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EXCLUSIVE: Turkish deputy PM on Iraq visit, PKK, Erbil ties, Rojava cantons

By Rudaw 6/1/2017
Turkey’s deputy prime minister and official government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus. Photo: AA
Turkey’s deputy prime minister and official government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus. Photo: AA
Rudaw’s correspondent in Turkey, Kemal Avci, sat down with Turkey’s deputy prime minister and official government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus ahead of Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s planned visit to Baghdad and Erbil.

In this interview Kurtulmus, discuss his country’s plans to normalize economic and political ties with Iraq, Turkey’s relations with Erbil, Ankara’s position on the PKK in Shingal, and its initiative for peace in neighboring Syria.

Rudaw: Can we say that relations between Turkey and Iraq have now been normalized or does it need more time?

Numan Kurtulmus: We don’t think Turkey has any deep or unresolvable problem with our neighbors and brothers in Iraq. But unfortunately, the political events in the region which has lasted a number of years, especially the civil war in Syria, have had their impact on the region including relations between Iraq and Turkey. Last week, Turkey’s president made a phone call to the Iraqi prime minister and brought relations back on a healthy track. He also created the ground for better and improved relations. In the phone call both sides emphasized brotherhood and friendship as well as efforts to take the relations to a new phase. 

We expect from the planned visit of Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to Baghdad and Erbil more tangible steps to be taken for further economic ties while taking into account our ties with our friends and brothers in northern Iraq. I hope that common ground will be created, in particular against terrorism, and this ground will further strengthen the rightful governments in both states. This visit coincides with the goal of returning Turkey-Iraq


  the world is only talking about fighting ISIS with words and no action, but Turkey has proved it with action  

relations to the good level in every aspect. We defend the integrity of Iraq within which income and political treatments are to be provided equally for the Kurdish government in northern Iraq and for the people of Iraq by establishing a mature federal system where all peoples will get their rights. And Turkey aims to strengthen its ties with both the Kurdish government in the north and the central Iraqi government.

Turkey was seeking to guarantee the rights of Sunni Arabs and Maliki was accusing Turkey of meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs which led to tensions. What was the main cause of these tensions?

Unfortunately those things were just excuses that Iraq’s central government was constantly pursuing. But the main thing is that in this region some plotting is in the making and a dirty game played which we should be careful of. And this game is called the second Sykes-Picot which some countries did one hundred years ago – drew borders of the region without regard to the ethnic, religious or sectarian makeup of the people. And now that same scenario is being repeated at the expense of ethnic and religious communities which will be problematic again.

The first Sykes-Picot was carried out as the result of a world war and the second one is being done through terrorist and proxy groups which could have the same outcome, therefore Kurds, Turkmen, Ajam and all other groups must stay vigilant about this plot and carefully read all the events. Turkey is present there because of its necessity to fight ISIS. Turkey is present there because of this need. Turkey is also  there to prevent other terrorist organizations from carrying out this plot. For instance in the operation to retake Mosul some right campaign was carried out which was the training of 4,000 fighters of the guards of Nineveh with the help of Peshmerga in Bashiqa and training of the people of the region which had a very positive outcome in a way that a strong blow was dealt to ISIS. And we saw the Peshmerga bravely face off ISIS and push away its threat. We are not in that region to occupy but to protect and defend the people of the area, protect the border, Iraq’s sovereignty and helping Iraqi forces in combating terrorism. Our forces will stay there only as long as people of the region want it and we are there to answer their needs. I am sure this topic will be laid out for discussion with Iraqi leaders and a satisfying agreement will be reached and the problem will end.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited Ankara and met with Mr. Erdogan and PM Yildirim. Did he have a role in the process of normalizing Ankara-Baghdad relations?

Yes, both President of the Kurdish Region in Northern Iraq Mr. Masoud Barzani and Mr. Nechirvan Barzani had effective roles in the framework of bringing Turkey and Iraq closer and their initiative is appreciated. And both of them expressed their position on the presence of terrorist organizations. I thank them both from here. I also want to point to the importance of Mr. Nechirvan Barzani’s


  I hope our economic ties with Baghdad and Erbil return to their previous level  

position on the presence of an illegal force which is made up of members of a terrorist organization which is the PKK and have imposed themselves by force in the name of protecting the Yezidi people. He said these forces should not stay here and endanger the future of the area. The cooperation of the Kurdish authorities in facing off this group in Shingal and their direct combating of ISIS is applauded.

What are the main topics that Turkish Prime Minister will discuss with Iraqi leaders?

Certainly, issues that have caused trouble will be discussed but the main thing will be economic ties between both sides. Unfortunately due to wars, unwarranted situations and terrorism the size of Turkish foreign trade with Iraq went down to one third of what it was before. Our goal was to raise the size of our trade to $15 billion; it is now under $5 billion. We know that both the central government of Iraq and Kurdish authorities in the north want expanded economic ties with Turkey and we give great importance to that, too. That’s why the economy will be one of the main topics of these talks. And the same for Erbil, we will try to raise our economic ties to the previous level because 70 percent of Turkish exports to Iraq go to Erbil and 60 percent of foreign companies in Erbil are Turkish. Erbil is also an important link for our exports and I hope our economic ties with Baghdad and Erbil return to their previous level.

It is known that the YPG is present in Shingal. Also there is a unit under the name of the Shingal Protections Units, a unit formed from the Yezidi people, that is recognized by Baghdad.  According to rumors circulating in Turkish media, it is said that Turkey is preparing to launch an operation against the PKK both in Qandil and Shingal, and also in Rojava. In this regard, what are your demands and expectations from Iraq?

We have stressed with Iraqi authorities and others that there are no good and bad terrorists. They are all talking about destroying ISIS in Mosul and Tal Afar and we agree and do all we can for this, but the world is only talking about fighting ISIS with words and no action, but Turkey has proved it with action. Before this interview, my friends and I were at the burial ceremony for one of our soldiers killed by ISIS. Turkey has proven it on the ground and with action and through Operation Shield of Euphrates that it is fighting ISIS fiercely. We sacrifice and lose lives and the world is seeing this. 
Yes we are for removing a terrorist group from Mosul and Tal Afar but another terrorist group should not be allowed to take their place, be this organization the PKK, YPG, Hashd al-Shaabi or any other group. We have told the Americans, Russians, Iranian and Iraqis from the start that after the liberation of Mosul people of the region must run their own affairs and defend themselves. Let the people of


  I believe a federal system would be best for Iraq and Iraqis  

Mosul run Mosul, and the same for Tal Afar, Raqqa, and Jarablus. In the case of Jarablus, Turkey did this. Let the people in those areas be armed and take part in the fight. And for the international community supporting them in the war against ISIS, let them provide air support, and provide necessary support. Unless we work this way, after the liberation from one terrorist group we will be dealing with another terrorist organization and the situation will be much worse. Therefore we cannot ignore the presence of the PKK in Shingal which we believe is another part of the plan to destabilize the region’s security and peace. For us, ISIS is a threat; also the YPG, PYD, and Hashd al-Shaabi are a threat. Nusra, too, and other organizations are a threat. If we secretly back one of these groups for our own interests, it will certainly turn against ourselves today or tomorrow. We believe that the PKK in Shingal is a threat to Turkey, the Kurdish government and Iraq in general and will destabilize the region. This topic too will be discussed with the Iraqi government and I hope we will reach a good outcome and that it is resolved.

Bashiqa was a boiling point between Iraq and Turkey. What will be your position if your withdrawal from there becomes Iraq’s precondition for normalizing relations?

I don’t think the Iraqi government sees the Turkish army as occupiers in Bashiqa. They don’t have that kind of position and they know it too. I believe we can solve this issue through dialogue and I hope we can reach an outcome that will please both sides.

Will there be talks about marketing Iraq and Kurdistan Region’s oil?

Undoubtedly it will be discussed from every angle. Just a little while ago I said that we stress Iraq’s territorial integrity with an equal distribution of income and oil is one of them. I believe a federal system would be best for Iraq and Iraqis and Turkey supports Iraq to improve its economy and raise its income and revenues.

Sunni Arabs count on Turkey and for after the liberation of Mosul they seek the establishment of a region in Nineveh. What’s Turkey’s stance on this?

Every city must preserve its identity. Mosul has its own identity. It is a Sunni-majority city. It has Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, and other communities. We have to protect this make up. The same in Tal Afar. If ethnic cleansing is carried out in Mosul it will certainly not have a good future, the threats will continue and the situation will get worse. Sunnis are natives of this region and they will be until the day of resurrection. We will not allow any party or group to do ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis in Mosul. And we will not allow Turkmen and Arabs of the area to be removed from there. Mosul must remain in its multiethnic, multicolor nature and its demography should not be changed.

The second leg of PM Yildirim’s visit is Erbil. What are the issues he is going to talk about with the Kurdish leaders and what is the significance of Erbil for Turkey?

We have held a similar position with the authorities in Erbil on all issues. We hope the question of the region’s presidency is also resolved and the situation improves. As Turkey, we will provide all political backing for Erbil and we are aware of efforts made to


  I wish that from the start of the Syrian crisis, regional countries like Turkey and Iran had talked on how to solve the problems before international forces had interfered  

deteriorate the stability of calm in the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. It matters to Turkey to keep the stability and security of the region. Stability of northern Iraq is beneficial for the Kurds and for Turkey and for relations between Iraq and Turkey. We want more political, economic and trade stability for Erbil and we as Turkey will do whatever is expected of us and Turkey shows a strong will for this. We also show full support to expelling the terrorist organizations on the northern Iraq border in the near future.

The Kurdistan Region is grappling with a severe economic crisis and according to Wikileaks documents it has asked Turkey for long-term loans. What will Turkey do to help Kurdistan Region overcome this crisis?

Turkey offers this kind of support every now and then and it will be tackled in detail in the meetings and will hopefully have a good outcome.

In addition to being a politician, you are an economist and once taught economics. In light of that, how do you see Kurdistan Region’s economy and what advice do you have?

I have a lot of expertise on Islamic countries from Iraq and Kurdistan to Syria, Jordan, Morocco all the way to Indonesia and I know what fertile lands they have. They are all rich in natural resources and human resources too. And great people have risen in recent years who can serve their countries. In Turkey there is a popular expression that says there is sugar, flour and oil and all you need to do is to make a halva. In this geographic area there are also all the ingredients but unfortunately there is a crisis of political will. The things we are talking about are all tragic such as civil war, domestic rivalries, proxy wars, occupation and terrorism. Northern Iraq is an extremely rich area of fertile land. Extracting these resources in a fair way and their fair distribution and drawing good economic plans for the cities and across the borders must become the main talking point of the leaders.

We are going through times that have not only made tourism and traveling from one country to another difficult, but even from one city to another. We must widen our collaborations and make use of our historical and cultural common points. More educational and economic joint work could also be done. We must think about how to make our youth study at Turkey and Erbil universities and make use of their experience. We can do all this as long as we can get out of the current tense atmosphere.

Let’s move on to Syria. You said recently that Turkey had been wrong all along about Syria. What mechanism do you think will be adopted now for Syria and is Bashar al-Assad no longer a priority for you?

I meant that Turkey and all the international community were wrong in their approach to Syria. Unfortunately the people of Syria paid the price for all these mistakes. The crisis in Syria was in the first three years a civil war and then became a proxy war which was costly for them and unfortunately these countries did not have any project that could be key to solving these issues. I wish that from the start of the Syrian crisis, regional countries like Turkey and Iran had talked on how to solve the problems before international forces had interfered and before the situation could come to this point. I wish the international community had a project to stop Syria from using chemical weapons again after it used it for the first time, but unfortunately no one of those wishes were fulfilled. 

For example, the project of training and arming did not succeed. Sufficient support was not provided to the Free Syrian Army and we see the outcome of that today. I wish none of that had happened, but what is done is done. What is important is what we are going to


  This is about Turkey’s survival, otherwise Turkey never has an issue with our Kurdish brothers  

do in the next stage? As Turkey we have launched a new reconciliation initiative. Turkey was right from the beginning when it stood by people’s efforts and worked for the establishment of a democratic system, but sadly the mechanism that was adopted was wrong and didn’t reach the point that could meet their demands. We could not do it alone and the United States and international community did not have any project other than complicating the situation. All their efforts were to prevent chaos. I will say it again that Turkey had the right policy but it couldn’t be done alone.

In the start of our reconciliation and peace initiative we took good steps and saw good results. In less than two months, Turkey, with Russia, was able to correct the situation and solve the humanitarian situation in Aleppo and evacuate civilians and announce a ceasefire. But Iranian and regime militias still try to deteriorate the situation, though they have not been able to affect the overall process. Turkey is intensifying its efforts to make sure the ceasefire includes the entire country. Turkey reassures all sides of the acts of moderate groups and Russia is giving guarantees that it will rein in the regime and its actions and that it will abide by the ceasefire. That is how the agreement was reached. We hope that after the ceasefire there will be steps for peace and there will be direct negotiations between regime and opposition.

The PYD has established three cantons in Rojava and Turkey is preventing it from linking them together. What agreement do you have with Russia on these cantons?

There is no substantial agreement yet, but Russia supports us in retaking Al-Bab and in the Euphrates Shield and understands Turkey’s delicate situation with regards to Manbij. The Russians understand that we do not have occupying intentions. On the contrary our aim is to eradicate terrorists and defending our borders. The Russians and Americans see this. Turkey’s position is very


  In the end, we hope we can rebuild a new and unique Syria out of the ashes and rubble of war  

clear. We are not at all worried about our Kurdish brothers and we are integrated in many ways especially socially, we are relatives and there is intermarriage among us in towns and villages especially near the border. We are not worried about what our Kurdish brothers may achieve but we cannot accept it when a terrorist organization tries to impose itself on the whole region and work to dismember Syria. This act of the terrorist organization is to divide Syria into three regions, destroying the sovereignty of this country. At the same time it becomes a place from whence to launch terrorist attacks against Turkey.

We have detailed and accurate information that most of the terrorist acts taking place in south and southeastern Turkey originate from the PKK and PYD and they facilitate these acts and provide logistical support. That’s why Turkey will never accept this. This is about Turkey’s survival, otherwise Turkey never has an issue with our Kurdish brothers. 

I find it very important to remind you of something here. When most of the world had no idea that there were Kurds in Syria, in its private meetings and talks with Hafez Assad and later Bashar Assad, Turkey always asked that identity papers be given to the country’s Kurds. Turkey always asked why they were not given their rights and not treated as citizens. During our good relations we always made initiatives that the Kurds in northern Syria be given their rights and we were giving them guidance. There are Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Yezidis in this region and they all should be equally accepted. But you can never ignore other communities and force on them all one ethnic group and say it is only me and I won’t allow anyone else. That is the clear policy of the PYD and YPG which they have proven with action and which they continue. Turkey cannot accept that especially when the terrorist acts come from there.

My final question is: What position will Kurds in Syria have in the future, outside the PYD? There is also the Kurdish National Council (KNC/ENKS). What is your reading of them?

I stress it again that there are plots to divide the region and if they can they will even divide the Kurdistan Region into several parts and this plan is called divide and rule as you wish. As Turkey, we will stand against these plans and prevent them from taking place. These borders are extra because it is the same people with the same views and mind and if they are redrawn again there will be no meaning to them at all. As Turkey, we pursue a policy of bringing together. In Syria we will do our best to ensure all citizens are treated equally in a democratic system where they could live together in peace. When we talk about the rights of one group it doesn’t mean we ignore another’s. All should be given their fair and just rights. In the end, we hope we can rebuild a new and unique Syria out of the ashes and rubble of war.



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anonymousopw | 6/1/2017
Did anyone realise how he said that he wouldnt accept a Syrian kurdistan even if its Barzanis govenrnment/troops on the last question. That's pathetic from Turkey. Ypg/pkk should unite with Barzani and take rojava and link it too iraqi kurdistan. Turkey cannot stop us
Flaminco | 6/1/2017
What a liar..... all this talk about not accepting demographic change and being against ethnic cleansing but neither him or any Turkish official uttered a word when the Sunni extremists such as ISIS, Al-Nusra and his other jihadi friends were driving tens of thousends of Kurds from Rojava, specifically from Geri Spi (Tel Abiad) , Kobani , Afrin etc æ. 350'000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan and are still here!. His government also facilitied the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Aleppo in a dirty deal with the Russians, or what do you call "evacuating" 200'000 Sunnis from Aleppo?
Ben | 6/1/2017
It's kind of astonishing that after spending billions and sacrificing thousends of their troops and militias the Iranians are helplessly watching while Turkey with the help of Russia is expanding further into Syria and Iraq. The Turks will take big chunks of the Syrian and Iraqi marked from Iran.
FAUthman | 6/1/2017
The words of the Deputy PM are intelligent and assuring esp. in his support for the Kurds in Iraq under a "mature federal system" and his implied assurance that KRG oil and gas exports through Turkey will not stop. About the Kurds in Syria, no doubt he is aware, it is not glass all empty and that the Kurd there too share his view for security and prosperity and to raise their families in peace and have n intention of becoming a staging ground for hostilities against Turkey. They could be a great southern buffer for Turkey. There can also be peace with the PKK if Turkey seriously wills it. The US, the EU, and Russia would want it and it is time that Erdogan made that initiative. The dep. PM is positive and thoughtful and we thank you for the interview.
duroi | 7/1/2017
Turkey is digging itself deeper in Kurdish problem by labeling PYD as terrorist and fighting Kurds in Syria in alignment only with ISIS in Syria and in opposition to rest of the worldwide support for PYD. Next time be more helpful to Kurdish cause by asking Turkish officials 1) about restarting the peace process with PKK and 2) about exchange of Kurdish areas in Turkey with Azeri regions in Iran and Turkish position on them.

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