If there is one country that has helped build a Kurdish entity in Iraqi
Kurdistan it is Turkey. This assertion seems paradoxical in view of Ankara’s
traditional opposition to such an eventuality in Iraq and the well known
pressures it applied on its allies, especially the United States, not to lend
any support to the Kurds of Iraq because of the possible spillover effects on
its own restive Kurds. Turkey’s new stance appears even more paradoxical against
the backdrop of the latest upheavals in the region and their contagious effects
both on its own Kurds and those of Syria.
How is one to explain these
paradoxes? First let us have a quick look at the facts on the ground. Since the
1991 Gulf War and much more so after the 2003 Gulf War Turkey has turned itself,
slowly but surely, and against its better judgment, into the lifeline for Iraqi
Kurdistan, which is led by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the
euphemism for a Kurdish state in the making.
The slow change in Ankara’s
policy towards the KRG was not due to any altruistic considerations but for very
pragmatic, down to earth ones. Immediately after the 1991 Gulf War and the
crushing of the Kurdish uprising which ensued, Turkey was confronted with the
problem of a million Kurdish refugees on its border. Unwilling to burden itself
with another million Kurds, Turkey devised with the Allies the “Provide Comfort”
project for the fleeing Kurds to enable them to go back to their
This plan, together with “the no-fly zone” where the Iraqi army
could not act against the Kurds, as well as the ruptured relations between
Ankara and Baghdad due to the war, set in motion the schizophrenic relations
that would develop between Turkey and the KRG.
On the one hand Turkey was
extremely apprehensive of the possible contagious effects of the KRG on its own
Kurds, hence Ankara’s attempts to thwart any political and diplomatic gains by
the KRG. On the other hand Ankara did its best to reap the fruits of its
relations with the emerging entity, one of the most important of which were
economic gains. This approach turned the Kurdistan Region into a huge investment
area for Turkish companies whose number reached around 900 by 2012 and amounted
to half of the companies acting in the KRG.
To this list one should add
other large business, cultural and social ventures which turned the KRG into an
undeclared Turkish sphere of influence. The net result was that no less than
seven percent of Turkish exports went to the KRG.
Ankara’s thirst for oil
and gas and the pressure brought to bear on it to stop importing from Iran go a
long way to explain the surprising pipeline deal it cut with the KRG on May 20,
2012, without the approval of the central government in Baghdad. If it
materializes, the deal, which envisaged the building of two oil pipelines and
one gas pipeline from the Kurdistan Region to Turkey, might give further boost
to Kurdish aspirations for independence.
Interestingly, the Turkish
Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Taner Yildiz, declared on that
occasion that “Turkey should also be considered as the Regional Kurdish
Government’s gateway to the West.”
A second important aim for developing
these relations was the hope that the KRG would help in solving Turkey's own
acute Kurdish domestic problem, namely the ongoing attacks which the armed
Turkish Kurdish PKK continued to launch against Turkish state
However, Ankara’s hope that the KRG would fight against, or at
least contain the PKK, whose bases are found in Iraqi Kurdistan, was not
fulfilled. The third and perhaps most important consideration was Ankara’s need
to attune itself to the region’s changing geostrategic map, which pushed it to
act according to the dictum “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
geostrategic considerations gathered momentum in the past two years due to
several developments, all of which impacted negatively on Turkey’s environment
and its foreign policy configurations.
Before analyzing these changes it
must be stressed that the stance of the AKP government toward the Kurdish
domestic issue as well as towards the KRG underwent slow transformation, which
distinguished the AKP from earlier Kemalist governments.
changes were quite drastic, including the “Arab Spring,” which accelerated the
collapse of the Turkish-Iranian-Syrian axis. Furthermore, the revolution in
Syria not only turned Ankara and Damascus into sworn enemies once again but also
raised the specter of the influx of Syrian refugees. Worse still, it opened the
Pandora’s box of Syrian Kurds and their possible collaboration with their
brethren in Turkey, not to speak of the PKK card which Damascus started to
employ once again against Ankara.
The withdrawal of the American forces
from Iraq in November 2011 and the vacuum left thereby was another very worrying
development for Turkey, as it enhanced its competition with Iran for filling
Lastly, one should note the deteriorating relations between
Ankara and Baghdad against the background of the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry in the
region, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s growing tilt toward Iran and his
support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, as well as the growing personal
antipathy between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Maliki.
this weakened Ankara’s “commitment” to the almost sacred notion of Iraqi unity
and emboldened it in its bilateral ties with the KRG, the most challenging of
which for Baghdad was the oil pipeline deal mentioned above.
changing policy towards the KRG and its president Masu’d Barzani found its
expression on the symbolic level as well.
Barzani’s April visit to Turkey
was a case in point. While in the past Ankara treated Barzani as a mere “head of
tribe,” in this most recent visit it accorded him a welcome befitting a head of
state, thus turning him into one of its important allies in the region.
Moreover, in this visit Barzani reiterated publicly the Kurds’ right to
self-determination but, interestingly enough, Turkish officials and the media
chose to turn “a deaf ear” to this declaration.
Turkey is facing now a
Kurdish problem on all three fronts, which has multiplied its dilemmas but which
has moved it, so it seems, to adopt a flexible and non-conventional policy:
Embracing the KRG so as to contain its own Kurds and Syria’s as well. Should
Turkey decide to give Barzani the green light, he would not hesitate to go the
extra mile and declare independence. One thing is certain: Turkey has
willy-nilly helped the Kurdish genie escape from the bottle and it will be very
difficult for Ankara to push it back inside.
Prof. Ofra Bengio is head of
the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and
author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.