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.
Very interesting article. I wonder if much of what you say though could be done without a direct declaration of independence? It also brings up the question of the role of the US in brokering further relations between Turkey and the KRG? If the US decides it does need to conduct strikes against ISIS it could do so out of the Kurdish region instead, sending the message that it’s not taking sides in the Sunni-Shia sectarianism, and then diplomatically play a role in making sure that Turkey is comfortable with an independent Kurdish region. That’s basically the facts on the ground, regardless of if it’s directly stated. Once people are more comfortable with unstated facts then they can push harder for direct declarations. It also avoids a backlash from Baghdad since it allows some saving of face and not having to deal with the direct declaration.
“diplomatically play a role in making sure that Turkey is comfortable with an independent Kurdish region:”
That made me laugh.
Just so you know on any given day more 90 % of Turks are opposed to such a thing and by that extension more than 70 % of Turkiye’s population.
Don’t Iraqi Turkmen and Arabs have any say in this?
“Just so you know on any given day more 90 % of Turks are opposed to such a thing and by that extension more than 70 % of Turkiye’s population.”
yes, that’s the reason of trying to engage them diplomatically.
“Don’t Iraqi Turkmen and Arabs have any say in this?”
If Iraq is falling apart nationally and into internal divisions, then the whole point is that no one has a say in this at this point. Ethno-sectarian and region loyalties are becoming the dominant identities and the reality on the ground is that the Kurdish region is effectively an independent country, whether people like it or not, or whether it’s directly stated or not. Even if the national Iraqi government is able to retake lost territory, I don’t think things are going to get better.
“yes, that’s the reason of trying to engage them diplomatically.”
How successful do you think you would be in convincing Americans to accept a Taliban state on the US border? Because that is what you are asking of Turks.
“If Iraq is falling apart nationally and into internal divisions, then the whole point is that no one has a say in this at this point.”
Apparently Americans and Kurdish terrorists do but no one else.
“Ethno-sectarian and region loyalties are becoming the dominant identities”
This isn’t entirely new nor should it be encouraged. Nor is it ethnical to act in favor of one ethnic group/sect over another.
“and the reality on the ground is that the Kurdish region is effectively an independent country, whether people like it or not, or whether it’s directly stated or not. ”
So because a group of terrorist bandits were literally handed an enclave by an American invasion, that means they get to have it legitimized? And I wonder how “independent” they would be given that they are landlocked and surrounded on all sides by countries they have harbored/supported terrorists against. Let’s be serious: This is an American puppet entity.
This was before my time but my elders tell me that when Turkiye rescued the Turkish Cypriots from annihilation, Americans were engaged in histrionics. It’s been almost 40 years and no Western nation recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Now you’re all jumping for joy to enforce imperialist fiat to create a Kurdish terrorist state? I’m sorry but such a glaring double-standard shows that all the West is interested in is the control and disenfranchisement of Middle Eastern peoples.
“Even if the national Iraqi government is able to retake lost territory, I don’t think things are going to get better.”
There are worse abominations in the world kept together against the will of their parts (a big example being Russia) but no one seems to be doing anything about them.
A wise man: http://www.newsweek.com/dickey-dont-redraw-mideast-map-111485
I get why Turkey should support the KRG as a buffer and ally against ISIS, but I don’t get what the additional value is in recognising it as an independent state? What does this add to the fight against ISIS? The KRG / Kurdistan will find against ISIS to protect itself regardless of whether it is recognised by Turkey, no?
Then on top of that you have the likelihood of sparking a KRG-Iraq war. And would Kurds in eastern Turkey see a Kurdistan and be satisfied they weren’t in it? If anything I’d have thought this would do more to encourage secession as they would have an established state they could be absorbed into. The same could go for Kurds in Syria.
If I were a Kurd I would love this course of action because it would seem to offer the chance for an independent Kurdistan that either immediately or in the future could extend beyond the KRG borders. Can’t quite see why Turkey would want to offer encouragement for that.
That’s because your’e not being patronizing or dishonest like Koplow over here.
More importantly, don’t Iraqi Turkmen or Arabs have a say in this given that they’ve been the ones being forcibly displaced by Kurds ever since the USA occupied Iraq?
I think the additional value comes in encouraging the Kurds to be proactive in fighting ISIS rather than having the peshmerga just sit back, and the prospect of independence and independent oil revenues free of any revenue-sharing agreement with Baghdad creates that incentive. On the question of Turkish Kurdish secession should there be an Iraqi Kurdistan, my point was that the current Turkish government has always believed that elevating Barzani and the KRG will show its own Kurds that they need to drop their hopes for their own Kurdistan, and so whether or not I agree with that theory, this seems to be an opportune time for the AKP to actually test it out.