Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan Reconciliation Pays Dividends


10/25/2011  By Richard Weitz

During a week-long study trip to Turkey earlier this month, I was in Ankara at the same time as a senior Iraqi government delegation. We had simultaneous meetings at the Foreign Ministry. The Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister had to send a replacement to our session since he was meeting with his Iraqi counterpart to discuss an urgent issue: Turkey’s perception that security along the Iraq-Turkish border was declining. Their discussions, building on other dialogue and cooperation that has deepened with their reconciliation of the last few years, has thus far proved sufficient to prevent the current Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq from exploding into a major bilateral confrontation.

(But today apparently the Turks have intervened.

Turkish tanks entered northern Iraq and were heading towards a Kurdish militant camp, Turkish media reported Tuesday. The army’s incursion is part of the reaction to last week’s series of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in which 24 Turkish soldiers and policemen were killed in the border province of Hakkari. Turkey responded with air raids on PKK camps in northern Iraq, which it uses as bases to attack Turkey.

The target of the latest operation was a PKK camp in Haftanin, around 20 kilometres over the border.



Turkey is at the crossroads and located in a dangerous neighborhood. The Turkish leadership will have to fill in power vacuums wherever they perceive they exist. Credit Image: Bigstock

Some 10,000 Turkish security personnel, including elite Special Forces units in addition to regular conscripts, are engaged in the present Turkish military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Kurdish: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK), but the Turkish military has emphasized that most of its forces remain on Turkish territory. A statement on its website said that, “The large part of air and ground operations are carried out in the country, focusing mainly on the Cukurca area, and air and ground operations continue in a few areas of northern Iraq.” Perhaps at most 2,000 Turkish troops have intervened into northern Iraq. They have been supported by surveillance drones, attack helicopters, and F-16 and F-4 fighter-bombers.

The current operation aims to avenge the death of 24 Turkish soldiers, and the wounding of many more, in an October 19 ambush in Hakkari province by the PKK. Although clashes have increased in recent months, the most recent PKK attack has been the most deadly against the Turkish military in years. Earlier PKK attacks have killed dozens of other Turkish security personnel since this July. These attacks, which PKK representatives claim are a response to earlier Turkish military and police assaults on their fighters and sympathizers, have provoked widespread outrage among Turks and many Kurds, who fear they will make it harder for them to secure their  rights and privileges within Turkey and Iraq.

For now, the Turkish forces inside Iraq have confined their air and ground attacks to a narrow border region. It is uncertain how long the cross-border intervention will last, but one-three weeks is likely. Speculation persists that the number of Turkish troops in Iraq might increase and that the intervention force will move deeper into Iraq. But Ankara has apparently decided to minimize its losses and rely on its improved relations with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to deal with the PKK fighters. In contrast to earlier stances, the KRG has publicly endorsed the current Turkish military intervention against the PKK.

Ironically, one reason for the deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations a few years ago was Ankara’s opposition to Washington’s policies regarding Iraqi Kurdistan.

Despite an offer of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, the Turkish parliament in March 2003 refused to permit the U.S. military to attack northern Iraq through Turkey’s southeast border during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Turkish public support for U.S. foreign policy collapsed following the invasion, while the Pentagon blamed Turkey’s decision for the subsequent anti-U.S. insurgency. In 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that, “If we had been able to get the 4th infantry Division in from the north through Turkey . . . the insurgency would have been less.”

Differences grew when Turks perceived U.S. policies as promoting an autonomous Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq. The KRG was seen inspiring Kurdish separatism in southern Turkey, which Kurdish nationalists refer to as “northern Kurdistan” in contrast to “southern” Kurdistan in Iraq, and providing a de facto sanctuary for the PKK, whose terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians escalated following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.Turkey’s exclusion from the occupying coalition combined with the tensions between Ankara and Washington resulted in Turkey’s exerting minimal influence on Iraq’s post-Saddam security environment, which soon deteriorated into quasi-anarchy.

Starting in 2007, the Turkish and U.S. governments started to cooperate more effectively regarding the PKK cross-border raids into Turkey. Before then, Ankara had complained repeatedly that Washington was paying insufficient attention to Turkey’s security interests in northern Iraq, especially PKK activities in the KRG. But the deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers in a border clash in October 2007 led the United States to provide intelligence and other assistance to the Turkish military, which conducted air and ground attacks against PKK targets in northern Iraq. The more precise Turkish attacks minimized Kurdish civilian casualties and therefore KRG complaints.

In recent years, Turkish-Kurdish-U.S security cooperation regarding Iraq has increased. In July 2008, Turkey and Iraq signed a joint political declaration that established a high-level strategic cooperation council aimed at establishing a “long-term strategic partnership.”  The agreement also calls for joint efforts to prevent terrorists and illegal arms from moving across their border. The council has since served as a discussion forum for the prime ministers and other high-level government officials of both countries. They have met three times a year to improve cooperation regarding energy, security, diplomatic, and economic issues.

2009 also saw a major change in Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Until a few years ago, Turkey eschewed official contact with the KRG based in Ebril and sought to constrain its autonomy and regional influence. Ankara feared that the KRG’s emergence as a quasi-independent state would encourage separatist tendencies among Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, estimated to number as much as 20 percent of the population.

Instead, the Turkish authorities pursued their interests within Iraq primarily by engaging with the occupying powers and, as it gained more influence, Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. This latter approach was similar to how Ankara worked in the past with Iraq to contain Kurdish influence. But this strategy, while yielding gains in the 1960s and 1970s, has proved less effective since the 1991 establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region and especially since 2003 due to the decentralized nature of political authority in post-Saddam Iraq.

Attempts to use the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITC), established in 1995 to consolidate several smaller political parties and therefore strengthen the influence of , as a local proxy also failed to yield major benefits. Ankara has backed Turkmen objections to the incorporation of the city or region of Kirkuk into the KRG since having control of the area’s oil resources would bolster the KRG’s wealth, autonomy, and perhaps embolden its leaders to declare independence.  Although the local Turkmen are eager to partner with Ankara, Baghdad, and Iran (many are Shiites) to contest Kurdish influence in Kirkuk and other areas, they lack much political strength and have been able to elect only a couple of members to the Iraqi national parliament in each election. As a result, Ankara found itself with little influence in northern Iraq despite that border region’s vital importance to Turkey’s security.

In 2009, the Turkish government reversed course and adopted a more flexible and embracing policy towards the KRG as well as its own Kurdish minority. Within Iraq, Turkey now began to engage directly with the KRG, which still enjoys considerable autonomy but whose leaders have committed to remaining part of a unified Iraqi state and to suppressing PKK operations in their area of control. KRG pressure reportedly contributed to the PKK’s decision to declare a ceasefire in August 2010.  For their part, Turkish officials currently prefer a strong KRG that has the power to control its border and internal security, promote economic development that provides opportunities for Turkish traders and investors, and provides Kurds with an alternative successful model to that of supporting the PKK.

Many Kurds in Turkey as well as Iraq support the KRG as their best means of achieving limited autonomy in a situation in which Kurds cannot establish an independent country. Turkey’s 2010 opening of a consulate in Erbil, the KRG capital, signified Turkey’s new approach by recognizing the KRG as a core constituent element within the federal state of Iraq. Turkish officials have also developed ties with moderate Kurdish leaders such as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani  and KRG President Massoud Barzani, who regularly visit Ankara as honored guests.

Ankara’s elevated role in the KRG has also enhanced Turkey’s influence in Baghdad since Turkey has become the most powerful foreign actor in a region of vital importance to the Iraqi government.  Should Iraq ever come under the control of a government hostile Turkey, Ankara could use the KRG as a buffer to shield Turkey from Baghdad as well as a means to exert pressure on Iraqi policies. But Turkish officials have been careful to refrain from discussing such an option for fear of exacerbating fears that Ankara’s real objective is to recover northern Iraq, which under the Ottoman Empire had been the vilayet of Mosul, in line with what some see as the foreign ministry’s neo-Ottoman policy.

Although Turkey’s overall economic exchanges with Iraq has increased considerably in recent years, its economic presence has become particularly prominent in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially its trade, energy, and construction sectors. In the KRG, 80 percent of goods sold are imported from Turkey.  The border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has never been more open, as 1,500 trucks daily pass through the 26-lane border main crossing of Ibrahim Khalil. A few years ago, the main Turkish presence in northern Iraq was military. Although some 1,500 Turkish troops now quietly remain in northern Iraq, Turkey’s most visible presence is its pop culture, especially cinema, and Turkish goods. Turkish clothes, furniture, toys, building materials, and other products flood the malls and shops throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish investment is also flourishing, with more than half the registered foreign firms operating in Iraqi Kurdistan–almost 800 of the 1,500 registered foreign companies—being Turkish.

Many Turkish business leaders see Iraqi Kurdistan as both an area of economic opportunity in itself as well as transit zone for increasing Turkish trade with more distant regions in the Middle East. Since 2009, Iraq has been importing oil directly from the KRG, using an oil pipeline that runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan in order to bring half a million barrels per day northward. If the KRG were a separate country, then it would rank among Turkey’s top ten trading partners. Turkish political leaders want to strengthen their border security by working with Iraqi Kurdish authorities against the PKK. They also hope that the increased economic exchanges across the border will bring greater prosperity to the traditionally economic backward regions where many of Turkey’s Kurds, which constitute one-fifth of Turkey’s population, reside.

Iraqi Kurds appreciate that their economic development depends heavily on their attracting Turkish investment as well as being able to trade with Turkey and beyond by means by transiting Turkish territory. The KRG is landlocked and Turkey offers the optimal connecting route to European markets. Barzani observed during a June 2010 trip to Turkey that, “Turkey is a gateway for us to Europe as we are a gateway for Turkey to Iraq and the Gulf countries.”  Kurds attribute several Turkish advantages, including lower prices and more flexible contract terms than other foreign sellers.  But the PKK insurgency will remain an impediment to deeper cross-border economic ties.

The October 21 confirmation by President Barack Obama that all U.S. troops will withdraw from Iraq in a few months could see a further escalation in violence as Turkey maneuvers to defend its border in the new security environment. The day before Obama’s announcement, the U.S. military officially transferred control of northern Iraq to the Iraqi army at a brief ceremony in Tikrit.  If the U.S. withdrawal results in less effective U.S.-Turkish security cooperation regarding northern Iraq, Turkey may pursue stronger security measures there. The leaders of both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq have denounced the PKK attacks and not opposed the current Turkish military operations on their territory, but lack the means to eliminate the PKK forces on their soil without foreign assistance.

Turkey may also read the U.S. military withdrawal as a green light to enforce its own border security vision on Iraq, which willy-nilly has offered Kurdish militants a safe haven from which to organize attacks on Turkey. Unimpeded by a U.S. presence, the Turkish military might aim to inflict a decisive blow on the PKK infrastructure there and force the PKK to resume negotiations from a weaker position. But such a policy could easily become counterproductive, increasing sympathy for the PKK in northern Iraq and weakening support for the Turkish-Iraq cooperation so essential for both countries’ future prosperity.