In just the last few years Turkey’s policy towards Iraq has gone through a dramatic transformation. For decades, Ankara was opposed to any form of autonomy or independence for Iraq’s Kurds, while it denied rights to its own Kurdish population, and fought a long insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the second term of Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), that has begun to change. Turkey now stands as the largest investor in the Kurdistan region, it has become one of the main backers of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, has cut deals with Irbil to allow it to truck in oil, and is working on building pipelines between the two. This has led to talk that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will eventually move towards independence from Iraq, with the help of Turkey, something that was unthinkable just a little while ago. To help explain why Ankara has changed its stance is Professor Henri Barkey who teachers International Relations at Lehigh University, and who has written extensively about the Middle East and Turkey.
Turkey’s Premier Erdogan (left) and Kurdish Pres. Barzani (center) have completely changed relations between Ankara and Irbil in the last few years
1. When did Turkey begin to change its policy towards Kurdistan, and what were the first initial signs of it?
The first signs emerged in the 2000s, around 2005. Abdullah Gul, then foreign minister tried to meet with Nechirvan Barzani the Prime Minister of the KRG but that attempt was blocked by the chief of staff of the [Turkish] military. However, economic ties blossomed as the AKP allowed and encouraged Turkish investments in the KRG.
2. Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a large Kurdish element. Were those members able to push the party’s leadership to take a new stance towards the Kurds?
No. The Kurdish MPs have been very silent; they are powerless as are all MPs because the system in Turkey privileges the party chief at the expense of all others. It is a one man show. This was also true during the previous incarnations of the AKP when [Necmetting] Erbakan was party chief; I knew many of the MPs then and they were powerless then as well. This does not mean that Erdogan will not list to the Kurdish vote; he absolutely will but the Kurdish MPs have no say unless they have been extremely close to him historically.
3. In 2007, the AKP called for elections after a row with the military. The party received 47% of the vote, up from 34% in 2003. How did that change its relations with the military, and did that allow Erdogan greater leeway with dealing with the KRG?
Absolutely. 2007 was the decisive election. It was fought on the basis of military interference in politics. The military tried to block the selection of Gul as president and the AKP called their bluff and went for national elections where the only issue was whether the military had the right to call the shots. And the military lost decisively and from then on you see the beginning of the transformation of Turkish policy both at home vis a vis the Kurds and also with respect to the KRG.
4. Turkey intends to become a major player not only in the Middle East, but Europe as well. What role does its increasing energy ties with Kurdistan play in this strategy?
Not clear. Whether Turkey can play a role in the Middle East depends on putting its house in order, calibrating its preferences in the region and first and foremost controlling its rhetoric and hubris. It has alienated many with its holier than thou we are superior to you all discourse. In fact, the energy deals may rub the wrong way with the Arab countries who will suspect that Turkey may have the dissolution of Iraq in mind, even though this is far too fanciful.
5. Turkey also has growing energy needs of its own. What is it hoping to gain from its improved ties with the KRG?
There is gas and oil in the KRG and no one is sure of the amounts. Any energy Turkey can receive from its immediate neighborhood is a plus; the shorter the transportation nodes the better it is for Turkey. It wants to be a hub supplying various parts of Europe. First and foremost though, the KRG is an important destination for Turkish exports and exports growth is critical to Turkey’s continued economic wellbeing.
In an attempt to improve relations Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu (left) met with Iraq Prime Minister Maliki (right) in Baghdad, Nov. 2013 (AA)
6. Ankara’s alignment with the Kurds is one factor for its souring relations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Turkey didn’t always have such bad relations with the premier, and it still has investments in the rest of Iraq outside of the KRG and oil companies working in the south. Do you think that Erdogan has decided to throw in his lot with the Kurds and forgiven Maliki or do you believe the problem is with the Iraqi central government?
No. As the recent visit by Davutoglu to Baghdad is indicative (to be followed by a visit by Erdogan) the Turks are anxious to rebuild their relationship with Baghdad in part because other than the KRG nothing is left of the zero problems policy (irony of course is that not only is the KRG on good terms with Ankara but Tehran has managed to keep thing cordial as well). Iraq is critical to the future of Syria as well. Turkey needs to be able to talk to Maliki about it.
7. Was Turkey hoping that improved ties with Kurdistan would help with its own internal struggle with the PKK, and has that worked?
To some extent. The PKK while independent of Barzani nonetheless has to heed him. The fact that Barzani is coming to Diyarbakir and will be meeting with Erdogan there is both an election ploy by Erdogan and also an attempt to show Barzani’s support for the peace process. Barzani (and Talabani before getting sick) strongly believe that the Turkish-Kurdish problem is near resolution and that the AKP is probably the Kurds’ best option. That said, Barzani has to be careful not to be too pro-Erdogan. He needs to maintain his influence (or perception of) over Turkish Kurds. It is a hard balancing act, but he can do it.
8. How did the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 affect Turkey’s stance towards the KRG?
Not much directly because the US military had no presence in the north, in the KRG. The KRG in so far as it has been stable and secure has acted as a buffer for Turkey especially with the increasing chaos and violence in the remaining parts of Iraq.
9. Turkey’s growing economic ties to Kurdistan has led many to wonder if the Kurds might eventually declare independence. First, do you think Ankara would support that, and second, if the KRG were to become a country wouldn’t those same economic relations make it a dependent of Turkey?
Yes the KRG is far too dependent on Turkey, and not just for goods but also for trade routes, access to the West. It is also far too dependent on oil revenues and especially the share it gets from the central government in Baghdad. A large chunk of the KRG population depends on the government for its wellbeing. This militates against independence given the size of the transfers from Baghdad. In the future, the KRG may seek independence but only if the situation in Iraq deteriorates to the point where the central government stops functioning and the centrifugal forces become far too powerful to resist. In other words, the KRG will not cast the first stone.
Only then would Ankara support it because it would not want the KRG sucked into a destructive vortex, better have an independent KRG dependent on Ankara then a KRG that is part of a collapsing Iraq.
Barkey, Henri, “Turkey and Iraq: The Making of a Partnership,” Turkish Studies, 12:4, 663-674, (December 2011)
- “Turkey’s New Engagement in Iraq,” United States Institute of Peace, May 2010
Barkey, Henri, Marr, Phebe, and Lasensky, Scott, eds., Iraq, Its Neighbors and the United States, (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2011)
International Crisis Group, “Déjà vu All Over Again? Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis,” 7/30/12
Kane, Sean, “The Coming Turkish-Iranian Competition in Iraq,” United States Institute of Peace, June 2011
Knights, Michael, “Turkey’s Choice in Iraq: Burned Bridges or Win-Win-Win,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 4/15/13
Ulgen, Sinan, “Erdogan’s Kurdish Gambit,” Project Syndicate, 4/11/13