Kurdistan back from the brink —for now?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to meet President Bush in Washington Nov. 5 amid signs that the crisis over PKK attacks from across the Iraqi ­border has slightly eased. As Erdogan was en route to the US, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers it had captured two weeks earlier in the incident that led to overt threats by Turkey to send troops into northern Iraq. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, in Istanbul for talks that included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that “a number of concrete measures” would be implemented to address Turkish demands, including establishing checkpoints, disrupting supply routes, and the closure of any PKK offices in northern Iraq. “I can say that soon you will see these visible measures implemented on the ground in order to show the seriousness of our co-operation with the government of Turkey,” Zebari pledged. (FT, Nov. 3)

The eight soldiers were handed over to Turkish MPs from the Kurdish-nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP) in northern Iraq by representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government. They had been captured in a PKK attack in Dağlıca Oct. 21, in which 12 Turkish soldiers were also killed. (Hurriyet, Nov. 5)

Turkey had started to impose economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan by stopping flights between Istanbul and the Kurdish capital, Arbil. An economic embargo by Turkey would have a devastating impact on the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is dependent on supplies coming from Turkey over the Habur Bridge. The closure of the bridge would also be a serious blow to US forces in Iraq, who receive much of their fuel and supplies through Turkey.

Kurdistan Regional Government president Massoud Barzani said that Turkey had closed its airspace “not only to Kurdistan but also to Baghdad.” Barzani was speaking at a press conference with British Defense Secretary Des Browne, who was on his first visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. Browne expressed strong British opposition to a cross-border operation by Turkey and praised Barzani for his efforts to defuse the crisis. But Barzani declined to join Browne in condemning the PKK as “terrorists,” saying that he would only do so if they turned down a Turkish offer of talks. Turkey has adamantly refused to make any such offer. (The Independent, Nov. 2)

Since the crisis erupted, the Western media have been emphasizing that the PKK has little support within Turkey (e.g. “As Kurds’ Status Improves, Support for Militants Erodes in Turkey,” NYT, Nov. 2) But as we have noted before, the PKK is the only Kurdish faction which has developed a following and support network in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria alike—that is, throughout historic Kurdistan.

On Nov. 3, Issa Khalil Hussein, a Kurd killed by Syria’s security forces during a pro-PKK rally in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, was buried following a funeral attended by thousands of Kurds and held amid heavy security. He was killed the previous day, when a protest against the Turkish military threats in Iraq was attacked by Syrian security forces. Two other protesters were wounded.

“The security forces, violently and unjustifiably, dispersed a peaceful rally called by the Democratic Union Party, to denounce the recent escalation at the Iraqi borders,” according to a statement of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights. Syria’s Democratic Union Party is said to have close ties to the PKK.

Violent anti-government protests in Qamishili in 2004 claimed 30 lives. Syria expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and banned the organization to defuse a confrontation with Turkey in 1998. Damascus has voiced support for Turkey’s threatened incursions into Iraq to rout the PKK. (DPA, Nov. 4)

See our last posts on Iraq, Turkey and Kurdistan, and Syria.