and when there is a new regime. But clearly the current situation is not acceptable. You cannot have people not be classed as citizens. You can’t have their languages, you know, illegal. You can’t not allow them to form political, civil organizations. It’s just – in this day and age, these kinds of restrictions are just not acceptable. And that’s why you have these springs and these uprisings.
And I think the Kurds will seek and ask for their rights. And these are their rights. They’re entitled to those rights. They should be asking for them. They should be, you know, putting their feet down and not giving in on those basic, fundamental rights that other people around the world enjoy without hassle or grief.
And I think the advice that we give is what I said in my remarks earlier, is two principles. Stick to two principles, democracy and Kurdish rights, because if you get those – if you get the democratic principles enshrined – then you get a whole host of other rights that will be protected for a whole host of other people. And it will hopefully prevent one group from dominating the process and imposing a vision on Syria that may not be liked by all. I think, you know, Syria is a, again, multi-ethnic, multisectarian country. And a new Syria, for it to work, has to reflect that new diversity.
As to the great question by our master’s student on why the KRG was successful in reaching an agreement between PJAK and Iran, and not the PKK and Turkey, is – you know, I think the only way I would say it is that the Iran’s grievance with the PJAK is broad and multifaceted, but this particular case was relevant to PJAK being positioned on a specific hill, a specific location that Iran deemed as a specific threat. And they made a point of that. And with a little back-and-forth, they were able to move from that particular, specific location. And suddenly the shelling stopped. But didn’t stop the underlying tensions and this – the bigger issues. This was a tactical move rather than a strategic victory.
MR. WILSON: Henri, on military and the courts?
MR. BARKEY: No. I don’t – I think the military – the one thing you can say is that there is very little or almost no influence on the court system by the military – unlike, say, five years ago. This court – the judiciary which is – which has now kind of declared semi-war on the – on the government is also the same judiciary that is prosecuting all these generals and locking up all these generals.
So it’s not – it’s not that. It is in many ways more murky, in a sense that it has to do with both the security services, who have – who have turned against – (inaudible) – the intelligence service because some of them were kicked out of from the intelligence service, and they – they’ve gravitated to the security services.
It part has to do with the fact that the – these prosecutors and the judges have always in Turkey thought themselves to be superior to everybody else. And they think they can – they have a monopoly on the truth. I think it’s a little bit their own zeal that has to do with that. And they thought that – and there – it’s also the – (audio break) – that wants to stop this movement towards accommodation with – political accommodation with the Kurds.
MR. WILSON: Good, thank you. Rather than go over time, I think I’ll draw to a close at this point. Thank you all very, very much for your attention and for your very good questions. Many thanks to Gönül – again, to Dr. Gönül Tol and her staff for helping with all the arrangements for this. I want also to thank Eurasia Center Deputy Assistant Director Anna Borshchevskaya and our own staff for helping with this. And please join me in thanking Qubah Talabani and Henri Barkey. (Applause.)