Turkey, Kurds, Iraq, Syria: a new regional dynamic

The middle-east’s power-balance is in flux amid state tensions and political conflicts. In a two-part article, Bill Park - who was recently in Ankara and Erbil - examines the impact of these changes on Turkey and its neighbours, especially the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq. In part one, he looks at the Iraqi dimension; in part two, at Syria’s conflict and the wider Kurdish question.

Turkey, the Kurdish Regional Government, and Baghdad

The end of Turkey’s “red lines”

The turnaround in the relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq has been remarkable, even for the turbulent middle east. Ankara’s approach to the KRG was until 2008-09 driven by a set of so-called “red lines”: principally, that Turkey was not prepared to countenance anything beyond the most limited political autonomy and economic viability for the KRG, and that the KRG would not be permitted to expand into territories disputed between the KRG and Baghdad  - most notably oil-rich Kirkuk.

Ankara encouraged Kirkuk’s Turkmen population to act as a blocking mechanism to Kurdish aspirations, and worked hard to persuade Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to engage with their country’s politics in the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Ankara’s fear that Iraqi Kurdish autonomy might inspire its own disaffected Kurds was intensified by the freedom enjoyed by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) to launch cross-border attacks into Turkey from sanctuaries within KRG territory.  

The United States-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 put an end to Ankara’s freedom to take its struggle with the PKK directly into northern Iraq’s mountains. Now, it was dependent on the KRG and Washington to curtail the PKK’s activities, and it found their efforts wanting. It was only in late 2007 that the George W Bush administration - in the face of a credible Turkish threat unilaterally to intervene against the PKK in northern Iraq - at last agreed to acquiesce in and even assist a resumption of Turkish cross-border raids. 

Yet Turkish bombing and commando assaults, which continue to this day, have brought little progress in Turkey’s battle with the PKK. Furthermore, the KRG used the umbrella provided by the US presence to increase its own strength and legitimacy. The Iraqi Kurdish “quasi-state” had become a permanent fixture, and it had not responded to Turkish demands that it take action against PKK elements on its territory. A change of tack was needed.  

A new direction

This came in October 2009, when Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a much-prepared visit to the KRG president, Massoud Barzani, in Erbil. This in turn paved the way for an intensifying round of diplomacy between Turkish and KRG officials, and the opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil. Ankara appeared to have adopted the American position: that there is little the KRG can do, or be expected to do, about the PKK presence in northern Iraq, and that in any case Erbil might respond better to persuasion than threat on the issue. The planned withdrawal of US combat-troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 must also have contributed to Ankara’s change of approach.

There were three other factors at work in Turkey’s change of direction. First, Davutoglu’s “zero problems” approach to Turkey’s neighbourhood diplomacy emphasised cooperation and dialogue rather than confrontation. Second, Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party had curtailed the political power of the Turkish general staff, which had been a major factor in Ankara’s hardline approach towards the KRG. Third, Turkey’s impressive emergence as a “trading state” and its associated championing of “soft power” in its regional diplomacy, had paid dividends.

In fact, the growth of cross-border trade predated the improvement in the political relationship between Ankara and Erbil, and the KRG now accounts for half of Turkey’s trade with Iraq. Most goods on sale in the KRG, and most of its construction projects, are Turkish. Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens work or have established businesses in Kurdish Iraq, many of them Turkish Kurds.  

The break with Baghdad

Ankara had simultaneously maintained a cordial relationship with Baghdad. A Turkey-Iraq “high-level strategic cooperation council” was established in 2008, and bilateral trade grew apace. But Ankara’s attempt at even-handedness between Erbil and Baghdad came screeching to a halt in December 2011, just days after the departure of the last US combat-soldier.

The occasion was the arrest-warrant served by Iraq’s Shi’a prime minister Nouri al-Maliki served for Iraq’s Sunni deputy president Tariq al-Hashemi. The charges were of involvement in terrorism, and the affair looked part of a wider marginalisation of Sunni participation in the Baghdad government. Al-Hashemi fled first to the KRG and then to Turkey, which has refused to hand him over the Iraqi authorities. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instead warned al-Maliki against stoking sectarian divisions, and in turn al-Maliki accused Ankara of “interference” in Iraq’s domestic affairs, describing Turkey as “hostile”.

The war of words has since deteriorated further. In fact, Ankara and Barzani appeared to join forces in an attempt to remove al-Maliki from power, such that in May 2012 there were protests from Baghdad that the activities of Turkey’s consuls in Basra and Mosul were incompatible with their diplomatic status.  

The energy relationship between Turkey and the KRG has also grown closer, to the detriment of their respective relationships with Baghdad. The Iraqi government contests Erbil’s freedom to by-pass Baghdad in its energy deals with third parties. This did not stop Erbil, earlier in 2012, from proclaiming an agreement to construct pipelines that could take oil directly from KRG fields into Turkey, as an alternative to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline which Baghdad controls. The KRG also began trucking crude oil directly into Turkey in defiance of Baghdad’s insistence that such trade was illegal.

Ankara has also rejected Baghdad’s complaints, and has not refuted Erbil’s claims of impending new trans-border pipeline construction. Erbil has in addition penned agreements with oil majors such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Total, and with the Anglo-Turkish Genel Energy, which in due course could further enhance the KRG’s independence from Baghdad.

Ankara has not declared that its position on Kirkuk has altered, but it does seem to have relaxed its “red line” approach to the KRG. Davutoglu paid a visit to Kirkuk from Erbil in August 2012 without first informing Baghdad. This led the Iraqi government to threaten to “review” its relationship with Turkey, and a few days later al-Maliki criticised Ankara for treating the KRG as an independent state. The purpose of Davutoglu’s visit was ostensibly to meet the region’s Turkmen, regarded as ethnic kin by Ankara. However, the suspicion is that Turkey is continuing to encourage the formation of an anti-Maliki coalition consisting of Kurds, Turkmen, Sunni and even Shi’a Arabs. Turkey might also be reconsidering the desirability of a centralised Iraq, given the degree of Iranian influence in Baghdad. For his part, Barzani has explicitly spoken in favour of autonomous arrangements for Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces.

The internal KRG factor

It is also worth noting, and not just in passing, that Tehran has been making overtures to the KRG’s other political factions in order to shore up al-Maliki and undermine Barzani. Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as well as northern Iraq’s Kurdish Goran (Change) party, have been uncomfortable with Barzani’s moves against al-Maliki and jealous of his emergence as the KRG’s undisputed leader. This serves as a useful reminder that Barzani cannot always speak for the KRG as a whole, and that Ankara’s relations with the PUK and Goran are less developed than those with Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).  

In short, Ankara and Erbil are united in more than a shared antipathy to al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. They are closer to each other than either is to Baghdad: official contacts between them are both frequent and trusting, such that the KRG’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani was recently moved to declare Turkey a “strategic partner” for Erbil.

President Barzani was given a lavish welcome during a trip to Turkey in April 2012. There he met with the republic’s president, prime minister, foreign minister and intelligence chief. The fact that he had just a few weeks earlier again raised the issue of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to hold a referendum on the subject, and reiterated the KRG’s stance on Kirkuk, barely raised an eyebrow in Ankara. Might Turkey be calculating that an “autonomous” and energy-rich but dependent Iraqi Kurdistan, and a troublesome but weakened Shi’a Iraq, now represents a tolerable rearrangement of the region’s politics?

Turkey, the Kurdish Regional Government, and Syria

The Syrian challenge

The first part of this article outlined the change of course in Turkey’s relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) since 2009, to the point of close links between the two governments and a parallel deterioration in Ankara’s relations with Baghdad. Today, however, the dramatic developments in another of Turkey’s neighbours - Syria - may have complicated the Erbil-Ankara axis.

The Syrian conflict has certainly made the region’s sectarian fissures more complex. Tehran’s and Baghdad’s support for Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey’s for the Syrian opposition, have added to the differences between Iran and Iraq (on one side) and Turkey (on the other) over a range of issues: power-sharing in Baghdad, the KRG’s status, and Iran’s nuclear programme. Indeed, the KRG now appears as an almost isolated beacon of Turkey’s “zero-problems” approach to its neighbours.

But the Syrian crisis could challenge even that relationship. Turkey’s embrace of the Assad regime became so close that Syria served as the centerpiece of the “zero-problems” policy designed by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The stirrings of popular unrest in early 2011, amid Assad’s refusal to reform Syria’s authoritarian system, meant that Ankara soon found itself playing a lead role in calling for the regime’s removal. Turkey sponsored the Syrian National Council (SNC), which seeks to present itself as a Syrian government-in-exile (though is too divided to do so effectively); with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey is also widely assumed to be the conduit for the supply of arms to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and is said to host a training and coordination facility in Adana.

A growing number of Syrian refugees has crossed into Turkey, prompting Ankara to call for the establishment of a no-fly-zone and a humanitarian buffer-zone on Syrian territory. It has established a coordinating mechanism with the United States. It was precisely such a scenario that provided the preconditions for the emergence of the KRG in northern Iraq, which was established to protect the Kurds after the ejection of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in January 1991.

The mediation efforts of Ankara and Erbil notwithstanding, the SNC’s opposition to Kurdish self-determination has meant that Syria’s Kurds have remained aloof from the process. The Kurds have also been divided amongst themselves, until the KRG president Massoud Barzani stepped in to forge greater unity. In July 2012 he succeeded in brokering a fragile agreement between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and a rival Kurdish group dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - fragile, because many in the KNC share Ankara’s suspicion that the PYD remains in contact with Assad’s regime. 

Barzani appears to have influence with both Syrian Kurdish groupings, and his intervention is regarded in some quarters as an indication of his pan-Kurdish aspirations. Barzani, the KNC and the PYD have all declared in favour of self-determination for Syria’s Kurds. Indeed, Syrian Kurds have been crossing into KRG territory, and Barzani claims to have provided them with military training so that they can “defend” their territory. Ankara can only hope that his influence proves to be a moderating one. But what if it doesn’t, or proves to be limited?

What to be: pro-Sunni or anti-Kurd?

With some justification, Ankara regards the PYD as little more than the Syrian branch of the PKK. Syria’s Kurds - chiefly the PYD - now control much of the Kurdish-inhabited areas that border Turkey and Iraq. Ankara alleges that Damascus effectively handed control over to Kurdish forces and that it has armed the PYD/PKK so as to put pressure on Turkey, much as Damascus sponsored the PKK up until 1998. Ankara also claims that hundreds of PKK fighters have crossed into Syria from Iraq and Turkey.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey now fears cross-border PKK raids from Syrian territory, although the PYD has denied any such intention.
Davutoglu has hinted that Ankara would not necessarily oppose the emergence of a self-governing Kurdish region in a federal Syria, but his government has threatened a military response in the event of PKK raids across the Syrian border into Turkey.

Baghdad is also wary of links between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds; in mid-August an attempt by the Iraqi army to take control of the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan at Fishkhabur - which is also the point at which the proposed new oil pipeline could cross into Turkey - led to a standoff with Barzani’s pershmerga so serious that it prompted US mediation.

Baghdad’s forces have remained in situ however, as the Iraqi government claims that it rather than the KRG has responsibility for border security. If this tension escalates, it is not clear which side Turkey would favour. It could be about to get harder for Ankara to combine the various elements of its stance: friendship with Barzani, alignment against the region’s Shi’a powers, and discomfort with Kurdish aspirations.

Barzani and beyond: Turkey’s dilemma

The application of Turkey’s “zero-problems” approach to Massoud Barzani is looking as risky as its former embrace of Bashar al-Assad. Although Barzani’s calls for the PKK to end its armed struggle and enter into dialogue with the Turkish government have been welcomed in Ankara, the KRG president has also declared his support for self-determination for Turkey’s Kurds. He has remained unwilling or unable to physically confront PKK elements encamped in northern Iraq, and appears unlikely to take up arms against Syria’s Kurds. His primary focus is on securing the KRG’s future and that of the KDP within it, but as a Kurdish nationalist Barzani has his “red lines” too.

In any case, both the PKK and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace & Democracy Party (BDP) have warned Barzani against involving himself in Turkey’s Kurdish problem on behalf of Ankara. In fact, neither Ankara nor Turkey’s Kurds appear to have heeded Barzani’s advice. PKK violence has spiked in recent months, and Ankara has responded with an intensification of security measures on both sides of the Iraqi-Turkish border. It has also detained tens of thousands of BDP activists over the past year or so. A breakthrough in Turkey’s own Kurdish problem does not look imminent, and the situation appears worse now than it did before the opening to Erbil and the falling out with Baghdad and Damascus.  

Ankara is now confronted with the prospect of Kurdish control in the border areas of both Iraq and Syria. This will serve to highlight still further Turkey’s own Kurdish problem, and could make it harder to handle. Barzani has emerged in recent years as Turkey’s favourite Kurd, but the policies he adopts towards his Syrian Kurdish brethren could shake that status. Depending on how events evolve, a beleaguered Ankara might find itself sympathising with a post-Assad Sunni Arab crackdown on Syria’s Kurds, which would hardly please Barzani but might ease the pressure in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces.

Turkey might also discover that Barzani’s writ doesn’t run amongst Syria’s or Turkey’s Kurds, or even with all of Iraq’s. A more imaginative Turkey and one with a different republican history might daydream of a Turkish-Kurdish federation, as did some late Ottomans and early republicans before the onset of the Turkish nation-building project. But even if Ankara could dream this dream, it would earn itself the enduring hostility of Baghdad, Tehran, and of almost any regime that might emerge out of the present mess that is Syria. Worse still, Turkey might be on course to engineer their enduring regional hostility, but without finding any kind of solution to its Kurdish dilemmas.             

About the author

Bill Park is a senior lecturer in the department of defence studies at Kings College London. He is currently conducting a longer-term study of the three way relationship between Turkey, the United States and the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq. His books include Turkey's Policy Towards Northern Iraq: Problems and Prospects (Routledge, 2005), and Modern Turkey: People, State and Foreign Policy in a Globalized World (Routledge, 2011)

Read On

Bill Park, Modern Turkey: People, State and Foreign Policy in a Globalized World (Routledge, 2011)

Gareth Jenkins Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? (Palgrave, 2008) 

Erik J Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History (IB Tauris, 2004)

The Turkey Analyst

Gareth H Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey's Ergenekon Investigation, Silk Road Studies, August 2009)

Kerem Oktem, (co-editor, with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins) Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010)

Kerem Oktem, Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2010)

Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (Tesev)

M Hakan Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

More On

Bill Park is a senior lecturer in the department of defence studies at Kings College London. His books include Turkey's Policy Towards Northern Iraq: Problems and Prospects (Routledge, 2005), and Modern Turkey: People, State and Foreign Policy in a Globalized World (Routledge, 2011)