Foreign policy implications of the Kurdish peace for Turkey

The process enables a less-securitised political climate and the opportunity to create a more liberal justice system.

The withdrawal of PKK as a step in the peace process may yield greater benefits to Turkey [AP]

As the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continues its relocation across the border into northern Iraq, analysts in Turkey have written extensively on the potential domestic benefits. For decades, the conflict in Turkey has hindered democratisation, stifled free expression, hampered economic progress and attenuated the bonds between state and society. Crafting a peace settlement would remove the biggest impediment to increased democratisation, more robust civil liberties, and economic development. This in return would improve state-society relations. Thus, the domestic gains of peace with the PKK are evident.

However, little discussed, but no less important, are the foreign policy implications of the peace. Moreover, to the extent that analysts have addressed the foreign policy benefits, they have focused primarily on Turkey’s gains in the Middle East. They overlook the peace’s potential boon to Turkey – EU relations. The Kurdish peace has the potential to effect significant change across a range of foreign policy issues important to Turkey. Beyond the EU, peace with its own Kurdish population will affect Turkey’s relationship with other Kurds in the Middle East -especially in Iraq and Syria – with potential political, economic, and energy related gains for both Turkey and the Kurds of the region.

Kurdish issue in Turkey – EU relations

For years, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has deemed Turkey a major human rights violator. Among the 47 signatory states of the European Convention on Human Rights, Turkey was the biggest violator from 1959 until 2012, due to its failure to uphold its citizens’ rights and liberties. Only in 2012 did Russia surpass Turkey as Europe’s worst human rights violator.

Turkey’s poor record stemmed primarily from a justice system that regarded the protection of the state – and not the citizenry – as its prime concern. The state security courts, which dealt with crimes committed against the state were created in 1973 and used widely in the context of the Kurdish/PKK issue during the 1980s and 1990s. These courts adopted an expansive reading of “crimes against the state” and delivered harsh verdicts. The ECtHR ruled that most of these decisions violated the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Court convicted Turkey in a large number of cases. Though these courts were abolished in 2004 as part of Turkey’s drive to harmonise its judicial system with that of the EU, vestiges of these courts have still not been completely eliminated.

PKK leader calls for ceasefire in Turkey

A significant portion of these illiberal laws and practices were adopted in the context of Turkey’s three-decade conflict with the PKK, which have claimed over 40,000 lives according to official statistics. It is thus no surprise that Turkey has received the most indictments in the area of individuals’ rights to a fair trial.

If the peace process proves successful, it will enable the revision of these laws to better protect the rights of citizens. Not only might this help Turkey rid itself of a major stain on its reputation, but it also might add some momentum to stalling Turkey-EU relations, as the Kurdish issue, along with Cyprus, is one of the two most formidable stumbling blocks in Turkish-EU relations.

The resolution of the Kurdish issue may yield even greater benefits to Turkey in the Middle East. Increasingly, Kurds – and not the nations of Iraq and Syria – will constitute Turkey’s immediate neighbours to the southeast. In Iraq, the KRG is already quasi-independent, and a strengthened position for Kurds in Syria’s future requires little imagination. These groups do not just wield power in their enclaves; they hold sway in their respective countries’ national politics as well. In this context, Turkey’s forging of better relations with its own and neighbouring Kurds has the potential to yield important regional gains. The displeasure voiced by both Iran and Iraq regarding the PKK’s decision to pursue peace and withdraw from Turkey must be seen in this context.

Political economy of the peace

In addition to political gains, improved relations with the region’s Kurds may yield significant energy and economic gains as well. For many years, oil and gas have played a negative role in regional politics. It has become a curse rather than a boon for the countries that possess it. However, Kurdish oil and gas may prove an exception. The pipeline being built to connect Kurdish oil to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline may facilitate mutually beneficial economic, political, and security ties between Turkey, the KRG, and other Kurds in the region.

The KRG’s 45 billion barrel proven oil reserves will benefit Turkey in three ways. First, with a growing economy of $775 billion, Turkey’s energy needs continue to grow rapidly-seven percent annually, according to some analysts. As an energy-poor country, Turkey heavily relies on foreign sources – namely, Russia and Iran. Both countries’ inclination to use energy as a foreign policy bargaining tool poses a major threat to Turkey’s energy security. Diversifying Turkey’s energy sources with Kurdish oil and gas has become an issue of critical importance.

Second, Kurdish energy plays a major role in Turkey’s quest to become an international energy hub, carrying Central Asian and Middle Eastern energy to Europe. To achieve its goal, Turkey must obtain sufficient and reliable sources of energy. Thus far, Azerbaijan has been the most significant source country, though its production falls short of meeting potential demand. In this regard, Kurdish and Turkmen oil and gas occupy a significant place in Turkey’s vision. The mutual benefits of cooperation are evident: Turkey needs reliable energy sources, while the KRG needs export channels to international markets for its land-locked oil and gas reserves.

The peace process enables a less-securitized political climate and the opportunity to create a more liberal justice system, which would expand domestic freedoms and remove the stain on Turkey’s international reputation.

Third, Turkey’s current account deficit is significantly higher than other emerging economies. Despite a sharp reduction from the 2011 deficit of $77bn, the deficit hovered around $50bn in 2012. A significant portion of this figure is due to Turkey’s substantial energy costs. The KRG’s offer of oil and gas on favourable terms can help Turkey reduce its current account deficit. Thus, the energy cooperation between Turkey and the KRG is set to yield mutual benefits in many different respects.

In addition, Iraq has become Turkey’s second largest export market after Germany, with 70% of that volume going to the Kurdish region. As an energy-rich KRG develops its infrastructure further, Turkish businesses will become even more deeply engaged. If Turkey leverages its geographic proximity to the KRG with closer political relations, Turkish business would have an edge over its competitors in further tapping into the Kurdish market. Moreover, the Kurdish region can become the gateway for Turkish business into the rest of the Iraqi market. The termination of armed conflict would remove a major impediment to extensive cooperation between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Moreover, a political solution to Kurdish issue in Turkey can facilitate improved relations between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds as well. Syria’s largest Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), maintains intimate links with the PKK. A peace deal with the PKK will enable Turkey to engage more freely with the Syrian Kurds. This in return would enable Turkey to enjoy better relations with a larger segment of Syrian society, laying the groundwork for healthier relations between Turkey and post-crisis Syria. Yet, in order for this to occur, Turkey should avoid adopting a belligerent approach to the PYD, while it conducts peace negotiations with the PKK. As Turkey’s peace with its own Kurds domestically have significant foreign policy implications, Turkey’s approach to the Kurds in neighbouring countries also has major impact on Turkey’s domestic Kurdish issue.

The Kurdish peace process thus not only has the potential to solve Turkey’s most intractable issue, but it can also yield significant foreign policy gains on Turkey’s European and southeastern fronts. The peace process enables a less-securitized political climate and the opportunity to create a more liberal justice system, which would expand domestic freedoms and remove the stain on Turkey’s international reputation. At the same time, the peace process removes a major impediment to Turkey’s Middle East engagement. But beyond the immediate political and international benefits, a Kurdish peace would provide a successful example for resolving a long-standing dispute – this is a region mired in crises and long-enduring conflicts.

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

You can follow him on twitter: @GalipDalay