Interpreting the Oil-painting of Turkey’s relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and its Domestic Kurdish Tapestry – Research Turkey – By Tanya Silvermann – London

Since the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) overran Mosul and the Iraqi government reached out for Kurdish help to win back their second largest city, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s showcase of independence has become an open exhibition in the international community.

The US has even offered its assistance to the KRG to overcome the financial crisis they are facing, with the hopes they’ll get the support needed to defeat ISIS. This internationally recognised federal entity in Iraq, whose president Massoud Barzani is received in many countries as a head of state, is closer to establishing independence than ever before. It would be easy to assume (as many analysts have) that Turkey, seemingly ruled by its ideologically-driven nationalism, would whitewash regard for any independent Kurdish state rising up on its borders.

But, like an abstract Kandinsky, the picture of Turkish politics isn’t so easy to understand, nor is it always underpinned by logic. That is until we bring realpolitik to the table to represent a more logical image of the country’s stance towards Kurdish independence. An immediate assumption might be that the decades-long history of Kurdish oppression that is seemingly part-and-parcel of Turkey’s historical canvas would lead it to respond to KRG independence with non-recognition. Turkey would fear the implications of an independent and internationally recognised KRG for Kurdish separatism within its own borders. However, things aren’t so chiaroscuro.

Turkey and Northern Iraq’s Collaborative Economic Masterpiece

The KRG has occupied an advantaged position among Kurdish communities since 1970when a peace accord was signed granting Kurdish autonomy. As such, has had significant influence on all things Kurdish. This includes the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, which was launched by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in collaboration with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan. This peace process has now come to an end after over two years, with the AKP’s anti-PKK campaign becoming more violent with each scene. Although this once again reflects Turkey’s longstanding bitter relationship with the Kurds internally, that’s not to say their relationship with the KRG is part of the same picture.

The Kurds have long been used by both Iraq and Iran as pawns in a game of regional supremacy. Arguably, Turkey is following this historical suit by interfering not just with its own Kurds, but those on its borders. This time, however, the pawns aren’t being persecuted and there’s a bigger game at stake.

The KRG’s changing fortunes and the AKP’s international and domestic ambitions to consolidate their influence combined to smooth a new perspective in Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds. In the past, the US has accused Ankara of heightening divisions in Iraq between the central government and the KRG in spite of Baghdad. Recently, Turkey has also faced intense criticism internationally for failing to notify Baghdad that it was deploying troops to train Kurdish fighters. As Turkey’s trade grew, Iraq became one of its largest export markets accounting for 10 billion dollars in 2013– the bulk of this owing to the KRG. The Turkey-Iraq Business Council is testament to this. This led to a central-Iraqi boycott of Turkish companies, which had the adverse effect of improving the KRG’s standing in Turkey. This remains strong despite a small drop in exports due to security and political challenges because of ISIS. Additionally, Turkey is one of Iraq’s largest investors in non-energy projects, and according to the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK) nearly 1800 Turkish firms have investment in Iraq. Essentially the KRG and Turkey maintain booming economic ties.

The AKP-KRG policies looked to be heading towards a new status quo for energy. But, Baghdad’s stern fist shook over the semi-autonomous region’s relations with Turkey; according to the capital, oil can’t be commercialised without its permission. The KRG sells oil to international markets independently because of Iraq’s violation of an agreement over national budgets: 17% of the national budget is supposed to reimburse Irbil for the oil it provides to SOMO (Iraq’s oil company). This has been a factor in the current KRG economic crisis that the US is financially supporting. Italy, Greece, and Israel have all bough oil through turkey. Iraq’s condemnation of oil sales without its permission, even taking Turkey to the ICC, as well as US disapproval, has made other international buyers wary. Consequently a deal was struck between the regional and federal government which stopped KRG oil sales to the international market.

This is why the KRGs independence might actually be supported by an opportunistic Ankara, in a step towards self-serving and pragmatic policies. In the world of realpolitik,the KRG-AKP business deal is too fruitful an opportunity to be missed for both parties, who are currently acting as an economic lifeline for each other. The KRG needs to sell oil to pave the way to economic independence, and Turkey could do with the economic benefits – not least as it faces its own energy crises as its sour relationships with Russiaand Iran continue to ferment. Turkey remains the best positioned state for the KRGs economic and strategic needs, as it was able to provide the landlocked country with a lifeline to the rest of the world – its position in NATO and as a close US ally adding to the lure.

Both parties are still engaging in relations despite Turkey’s bombing of civilians in northwest Iraq. Although the KRG condemned these actions, they also asked the PKK towithdraw from their territory to prevent further deaths. The KRG even shares Ankara’s misgivings about the PYD’s success in Syria, as Öcalan and the PKK represent an ideological challenge to the Barzani’s traditional hold and influence on the Kurds, and the 2015 elections showed a diminishing KRG influence over Turkey’s Kurds. In the current political climate of the region, the KRG needs Turkey more than ever. The KRG’s growing difficult relationship to Baghdad, succession issues, economic issues and military setbacks have fostered more dependency on Turkey.

The Kurdish “Triptych”: Independence and Instability

The United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq only consolidated Iraqi Kurdish separateness.  The new constitution of this fragile country pronounced Iraq as a federation with the KRG comprising one of two states in Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds were more ‘fortunate’ than their Syrian and Turkish counterparts, and following Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait and the subsequent Iraqi war; they established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq which provided an ample opportunity for state formation. However, Turkey, which had fought against the recognition of a Kurdish identity globally, had inadvertently acted as an artist’s assistant in painting the ‘Birth of the Kurdish state.’ The US-led coalition protected Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein by using Turkish airbases. This was the beginning sketch to what would become a masterpiece of KRG-AKP oil diplomacy.

Turkey has likely come to terms with the rise ISIS and territorial advances making Iraqi unity harder to maintain. Whilst this instability happening on its borders isn’t ideal, it does mean that a sovereign KRG might be an inevitable conclusion. The non-KRG Kurds have been advancing in all directions and sealing off northern Syria from Turkey in the in the territory of the Tigris and the Euphrates and crossing Turkey’s “red lines” both physically and metaphorically. However, the AKP did not react when the PYD breached these lines,claiming instead that the YPG’s Arab proxy, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) crossed and seized the dam at Tishrin on the Euphrates.

Pragmatic strategies are the best way forward for Ankara. Realpolitik becomes all the more, well… real, and the government accepts its past hopes of being a regional leader are now anachronistic. The YPG (People’s Protection Units) has only another 60 miles to gobefore it seals of Syria’s northern border to Turkey. A Turkey guided purely by ideologically-driven nationalism would have reacted differently to ensure colouring within the lines. However, the country has no real regional allies and the political landscape of the Middle East continues to change so rapidly, colouring over Turkey’s regional power-role in the process. Additionally, the US refuses to side with Ankara on its designation of the YPG as a terrorist group and continues to support them. Whilst this might be a blow to Turkey’s impunity in its domestic suppression of the Kurds, and may well incite more fears over Syrian Kurdish independence, there’s not too much Turkey can do about this right now; however it can adapt as a key player in energy markets.

The KRG’s relationship with non-Iraqi Kurds only adds to the intricate landscape of Turkey’s Kurdish question. The KRG hasn’t been the biggest fan of the PKK, or even the YPG, which it sees as the Peshmerga’s more radical counterparts. Whilst the KDP (The KRG’s ruling party) is a more traditional and clan-based political movement, the PKK is left-wing, ideological, and action-oriented. Intra-Kurdish fighting was commonplace in the 1990s civil war, and the Iraqi Kurds were happy to settle in the northwest after years of persecution, whilst their more militant contemporaries raged on. It wasn’t until the rise of ISIS that the KRG and PKK worked alongside each other to ward off ISIS’s territorial advances and protect their ethnic group. However, the KRG’s newly found collaboration with the AKP presents a confusing problem for the PKK’s cross-Kurdish nationalism. Ankara can still use its relationship with the KRG to benefit its own suppression of separatist Kurds. It can claim its economic ties with the Iraqi Kurds are an indicator that it’s recognising a Kurdish identity – just not those that have ties to terrorist groups. This is problematic given that Turkey seems to equate all Kurds within its borders with terrorists. All of this hints at the implications of what an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might mean for the AKP’s Kurdish “problem”.

Final Painting

The successes of the PYD in Syria, the Democratic Union Party of Syria (aligned to the PKK and the YPG), in defending Kobane has given Syrian Kurds a new sense of self confidence. Subsequent international recognition had led to be invited to the Syria peace negotiations in Geneva. However, after a week of waiting in Geneva the PYD left after having not been invited into any actual talks, likely because of the mainstream Syrian opposition body the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and its Turkish and Saudi backers strongly objecting to PYD participation. Turkey’s position against the PYD is intimately related to its fight against the PKK. The YPG and PYD’s growing international recognition, combined with the HDPs June success, added to the confidence of Turkish Kurds that independence might not be such a distant dream and was causal in the AKPs decision to re-start the conflict.

Although the pro-Kurdish HDP in Turkey is preparing to continue its demand for self-governance for Turkish Kurdistan, justifying its argument based on three articles of the “declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples” this is unlikely to come to fruition notwithstanding the growing chances of an independent KRG. Despite the end of a short ceasefire and peace negotiation, Ankara may still try use its improved relationship with the KRG as a signal that it is capable of good relations with the Kurds: Just not those domestically, or those in Syria, or those without oil… but capable nonetheless.

Eventually, Turkey may have to accept a Syrian Kurdistan – but it’s too soon to tell. This will more likely be the case even if the YPG and PKK are not included in the prospective conversation of Syrian-Kurdish state building. Even if that does happen, and that’s a big if , then that’s not to say that the Kurds in Turkey will be any steps closer towards painting their own autonomy into the Turkish state. The AKP could even use its ever-improving bilateral relations with the Iraqi Kurds as an oil-rich top-coat over the dangerous suppression and human rights abuses of its own Kurdish population.

Tanya Silverman

Silverman, Tanya, “Interpreting the Oil-painting of Turkey’s relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and its Domestic Kurdish Tapestry”, Independent Turkey, 10 February 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: