Turkey and the Kurds

According to this Jamestown Foundation article by David Romano, Turkey’s recent diplomatic contacts with the Kurdish Regional Government represent a major shift, and is the result of a combination of factors:

. . .Turkey’s late February military incursion, which lasted only eight days, did limited damage to the PKK and may have convinced Ankara of the need to pay more attention to a variety of counter-insurgency approaches. At the same time, the incursion probably succeeded in convincing KRG leaders of the need to work harder to both contain the PKK and improve relations with Turkey. To Ankara’s credit, its February military operation and a number of air raids against the PKK in Iraq carefully avoided civilian casualties, which in turn left KRG leaders the freedom to pursue better relations with Turkey. The avoidance of civilian casualties and the operation’s short duration probably helped dispel Iraqi Kurdish suspicions that Turkey’s real agenda aims at damaging the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous government, rather than fighting the PKK.

While encouraging, the move is only the first step towards a true thaw. The remaining sticking points are the KRG’s willingness to actively confront — as opposed to their efforts to logistically isolate — the PKK, and Turkey’s formulation of a comprehensive, civilian population component of its COIN strategy.

Still, the dialogue culminates a long and volatile game of chicken at the end of which both sides decided to pull back from the edge of open conflict that would have served no one’s interests. And while the gains are tentative, they represent one of the few bright spots on the growing horizon of ethno-nationalist conflict resolution.

Importantly, American influence, once it was finally mobilized, figured prominently in the solution, and demonstrates the ways in which a mediator trusted by both parties to a conflict can use carrots and sticks to nudge them towards a resolution. The tricky part about Turkey mediating backchannel talks between Israel and Syria, or Egypt between Israel and Hamas, is that neither can wield the kind of carrots and sticks that are likely to be needed to break the impasses. That’s a problem that needs to be resolved if they are to achieve any meaningful outcomes.