Turks and Iraqi Kurds – The new Middle Eastern Alliance?

Trucks waiting near the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Several long-term developments in the relationship between Turkey and the Kurds of Iraq have led to an unprecedented situation: Cooperation, not confrontation might be the best way to choose for both sides. By Raphael Thelen

The conflict between Kurds and Turks is in its modern form almost one century old. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France in World War I, the victors decided to dismember what is called „Asia Minor“ and share it between themselves and their allies. The Treaty of Sèvres was born. Spirited by Woodrow Wilson’s „right to self-determination“ it envisaged local autonomy for Kurdish areas and the right to petition the newly founded „League of Nations“ for independence from Turkey within one year.

But Kemal Atatürk’s successful military campaigns against Greek and Armenian forces and the suppression of Kurdish uprisings by the Kemalist forces reassembled Turkish strength, burying the national aspirations of the Kurds with the treaty of Lausanne.

The dream of Greater Kurdistan stays alive, but is met with violence.

Greater Kurdistan disappeared from the world’s maps, but stayed in the minds of the people, as a dream for the Kurds and a nightmare for their neighbors. In contrast to the Ottoman rule which granted a range of rights to its subjects, the new established government did impose stricter rules and laws.  What followed, was a decades-long Kurdish struggle for recognition, which was met with violence and oppression by the respective governments of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

The Turkish politics were shaped by what became known as „Kemalism“. This new state ideology fiercely rejected Islam and promoted national unity by all means, and accordingly, denied any form of Kurdish identity, labeling them as „Mountain-Turks“.  This policy should determine the Kurdish-Turkish relationship for the next decades, with its darkest period in the 1990s.

Confronted with growing Islamism at home and Kurdish unrest in the surrounding countries the Turkish military seized power. In its self-conception as the guard of the Kemalist heritage, it started a comprehensive, violent campaign to crush Kurdish and Islamist dissent, not only undoing the policies of liberalization by former governments, but also threatening Syria militarily and occupying big swaths of land in northern Iraq to fight PKK-„terrorists“.

The last decade saw changing relations

The 21st century brought a change in Turkish politics. The landslide-victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), brought what is now often called „Neo-Ottomanism“. This approach does not only include a broader diplomatic perspective, but also a change in means. The new government aimed at not only improving relations with the West, but also with the countries of the former Ottoman Empire, cautiously stressing the common Islamic heritage.

To reorient itself away from a strict Kemalist „national“ foreign policy towards the role of a regional player, Turkey mobilizes „soft-powers“: political, economic, diplomatic and cultural influence. The continued popularity of the AKP simultaneously limits the strength of the Kemalist establishment, traditionally represented by the army and judiciary, giving the government enough room and leverage to pursue the historically unique policy of defending Turkish interests, by embracing the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq.

A new regional situation after the 2003 US-invasion

Graveyard in Halabja: Victims of Saddam Hussein's gas attacks.

The emergence of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 US-invasion fueled fears in neighboring governments that it might serve as a political inspiration for the Kurds of their own countries and stir unrest. But the US-support for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and the „soft“ convictions of the AKP, opposing Kemalist tactics, made the Turkish government refrain from violent means. Instead, it applied a sophisticated mix of approaches to divide and rule the Turkish and Iraqi Kurds; an embracement which meant half petting, half strangling.

In a first step it started to ease laws and regulations concerning the cultural self-determination of Turkish Kurds. This step included measures like creating a Kurdish branch of the state run TRT TV-station, translating the Quran into Kurdish and allowing universities to offer studies of Kurdish literature, thereby indirectly acknowledging the existence of the Kurdish language. But all this happens under the precondition that every citizen’s first loyalty goes to the Turkish state, and then to one’s own ethnic.

By this, the Turkish government increased its popularity in the Kurdish community and the cost for the latter in case of an armed uprising. At the same time it continued to conduct military operations against the PKK, declaring its existence as a major obstacle for continued good relations.

Towards the KRG, Erdogan’s government is pursuing a similar approach. It tries to support the KRG in a range of issues, to make the region self-sufficient and able to run their own affairs independent from Baghdad, but curbs every aspiration, which transcends its borders.

Oil is the issue, as usual

An illustrative example for this is the cross-border trade between the two states. Turkey supports the general exchange of goods, to increase the KRG’s dependence on Turkey and boost its own and the KRG’s national economy, but it is a whole different story, when it comes to oil.
The huge amounts of oil within the Kurdistan region constitute a potential source of power and wealth, but due to its landlocked situation the KRG depends on Turkey to import the necessary exploitation facilities and export the oil. A situation the government in Ankara knows how to take advantage of. By insisting on the ratification of a federal oil-law by Baghdad before allowing any oil-export through its territory, it hopes to tie the KRG to the central government, and effectively hamper Kurdish independence.

Ankara uses the same strategy in the question of Kirkuk, which possesses 13 percent of Iraq’s proven oil-reserves; a significant source of power. Therefore, it works towards a solution, which labels the city as „multi-cultural“, reasoning that a „multi-cultural“ city should not be under the exclusive rule of the Kurdish government.

Beside these moves, which only contain the emergence of the Kurds as a united entity without yielding any direct advantages, the Turkish government has two additional hopes. First, that a strong KRG can be used to counter the growing Iranian influence and second, that it serves as a buffer between Iraq and Turkey in case of a new sectarian civil war in the aftermath of the 2011 American pullout.

Possibly a win-win situation

Many villages in the region suffer from structural underdevelopment.

But even if it seems that Turkey is calling the shots the KRG can gain a lot out of this situation. On the one hand, there are purely economic interests. Turkey is one of the biggest economies in the region. While the west is still reluctant to work in Iraqi Kurdistan, more than 1000 Turkish companies already engage in trade, investment and construction. On the other hand, the KRG earns annually about 200 – 250 million US-Dollar in levy taken from the up to 1000 Turkish commercial trucks crossing into Iraq at the Ibrahim al-Khalil border post every day.

Moreover, Turkey has an ever growing need for oil and gas and existing pipelines plus political stability make it a perfect destination for Kurdish energy exports.  However, from a political point of view a deepened partnership with Turkey also makes sense for the KRG. Being landlocked, surrounded by hostile Arab states and overly dependent on their imports the chances of becoming independent in the near future seem rather bleak.

A political partnership with Turkey would offer several advantages. Not only would good relations help the moderated AKP to stay in power and keep the more aggressive Kemalists at bay, but good relations with Turkey also mean good relations with the United States. In case the KRG chooses a confrontational course towards Turkey, the USA would probably support its NATO ally. Cooperation, on the other hand, might open the door for the KRG to enter the exclusive club of US-allies in the region, which comes with comprehensive financial support. Israel and Turkey are good examples for that.

At the same time, Ankara would try to keep the Iraqi central government from becoming too powerful, fearing an armed Kurdish-Iraqi conflict and unrest at its border – one of the reasons why Turkey did not support the 2003 US-invasion. All this would buy the KRG enough time to strengthen its position and to develop its oil-wealth, bolstering its position for an uncertain future.

Unser Autor Raphael Thelen betreibt auch den „Poli-Tick Blog“ mit dem Schwerpunkt Naher und Mittlerer Osten.


Die Bildrechte liegen beim Autor.


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