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Turkey-PKK Peace Deal Gains Momentum With Regional Implications

  • Dorian Jones

Thousands of PKK supporters demonstrate with flags and posters of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, in southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 21, 2013.

Thousands of PKK supporters demonstrate with flags and posters of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, in southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 21, 2013.

Peace talks between Turkey's government and the PKK continue to gain momentum. With large minority Kurdish populations also in neighboring Iraq and Syria, analysts say those countries could benefit from the peace process economically and politically. But such an alliance could at the same time threaten the integrity of Iraq and Syria by fueling a Kurdish push for autonomy or even independence.

Last month's cease-fire announcement by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in its fight against the Turkish state offers the greatest opportunity for peace in the nearly three-decade-long conflict, according to Sinan Ulgen, head of the Turkish research institute Edam. He says ending the conflict would have important implications not only for Turkey, but the whole region.

"A Turkey that has settled its own differences with its own Kurds will be naturally more disposed [to] establishing alliances with Kurds in the region, be it in northern Iraq or be it in Syria," said Ulgen. "So, in a way, Turkey [is] becoming an even more assertive, influential and confident player regionally."

Neighboring Iraq and Syria, like Turkey, have significant Kurdish minorities. Ankara has already developed strong economic ties with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. Those ties are set to deepen with the prospect of a massive energy deal involving the building of oil-and-gas pipelines that would not only supply energy hungry Turkey, but also distribute Iraqi-Kurdish oil and gas to world markets.

Attila Yesilada, an analyst at Global Source Partners, an Istanbul-based research firm, says peace with the PKK is essential to the deal, and adds such an alliance would solve a major economic and diplomatic headache for Ankara.

"Currently, we are almost completely reliant on Russia and Iran, which are, to say the least, volatile neighbors, if not hostile," said Yesilada. "And both are bound to use gas delivery as a negotiation tool. But if we get gas from [the] Iraqis we would [have] significantly diversified our energy sources. But the PKK is a major problem unless the current 'peace process' reaches fruition. Such pipelines would be [sitting] ducks and essentially just hostages [to] PKK attacks."

But Baghdad claims only the national government can make such energy deals. Washington has expressed concern about the potential deal, claiming it could threaten the integrity of the Iraqi state by fueling secessionist demands by the Iraqi Kurds.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University acknowledges any deepening of the relationship between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds could pose a threat, but says economic prosperity in Iraqi Kurdistan built on its ties with Turkey could strengthen the latter.

"I hope Turkey and Baghdad will be clever enough to properly use this Turkish presence in the north of Iraq to extend this region of peace and stability towards the south of Iraq. The other way is war," said Aktar.

But in an interview last month, senior PKK figure Zübeyir Aydar claimed the peace process could open the door to collaboration between Turks and Kurds across the region that could even lead to a redrawing of Turkey's borders with Iraq and Syria.

Analyst Ulgen says with the region facing growing turmoil, the repercussions of a Turkish-Kurdish alliance could be significant.

"There [are] going to be implications for the region, especially if we take into consideration that the future[s] of nation-states like Iraq and Syria are very much uncertain and that the turbulence and instability we see today might eventually lead to the disintegration of those nation-states," he said.

The current peace process between Ankara and the PKK is still only in its initial stages, with both sides expressing cautious optimism. But observers point out that reaching such a peace agreement could have far-reaching consequences not only for Turkey, but for the whole region.