It has been announced that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is seriously ill. I think from now on it is time to think about Kurdish and Iraqi politics without Talabani.
He was one of the Kurdish leaders who “carved his own sculpture” as a politician. Unlike Barzani, who comes from a very powerful tribal family, Talabani came from the leftist politics and emerged as a national leader.
Talabani was a real Middle Eastern politician who knew how to manage surfing on big political tides. While Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani had problems with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Talabani maintained good relations with al-Maliki, mediating the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil.
His illness will affect a number of major issues in Kurdish politics. First, his mediating role between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey will be interrupted. In recent years, Turkey asked Talabani to liaison for a possible peace negotiation with the PKK. Talabani was at the very least carrying messages between Turkey and the PKK. The reason why both parties chose Talabani is because both Turkey and the PKK maintained good relationship with him.
Second, because he was a typical Middle Eastern politician, it was easy for both sides to utilize him, as Talabani would easily flip-flop, that is to say, deny and manipulate the public if necessary. Issues like the Kurdish question and the PKK require Talabani-type mediators because parties on both sides are not trustworthy either.
Was Talabani a real chance for peace with the PKK? No, but he was a channel even during the most intense period of the conflict; he was able to effortlessly step in and ease the tension. Outside of this role, I don’t believe either the PKK or the Turkish state took him serious as a mediator of a peace agreement.
Thus, for Turkey’s Kurdish question, the country is losing a mediator who could step in when the PKK crisis escalated and ease the escalation.
Furthermore, as Turkey is having problems with the Baghdad government, Talabani was one of the leaders in Baghdad that Turkey was able to communicate with. Losing Talabani equally means losing connections to Baghdad. This would further deepen Turkey’s problems with Baghdad.
In terms of Kurdish politics in Iraq, Talabani was the “uncle” of all Kurds. Because he emerged from a long career in politics, he earned a reputation as a problem-solver. Talabani was trying to bring Baghdad and Erbil together to solve the problem between Kurds and the Maliki government. He would therefore be a big loss for the Kurds in Iraq.
Furthermore, the major Gorani movement in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq was formed largely against pro-Talabani groups in Sulaymaniyah. I don’t think there is anyone who would be able to fill the void following Talabani’s exit from politics. As such, it would represent an opportunity for the Gorani movement to dominate politics in Sulaymaniyah and put pressure on President Barzani’s politics as well.
Unlike Talabani, Barzani has fewer ties to the PKK. It was Talabani who normalized the PKK’s relations with regional players. When the PKK needed him, he stepped in and helped them. Perhaps because both the PKK and Talabani come from similar leftist backgrounds, Talabani always understood better the PKK’s aims. From time to time he urged the PKK to lay down its arms, while at the same time challenging Turkey by saying, “We won’t even give a Kurdish cat to Turkey,” in response to Turkey’s demands for Iraq to hand over the PKK leaders based in the country’s north.
When it comes to making a choice between the PKK and Turkey, Talabani always preferred his own interests first, then the PKK and then Turkey. Will Turkey lose a major partner in the region when Talabani is no longer in the politics? No, I don’t think so. What Turkey will lose is an unpredictable leader and thus expect an unpredictable situation in Kurdish politics -- at least in one aspect of Kurdish politics.
(Emre Uslu is a write for Today’s Zaman where this article was published on Dec. 20, 2012)