For a few years now, Turkey has been engaged in a delicate balance between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Ankara has not wanted to anger Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki by implying support for an independent – rather than autonomous – Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey has never been interested in such an outcome anyway because of the incentives it would create for Turkish Kurds to push harder for their own independent state. Turkey has been happy to deal with the KRG and Massoud Barzani outside of its relationship with Maliki, supporting Erbil’s claims to independent oil revenues, and in fact has supported and promoted Barzani in an effort to marginalize the PKK and its Syrian PYD offshoot by making Barzani and the KRG the most influential Kurds in the region. As Turkey’s relationship with Maliki has deteriorated and as Turkey and Iraq have feuded over Iraq’s treatment of its Sunni minority, this dynamic between Turkey and the KRG has increased, and for the most part Barzani has played his part by not speaking out as a champion of Turkish Kurds. Throughout all of this, however, Turkey has stopped short of overtly supporting a de jure independent Iraqi Kurdistan, realizing that to do so will mean the end of any relationship that still remains with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
The ISIS takeover of Mosul and the possibility that it will eventually overrun the Maliki government alters this equation. F0r decades, Turkey’s biggest security problem has been the PKK. Now, the biggest threat facing Turkey is ISIS, which has demonstrated its ability to take and hold territory and which views the Turkish government with hostility. Turkey already received an unpleasant wakeup call a week ago when ISIS captured the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took the diplomats working there hostage. At this point, Turkey has a hostile and capable fighting force sitting right across its border, and the spillover from northern Iraq has the potential to be far worse than the refugee crisis that Turkey has already been managing as a result of the Syrian civil war, since it will involve armed hostilities rather than just absorbing fleeing refugees.
The best way to neutralize ISIS as a threat is to strengthen the KRG, whose peshmerga already took Kirkuk in response to the ISIS takeover of Mosul, and can keep the conflict with ISIS in Iraq rather than having it cross the border into southeastern Turkey. In the past, even considering supporting the KRG as an independent state was not an option, but the circumstances have changed now that it is clear just how weak and ineffectual the Maliki government is. Ankara should be getting in front of this issue, recognizing that even if the Maliki government survives it will be only through the intervention and support of outside powers such as the U.S. and Iran (which is not a phrase I ever envisioned writing) and that the consequences of angering the Maliki government pales in comparison to the consequences of an actual radical jihadi state bordering Turkey.
Furthermore, if Turkey still subscribes to the theory that strengthening Barzani and the KRG sends the message to Turkish Kurds that Kurdistan already exists without them and thus they need to drop any hopes of separation or independence for themselves, then now is the time to test out whether this theory is actually correct. Things are quiet with the PKK, Erdoğan has been slowly negotiating with Abdullah Ocalan, and ramping up the peace process with the PKK while simultaneously supporting Kurdish independence could potentially be a massive victory for Erdoğan and the AKP. If Turkish Kurds support a deal that gives them language rights and some sort of autonomous citizenship and create pressure on the PKK to accept, Erdoğan will easily sail through to a presidential victory while solidifying his coalition for another decade. Erdoğan could thus create a new status quo for his own Kurdish population that ends any legitimate hopes of an independent Turkish Kurdistan while securing Turkey’s borders from ISIS in creating an ally of Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is without even considering the windfall potential of Turkey becoming an energy hub as a result of transporting Kurdish oil, which will always be in doubt so long as the central government in Baghdad still has a claim on it.
There are certainly downsides to this scenario, chief among them the enmity it will cause between Ankara and Baghdad, not to mention the possibility of fighting in northern Iraq between KRG peshmerga and Iraqi troops that will send even more refugees into Turkey. It is also in some sense playing with fire to actively attempt to rewrite state borders in the Middle East, since there is no way of knowing what it will unleash elsewhere. Despite these problems, Turkey has been dancing around this idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan for awhile, and the time is right to be forward thinking and actually implement a real policy. The ISIS threat is real and it is scary, and Turkey’s best strategy should be to empower the only fighting force in Iraq capable of countering ISIS and making sure that northern Iraq does not turn into a jihadi wasteland.