Doing something for the first time doesn’t necessarily make it historical. Historical is when there is a radical break with how problems were previously approached. This does not apply in any way to the visit of a CHP delegation to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
The delegation of the CHP (Republican People’s Party), the biggest Turkish opposition party, visited the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and met with the prime minister, Masrour Barzani, and with his uncle Massoud Barzani, the former president and now KDP-leader. Afterwards CHP-leader Kılıçdaroğlu, who was not part of the delegation, said that he wants ‘peace in the Middle East’.
Let me begin breaking this down by telling you that it is not the US that has the greatest foreign military presence in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, but Turkey – I don’t count the Iranian-backed Hashd Al-Shabi here because they are not the actual Iranian army but part of the Iraqi forces. The US has 2500 troops. Turkey has some 2500 troops at its Bashiqa base, but, Arzu Yılmaz, a scholar specialised in Kurdish, Turkish and Middle-Eastern affairs, told me, in 2017 then Prime Minister Yıldırım said that number would be doubled. Ever since, Turkey has further expanded its presence in the Kurdistan Region, further increasing the number of troops. How many there are exactly, is unclear, but there are at least 5000.
I don’t know when the visit of the CHP was planned, but it comes rather quickly after the dramatic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. This departure triggered fears in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, as analyst Bilal Wahab explains in this conversation. For now, US troops are staying, but of course, politicians and diplomats try to be pro-active, and consider all kinds of possible scenarios. What if US troops do leave? How strong is Hashd Al-Shabi? They are attacking Erbil airport regularly, and they have shown how their swift presence, for example in Shengal and Kirkuk, defines local dynamics. Would they run over the Kurdistan Region? Or would Turkey halt that? (Don’t count on the peshmerga.)
When Turkey occupies land, it’s there to stay. There is no reason to think the CHP would act any differently on this than the AKP. Sure, kicking the AKP from power in elections next year (officially in 2023 but likely they will be expedited) would be good, but the CHP has wholeheartedly supported all cross-border operations that Erdoğan initiated and supports the Turkish occupation of parts of northern Syria and of mountain stretches in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Under the guise of protecting the Kurds from Iran, Turkey could further expand their presence into the Kurdistan Region, all the way down to Sulaymanya and Halabja.
Speculation, I know, but these are scenarios that need to be considered, keeping Turkish history and presence in mind. Especially because Kılıçdaroğlu said he wants ‘peace in the Middle-East’. Many people want that, if not everybody. He doesn’t and never has advocated peace in Turkey. It’s dangerous to say you want peace in Turkey because for the current government, advocating peace in Turkey equals siding with ‘terrorists’. Kılıçdaroğlu doesn’t risk being pushed into the terrorist-corner. He’s a coward.
Another indication that the CHP doesn’t want to advocate Kurdish rights, are their collocutors: PM Masrour Barzani and his uncle and KDP leader Massoud Barzani. Before becoming prime minister, Masrour was the general director of the Protection and Intelligence Agency. Many hold him responsible for the current crackdowns against protesters and the media. You can’t take this out of the equation. The party of the Barzani’s, the KDP, has close relations with president Erdoğan, who also cracks down on peaceful protests and the media. If Kılıçdaroğlu criticises Erdoğan for his dictatorial behaviours in Turkey, which he does, he can’t not stand with peaceful protesters and the media in the Kurdistan Region, and hollowly speak of ‘peace’.
But more than that, Kurdish clan leaders, like the Barzanis, have a history of cooperation with those in power in Turkey, dating back to before the republic, in Ottoman times. Kurdish clan leaders enjoyed autonomy, didn’t pay taxes to the Ottoman authorities and didn’t have to send their sons off to military service, in exchange for defending the border of the empire. The clan leaders enriched themselves by exploiting their people. The PKK has weakened this dynamic in Southeast-Turkey, but in the Kurdistan Region, the leaders are absolutely into this model. Or, let’s say, they are open to strengthen this model, as it is in function already.
It’s also important to make explicit with whom the CHP delegation decided not to meet: the PKK. The PKK wasn’t even mentioned. If you want peace in the Middle-East, it’s impossible not to set up a table and talk with the PKK. But the CHP-leader didn’t even dare to suggest it. Any lip service to peace is really just that if you don’t get to the heart of the issue: the fascism of the Turkish state and the consequential suppression of Kurds and the emergence of the PKK that was the result of that. But nothing else could be expected of the CHP, the party established by Turkey’s founding father Atatürk. The party has the state’s fascism in its DNA. For them, peace doesn’t mean absence of violence because there is justice and freedom, but absence of violence because of suppression.
Add that all up and it’s obvious that Kılıçdaroğlu doesn’t want peace. He sees elections coming and anticipates on the power that may bring. That’s against peace, and bad news for Kurds, also those in the Kurdistan Region. A truth rooted in history, rendering the CHP visit to Erbil anything but historical.