Turkey’s newly adroit management of its relationship with Iraqi Kurds has resulted in a tentative victory for pragmatism over ultra-nationalism, but many obstacles remain before relations can be normalised.
Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or Cooperation?,* the latest background report from the International Crisis Group, examines the study in contrasts that has been Ankara’s policy: Turkey periodically sends jets to bomb suspected hide-outs of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and expresses alarm at the prospect of Kurdish independence, yet it has now significantly deepened its ties to the Iraqi Kurdish region.
"Both Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have made a breakthrough in challenging ultra-nationalism", says Oytun Çelik, Crisis Group’s Istanbul-based analyst. "They should continue to invest in a relationship that, though fragile and beset by uncertainties over Iraq’s future, has become more pragmatic and potentially very 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 northern Iraqi border areas as 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 that could inspire 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.
Political divisions as to how this should be achieved have yielded a measure of confusion, but the result has been a largely effective compromise, combining military pressure, politics, diplomacy and economic incentives. While it has mounted limited cross-border operations against the PKK, Turkey has begun meeting with Iraqi Kurdish leaders and deepened economic ties with their federal region.
There have been real benefits for the KRG as well. The 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. Turkey can be a useful partner as a bridge to Europe, its suitability as a trans-shipment country for Kurdish oil and gas, its investment capabilities and the relatively better quality of the goods it has to sell.
"More is required to lay the foundations of a lasting, stable relationship, including a peaceful, consensus-based solution to the Kirkuk question", states Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group’s Middle East Deputy Program Director. "But, amid the many uncertain prospects facing Iraq, this at least is one development to be welcomed and nurtured".
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*Read the full Crisis Group report on our website: www.crisisgroup.org
The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.