Turkey softens stance on independence for Iraqi Kurds

Istanbul (AFP) - After embarking on a peace process with homegrown Kurdish militants, Turkey is finally reconciling itself with the prospect of an independent Kurdish state in neighbouring war-torn Iraq.

The idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan was once anathema for Ankara, which traditionally feared it would lead to a greater Kurdistan incorporating its own Kurdish-majority regions.

But struggling to fend off the growing jihadist threat on its doorstep, and pursuing its own strategic and economic interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey has gradually changed its position to forge a new alliance with the Iraqi Kurds.

In stark contrast to previous Turkish leaders who deferred to the once-powerful military, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started a peace process with Kurdish rebels in Turkey and introduced reforms to ease discrimination against Kurds.

Erdogan also hopes to call on support from among the 15 million-strong Kurdish minority, most of whom hail from the poor and underdeveloped southeast, when he stands for election as president on August 10.

"Supporting Iraq's territorial integrity no longer serves Turkey's interests. Turkey knows that Iraq cannot stay united anymore and wants to remain unscathed," said Bilgay Duman, an Iraq expert at the Ankara-based Centre for Middle-Eastern Strategic Studies.

"It has no better ally in the region than the Kurds... An independent Kurdish state will provide a buffer zone to counter the Islamist threat," he told AFP.

Ankara's alarm has reached new heights after Sunni jihadists seized a vast swathe of territory in northern Iraq and declared a "caliphate" straddling Turkey's neighbours Iraq and Syria.

Emboldened by recent gains as a result of the jihadist surge, Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani on Thursday asked the autonomous region's parliament to prepare for a referendum on independence, possibly paving the way for the break-up of Iraq.

Duman said Turkey no longer fears that Iraqi Kurds' push for independence will lead to the creation of a greater Kurdistan, "because there is no unity among the region's Kurds".

- 'Turkey different from Iraq' -

Recent comments to the Financial Times by Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, also suggested that Ankara could tolerate an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Originally of Indo-European origin, Kurds in the Middle East are predominantly Sunni Muslim and number between 25 and 35 million, with a language and culture that make them distinct from Arabs, Turks and Persians.

They are therefore often seen as a threat by all the four countries they principally inhabit -- Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey -- and have long suffered discrimination.

But Turkey's Kurds have begun to enjoy greater democratic rights under Erdogan's 11-year rule, with the Turkish strongman engaging the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in talks to end a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.

The government last week proposed reforms to revive stalled talks with the PKK, which took up arms in 1984 with the aim of creating an independent Kurdish state, but has since scaled back its demands to greater autonomy for Kurds.

"Turkey is still very different from Iraq, not least in the fact that the country's ruling AKP commands up to half of the votes of Kurdish speakers, even in the Kurdish-majority southeast, and because perhaps half of all Turkey's Kurds live in the west of the country," said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group.

"There is every chance that a well-judged democracy package that gives an element of regulated decentralisation to the whole country can keep the country whole and prosperous."

- Growing trade ties -

Turkey has also built up strong trade ties with Iraq's Kurdistan region in recent years, which experts say is another reason why Ankara cannot afford to be as hostile to the idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state as in the past.

In May, Turkey began exporting oil supplies from Iraqi Kurdistan to international markets, drawing the ire of the central government in Baghdad.

"Erdogan cannot afford to antagonise the Kurds in northern Iraq. Because he needs them for their oil and the goods he is selling them," Duman said.

Iraq has also become the second biggest single export market for Turkey, accounting for 8 percent of the country's overall exports.