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Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or Cooperation
Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or Cooperation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Report 81 / Middle East & North Africa

Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or Cooperation

At a time when rising Arab-Kurdish tensions again threaten Iraq’s stability, neighbouring Turkey has begun to cast a large shadow over Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Executive Summary

At a time when rising Arab-Kurdish tensions again threaten Iraq’s stability, neighbouring Turkey has begun to cast a large shadow over Iraqi Kurdistan. It has been a study in contrasts: Turkish jets periodically bomb suspected hideouts of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) in northern Iraq, and Ankara expresses alarm at the prospect of Kurdish independence, yet at the same time has significantly deepened its ties to the Iraqi Kurdish region. Both Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG, a term Turkey studiously avoids) would be well served by keeping ultra-nationalism at bay and continuing to invest in a relationship that, though fragile and buffeted by the many uncertainties surrounding Iraq, has proved remarkably pragmatic and fruitful.

Ankara’s policy toward Iraq is based on two core national interests: preserving that country’s territorial integrity and fighting the PKK, whose rebels use remote mountain areas on the border as sanctuary and staging ground for attacks inside Turkey. From Turkey’s perspective, Iraq’s disintegration would remove a critical counterweight to Iranian influence and, more ominously, herald the birth of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, thus threatening to inflame Kurdish nationalist passions inside Turkey. As a result, it has sought to prevent the sectarian conflict in Iraq’s centre from escalating, Iraqi Kurds from seceding and the PKK from prospering.

There is broad consensus in Turkey regarding these goals. However, opinions diverge on how best to achieve them. Members of the Kemalist-nationalist establishment – the Turkish armed forces, powerful parts of the bureaucracy, the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party – view the KRG and the Kurdish national ideal it represents as an existential threat. They are convinced that a far more aggressive posture toward the KRG is required to force it to stop protecting the PKK. As a result, they advocate isolating it diplomatically, limiting its authority to the pre-2003 internal boundaries and keeping it economically weak.

Pro-European liberal circles, the ruling religious-conservative Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) and Kurdish elites take a different view. They see the landlocked Kurdistan federal region as vulnerable and having little choice but to rely on Turkey for protection (for example, from a resurgent central Iraqi state) and economic prosperity. They view the area as a potential buffer between Turkey and the rest of Iraq which, in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, could revert to civil war. They believe the best way to combat the PKK is to persuade the KRG to do so. For these reasons, they advocate stronger diplomatic, political and economic ties with the KRG in order to extend Turkish influence, cement the Kurdistan federal region more solidly within Iraq and ensure action is taken against the PKK.

Divisions have yielded a measure of confusion, but the end-result has been a strikingly pragmatic and largely effective compromise between the AKP and the more traditional establishment, combining military pressure, politics, diplomacy and economic incentives. On the issue of Iraq’s political future, Turkey has come to accept that the question no longer is whether it will be a federation or a unitary state but rather what type of federation will arise and with what degree of decentralisation. It also has steered a middle course in the struggle over Kirkuk, disputed between Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans and others. In particular, it stopped relying on the Turkoman population for its main leverage points, instead insisting on preserving the city’s multi-ethnic/
religious fabric. In so doing, it can hinder the Kurds’ exclusive claim to the oil-rich region without which the KRG would probably lack the economic autonomy necessary for genuine independence.

Turkey has proved adroit in other ways too. It has deepened economic ties with the Kurdish area while holding back on providing material aid to its energy sector or allowing the KRG to export oil and gas through its territory until Iraq has adopted a federal hydrocarbons law – a step which Ankara considers critical to that country’s territorial integrity. Finally, Turkey has mounted limited military cross-border operations against the PKK, designed more to pressure the KRG to take action and convince the U.S. to use its own leverage than to crush the Kurdish movement – overall, a far more effective way of dealing with this perennial challenge than serial Turkish bombing, whose military impact (as opposed to any temporary political benefits) is highly questionable. In short, Turkey has both pressured and reached out to Iraq’s Kurdish authorities, concluding this is the optimal way to contain the PKK, encourage Iraqi national reconciliation and tie the Kurds more closely with the central state.

There have been real benefits for the KRG as well. The slowly warming relationship is based on its realisation that U.S. forces may draw down significantly in the next two years, leaving the Kurds increasingly dependent on the federal government and neighbouring states such as Turkey and Iran. Under this scenario, Turkey would be a more useful partner to the Kurds than either Baghdad or Tehran, because of the prospect it offers of access to the European Union (which, even at Ankara’s current customs union relationship to Brussels, would exceed as an economic magnet anything even an oil-rich Iraq would offer); its availability as a trans-shipment country for Kurdish oil and gas; its ability to invest in major infrastructure projects; and the better quality of the goods it sells to Iraq’s Kurdistan federal region.

The result has been a (still fragile) victory for pragmatism over ultra-nationalism on both sides of the border. Rapprochement between Turkey and the KRG will not solve all problems, nor root out the unhelpful spasms of nationalist rhetoric that intermittently contaminate political discourse. More is required to lay the foundations of a lasting, stable relationship, including a peaceful, consensus-based solution to the Kirkuk question. But, amid the many uncertain prospects facing Iraq, this at least is one development to be welcomed and nurtured.

Istanbul/Brussels, 13 November 2008

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.


Interim President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq