After eight days, Turkey this month ended its ground operation in the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq without achieving its stated goal of uprooting the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) presence. However, the professional military in Turkey must have known how difficult that would be; more likely, they agreed with politicians' wish to use force to focus others' attention on the issue.
Turkish politicians and the military would have agreed that only this sort of action would insure that the others in the region would always include the possibility of Turkey's repeating such operations in their calculations. The purpose of the operation was to demonstrate the willingness to undertake the operation. In this it succeeded, ending very soon after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani decided to go to Ankara.
Thus, Turkey is trying to start negotiations with Baghdad, which has little authority in the north of Iraq, where the Kurdish administration nevertheless has no intention to complicate Turkey's situation. However, Turkey will not solve these issues directly with the leaders of the Kurdish administration in the north before the president of Iraq invites these leaders to take responsibility for solving these questions.
Turkey is unlikely to be comfortable cooperating with the Kurdish administration in the north of Iraq as long as the latter's legal infrastructure is incomplete. It is necessary to define comprehensively the regional authority's responsibilities, implement successfully the juridical means for assuming those responsibilities, and execute the resulting legal obligations.
Take, for example, the question of oil exports. Beyond the present exports from northern Iraq through Turkey, for which the status has previously been established, it is impossible to know the legal basis for future possibilities, when the referendum on the status of the Kirkuk region has not yet been held. That is because business requires a stable financial environment and legal framework; but today there is no authoritative definition of the rights and responsibilities of any participants on the Iraqi side in any possible negotiations.
The referendum on the status of oil-rich Kirkuk - whether it should be included in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region - is the best-known part of the puzzle that needs to be completed, but also it is only an example of the type of matter that needs to be settled. Clearly, these issues will not be settled overnight. On the other hand, joint national-regional delegations on both the Iraqi and the Turkish sides may be created to take small steps for cross-border cooperation.
This would help to build confidence, leading to deeper mutual understanding and bigger steps on more important issues. A step-by-step approach leading to the gradual reduction of tension and accompanied by practical joint cooperation on non-controversial common actions, however small, will lead, on the basis of mutual confidence-building, from violent to non-violent means for conflict management, then to conflict reduction, and finally to conflict resolution.
Indeed, without reference to border problems, "sister-city" cooperation is also a possibility provided proper partners can be found on both sides. The potential for such cooperation in building goodwill among the public should not be underestimated. Also, this type of cooperation may even in some ways be easier at the present moment, since it would represent a voluntary association of a civil-society type between two municipalities. Consequently, it would not depend on clarifications concerning national sovereignty or international law.
The experience of the past 20 years in other regions of the world suggests that, in the Kurdish region in the north or Iraq, three general positive measures would be strengthening order and arms control, strengthening local self-government, and implementing multi-ethnic political coalitions while reducing ethnic disparities. If the Kurdish administration in the north of Iraq were to implement such measures successfully, then any honorable neighbor should feel challenged to demonstrate similar capacities.
Finally, there arises the question of Turkey's role as a power in the region, in relation to the question of proposed Turkish membership in the European Union. Turkey's membership in the EU at some time in the indefinite future would by no means exclude Turkey from playing such a leading role in the nearby region.
Already there is an informal division of labor within the EU, where the cultural and historical traditions of different members already lead them to be concerned with one or another regional or global neighborhood. As an organization, the EU welcomes this differentiation, because it enhances the EU's capacities as an actor in international politics.
Even if Turkey does not join the EU in the long run, there would still be the potential for a strategic partnership between the EU and Turkey on such international matters of common interest. A special concern is the fact that if Turkey becomes a member of the EU, then Turkey's border with Iraq becomes an external border of the EU. The question of the security of this border would become correspondingly more important to many more numerous governments than is the case today.
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First published by Asia Times Online, 14 March 2008.