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The following analysis by respected political commentator and columnist, Fikret Bila, was published in the Turkish daily Milliyet on 16 August 2009. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

The “Kurdish Initiative”’s external dimension

It is a matter of great interest as to when the “Kurdish Initiative” package will be opened. As the contents are for the time being unknown, the debate continues on an “if…, if …” basis.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has for the first time answered the question “when”. He has said, “We do not have time to wait until the new year to announce the contents.” This means that the contents will be announced before the new year. There is no time to wait until the new year. No light has been shed on precisely why there is no time to wait until the new year. It is apparent that there are factors which impose a certain time limit on the government.

Obama’s recommendations

The internal dynamics of the “Kurdish Initiative” are being discussed, but not a great deal of attention is being devoted to its external dimension. In fact, the timing of the commencement of this process was noteworthy.

Ankara has more or less simultaneously accelerated its endeavours in connection with Armenia, the Kurdish question and minorities’ religious demands.

There is a visible parallel between this acceleration in Ankara and US President Barack Obama’s Ankara visit.

Just as Obama pledged before his election, he has announced that there will be a phased withdrawal from Iraq. President Obama made a speech to the Turkish National Assembly during his Ankara visit. In that speech, he had three recommendations for Ankara:

1- Solve the problems with Armenia.
2- Find a solution to the Kurdish problem.
3- Open the Heybeliada/Halki Seminary.

Ankara has rapidly brought these three matters onto the agenda and has rapidly launched initiatives. For a while, President Abdullah Gül’s efforts, which he undertook as a matter of priority, to normalise relations with Armenia were the first item on the agenda. This issue, while not as hot as it was, has been kept on the boil.

With a speed that one could virtually describe as simultaneity, the Heybeliada/Halki Seminary, minority demands and the Kurdish problem have been placed in the top three slots on the agenda.

The government has prioritised the Kurdish question and initiated the process of debate. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has rapidly distanced himself from the nationalist discourse which he used in the South East as recently as prior to the local elections.

He met up with DTP (Democratic Society Party) leader Ahmet Türk, with whom he had said, “I will not negotiate.” The CHP (Republican People’s Party) and MHP (National Movement Party) have adopted positions. The process has picked up speed.

Prime Minister Erdoğan yesterday convened with minority leaders on Büyükada. In the quest for formulae to open the Heybeliada/Halki Seminary, the minority leaders’ remaining problems were discussed.

To say that there is no connection between these developments and US President Obama’s Ankara visit and plans to withdraw from Iraq would be to disguise the truth.

It has by now become apparent that President Abdullah Gül, with his “historic opportunity” rhetoric, is making reference to the US withdrawal and the conditions that will subsequently come about.

National interests

In examining the “Kurdish Initiative”’s external dimension, the emphasis must without doubt be placed on Turkey’s national interests. In the course of the US occupation of Iraq there was a clash of national interests between the USA and Turkey; and efforts to bury the hatchet formed the basis for very hard and protracted negotiations. At the end of the day, the 1 March Parliamentary Note by means of which it was hoped to bury the hatchet failed to gain the approval of the Turkish National Assembly and relations broke down.

Today different conditions prevail. The USA may consider that its interests would be better served by preventing a potential Arab-Kurdish conflict on its withdrawal from Iraq and by keeping Turkey close to the US-North Iraq front rather than supporting the Arab front against the North Iraq Kurdish Administration.

In order to keep Turkey on this course, it may have recommended that the PKK be rendered ineffective in North Iraq on “certain conditions”. The precise conditions that were imposed to this end are important. An examination of the current state of play and the “Kurdish Initiative” that the government has suddenly accelerated reveals that Ankara may have been requested to take certain inward-looking steps in this regard and to take measures that will satisfy the expectations of the DTP-PKK axis.

The point that merits attention in this process is that the USA will continue to support the North Iraq Kurdish Administration and will not entirely vacate this region.

Ankara must act on the basis of long-term and national interests and, staying abreast of fluctuating circumstances, must not commit grave errors which will be hard to put right.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton