Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) enjoyed the golden years of their relationship between 2008 and 2017, beginning with the Justice and Development Party Government’s policy of engaging with the Iraqi Kurds until the KRG’s independence referendum. However, Turkish policymakers’ negative reaction to the independence vote significantly impaired their relationship in the past two years. Now, two years after the KRG’s independence referendum, things are changing. Domestic and regional conjuncture once again bring Turkey and the KRG closer and force these actors to focus on their common interests.
On 22 June 2019, the recently elected President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nechirvan Barzani, visited Istanbul and met with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan at the Dolmabahçe Palace. This visit was Nechirvan Barzani’s first official foreign visit as the President of the KRG. After their one-and-a-half-hour meeting, Barzani stated: “I am convinced that a new phase will start in relations between [Iraq’s] Kurdish region, Turkey and Iraq. I hope my visit will contribute to improving relations.”
Barzani’s visit to Turkey took place as part of a series of efforts to improve Turkey-KRG relations, which received a serious blow in the run up towards the independence referendum on 25 September 2017. However, recent developments, such as the Turkish officials’ and businessmen’s visits to the KRG and Nechirvan Barzani’s meeting with President Erdoğan, show that both actors have been willing to normalize their relationship. Today, the key question remains on whether these two actors will manage to restore their partnership back to its pre-independence referendum state.
Historical Background of Turkey-KRG Relations
Turkish policymakers have always been uneasy about the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq because of its possibility of having negative implications on Turkey’s own Kurdish population. That is why, in the eyes of the Turkish policymakers, the possibility of Kurdish autonomy or independence in northern Iraq constituted a serious national security threat for Turkey for a long time. The perception of a threat further precipitated in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, once the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê-PKK) insurgency initiated its armed attacks against Turkey from the early 1980s onwards and established a living space on the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
In fact, former President Turgut Özal made an important effort in the early 1990s to improve Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds, more specifically with the leaders of the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). With this policy, Özal mainly aimed to receive first-hand information about the developments involving the Iraqi Kurds and to secure support of the KDP and PUK in Turkey’s struggle against the PKK. During this period, both the KDP Chairman Masoud Barzani and the PUK Chairman Jalal Talabani were allowed to open their parties’ representative offices in Ankara and were granted Turkish diplomatic passports.
However, despite Özal’s efforts to pursue dialogue and cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds, this policy did not last long. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Turkish policymakers watched the Iraqi Kurdish leaders with suspicion about whether they were actually tolerating the presence and activities of PKK in northern Iraq. With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, this suspicion increased even further. Once it became clear that the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi-TBMM) would not allow the deployment of American soldiers on Turkish soil in order to open a northern front in the war, the US forces cooperated with the Iraqi Kurds in their efforts against Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a result, the Kurds turned into “a main building block of the US policy toward Iraq,” and Turkey’s sphere of influence in northern Iraq gradually weakened in the early 2000s.During this period, the Iraqi Kurds remained strongly against the idea of Turkey sending troops to northern Iraq.
When the PKK ended its unilateral ceasefire in 2004 and re-started its attacks against Turkish targets, the tension between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds reached its peak. In the mid-2000s, Turkish policymakers persistently expressed that they were uneasy about the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq and argued that the PKK was organizing attacks against Turkey through this region.By this time, the KRG was already established as an autonomous unit in northern Iraq in line with the new Iraqi Constitution of 2005. Thus, in their communication with the Iraqi and American authorities, Turkish policymakers put a lot of emphasis on the importance of Iraq’s territorial integrity for Turkey’s national interests and of receiving their support in Turkey’s fight against the PKK.
However, from 2008 onwards, Turkish policymakers shifted towards engaging with the Iraqi Kurds rather than isolating and accusing them of tolerating PKK activities in Northern Iraq. As a result, Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds began to improve significantly. In a short period of time, the KRG turned into a key economic partner for Turkey, especially in the area of energy. Former KRG President Masoud Barzani played an important role in the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi-AKP) ledgovernment’s efforts to resolve the Kurdish question through peaceful means. When the anti-government uprisings turned into a civil war in Syria from March 2011 onwards, Turkey also positioned itself with the KDP against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat-PYD) and its armed wing People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel-YPG), which Turkey regards as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. The KDP also had similar concerns regarding the rise of the PYD/YPG as the most effective Kurdish actor in the Syrian civil war and the control it had gained over several provinces in northern Syria. In fact, Turkey and the KDP worked together to secure the KDP’s dominance over Syrian Kurdish politics for quite some time, but with no avail.
Especially at the economic front, the KRG provided a favorable environment for Turkish businessmen to invest from the mid-2000s onwards. Until the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged and began to threaten the KRG in 2014, there were more than 3000 Turkish companies which were actively doing business in the KRG.In 2009, Turkey’s exports to Iraq amounted to approximately five billion dollars, whereas this number reached a record high of approximately 12 billion dollars during the first quarter of 2013.Furthermore, the KRG oil began to reach international markets through Turkey’s Ceyhan Port as of May 2014, despite opposition from the Iraqi central government.Thus, Turkey and the KRG built a strong political-economic connection from 2008 onwards, which provided tremendous benefits for both sides. The relationship improved so much so that in a television interview in 2015, President Erdoğan surprisingly characterized the possible emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq as Iraq’s internal affair,attributing to Turkey’s views on Iraq’s territorial unity. However, this positive atmosphere completely disappeared when the KRG President Masoud Barzani announced that an independence referendum would be held in the KRG on 25 September 2017.
In the Run-Up to the Independence Referendum
In the wake of Barzani’s announcement on 7 June 2017 about the upcoming independence referendum in September, Turkish policymakers did not immediately show a vocal reaction. This approach was in line with Turkey’s previous low-key position towards the KRG, although the KRG took control of a significant portion of disputed territories during the fight against ISIS.Evidently, Turkey’s restrained position toward these developments in the KRG created an impression in the minds of the KRG officials that Turkey would not strongly oppose the idea of Iraqi Kurdish independence.
In fact, Turkey’s position was initially vague, as Turkish policymakers found themselves in a dilemma in relation to the independence referendum. Domestically, the AKP’s support base includes not only the nationalist circles in the Turkish society but also the conservative Kurds. The AKP received support from both of these groups in Turkey’s constitutional referendum, which changed Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy in 2017. These voting blocs continued to be important for President Erdoğan and his AKP as the parliamentary and presidential elections were approaching in 2019. Galip Dalay, a foreign policy expert, argues that within this context, President Erdoğan would have preferred not to reveal a clear-cut position about the independence referendum, for either a positive or a negative stance would carry political costs for the Turkish government. A “strong rejection of the [KRG] referendum would have alienated the Kurdish voters (particularly the conservative and Islamist Kurds who generally vote for the conservative Islamic party, currently AK Party). Whereas his [President Erdoğan’s] silence would have had the same impact on the Turkish nationalist voters.”Thus, it was only weeks before the independence referendum that Turkish policymakers eventually had to show a much clearer and a stronger position about the independence vote, which leaned toward that of the nationalist circles in Turkey.
On 20 September 2019, during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Erdoğan stated, “[s]teps such as demands for independence that can cause new crises and conflicts in the region must be avoided. We hereby call on the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government to abort the initiative they have launched in that direction.”Furthermore, Turkey’s National Security Council, which regularly brings together the country’s civilian and military leaders, declared on 22 September that the KRG’s upcoming referendum was “illegitimate and unacceptable.” On the same day, then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım argued, “[t]his decision for a referendum and the realization of this referendum is a matter of Turkish national security. Turkey is determined—and wouldn’t hesitate to use its rights emanating from international agreements and bilateral agreements where matters of national security are concerned.”During this period, a very strong opposition also came from Devlet Bahçeli, Chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi-MHP). On 24 August, 2018, Bahçeli declared that the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq “should be viewed by Ankara as a reason for war ‘if necessary.’”
Turkey’s harsh rhetoric was followed by a number of actions in the face of the KRG’s independence vote. The Turkish Armed Forced initiated military drills on 18 September 2017 along the Iraqi-Turkish border in cooperation with the Iraqi military, which lasted until the referendum. Turkey also suspended “the broadcasting licenses of three Kurdish networks.”Furthermore, soon after the referendum, the Turkish airspace was closed to all flights to and from Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.However, during this process, what Turkey did not do was much more important than what it actually did. First, despite the increasing tension between Turkey and the KRG in the run up to the independence vote on 25 September 2017, Turkey did not close its land border with the KRG. Second, although Turkish policymakers stated several times that all measures were on the table vis-à-vis the KRG, they eventually decided not to impose economic sanctions on the Iraqi Kurds. Despite President Erdoğan’s warnings that Turkey could shut off the pipeline between Turkey and the KRG, which carried the Iraqi Kurdish oil to the international markets, Turkey did not stop the oil flow. In fact, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that the independence referendum had “nothing to do” with the trade relations between Turkey and the KRG.Similarly, in the aftermath of the referendum, Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi confirmed that “trade relations will stay ‘business as usual’” with the KRG.This attitude clearly showed that it was important for Turkish policymakers to maintain economic relations with the KRG although they wanted to show a negative reaction to the KRG referendum.
Thus, in the wake of the independence vote on 25 September 2017, Turkish policymakers were very much aware of the mutual economic interests between Turkey and the KRG and that is why they were unwilling to impose economic sanctions on the KRG. However, bilateral trade links were still negatively influenced by the referendum process. Turkey’s exports to the KRG fell from 7.6 billion dollars to 6.7 billion dollars between January-October 2017 and January-October 2018.Also the KRG’s oil exports through the Ceyhan Port decreased to 246,000 barrels per day in November 2017from around 600,000 barrels per day in 2016.
A Pragmatic Approach Toward Normalization?
Mutual political, economic, and geostrategic interests between Turkey and the KRG are manifold. First and foremost, Turkey benefits as much from strong economic relations with the KRG as the Iraqi Kurds. At the zenith of their relationship, the KRG constituted Turkey’s “third largest export market” and the “second largest market for contractors.”Also, the KRG’s oil constitutes a very important alternative oil source for Turkey, which has been significantly dependent on Russia and Iran. Especially in the aftermath of the recent American sanctions on Iran, Iraqi oil has become much more important for Turkey as an alternative source. Furthermore, the KRG, more specifically the Barzani family’s KDP, still is a very important actor in Iraq with which Turkey can cooperate against the PKK as well as against other regional Kurdish actors with connections to the PKK. The KDP and the PKK have been the two major actors as well as the historical rivals of Kurdish nationalism and regional Kurdish politics. Thus, Turkey took advantage of its partnership with the KDP in the past to take action against other Kurdish groups in the region such as the PYD/YPG, which has organic connections to the PKK. Turkey also often sided with the KDP against other Iraqi Kurdish actors, namely PUK and Gorran, which have closer ties with Iran and the PKK compared to the KDP.
Although Turkish policymakers preferred not to impose economic sanctions on the Iraqi Kurds due to the independence vote, they could not pursue a balanced stance vis-à-vis the KRG. The policymakers could not display their true reaction towards the referendum because of Turkey’s national interests in the region. Iran, on the other hand, played its hand much more strategically. While Iranian policymakers showed a strong negative response to the KRG’s referendum, they were more careful about not ruining trade relations with the Iraqi Kurds. Today, Turkey’s strategy is criticized by several businessmen from southeastern Turkey as the country’s economic presence in the KRG has weakened and Iran has proceeded to occupy this presence since the referendum, causing Turkish businessmen in the region to lose their earnings.
Although the KRG officials have made a great effort to restore the relationship with Turkey in the aftermath of the referendum, Turkish policymakers have been reluctant until recently. Yet, things are changing. In July 2018, Nechirvan Barzani was officially invited to attend the inauguration ceremony of Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected President for a second term. Furthermore, in December 2018, around 100 businessmen from Turkey attended a trade fair in Sulaimaniyah and met with several KRG officials, including Nechirvan Barzani, in order to improve trade relations between Turkey and the KRG. Another group of around 50 businessmen visited Erbil with the approval and support of the AKP government in April 2019.In the same time period, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also visited Erbil (after Baghdad and Basra) and met with a number of KRG officials, including then-Prime Minister (and now President) Nechirvan Barzani and then-Intelligence Chief (and now Prime Minister) Masrour Barzani. Finally, President Erdoğan hosted Nechirvan Barzani as his “special guest” in Istanbul in June 2019. During their meeting, Erdoğan and Barzani discussed increasing the trade volume, especially improving the oil trade between Turkey and Iraq.
There is no doubt that the mutual interests between Turkey and the KRG are bringing back these two actors together. For example, it is speculated that Çavuşoğlu’s Erbil visit in April 2019 mainly aimed at improving energy relations with Iraq since the US waivers on Iranian sanctions were about to come to an end in May. These waivers had allowed a number of countries, including Turkey, to continue its oil imports from Iran for some time.Similarly, both Turkey and the KRG, especially the KDP, still share very strong anti-PKK feelings. As a result of the deep-rooted rivalry and distrust between the KDP and the PKK, “Turkey and the KDP have a tacit understanding of Ankara’s ability to target the PKK” militants in northern Iraq.This understanding is in place also for Operations Claw 1 and 2 that the Turkish Armed Forces have been conducting since May 2019.In his August 2019 visit to Turkey, with regard to the PKK presence in northern Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani openly stated that “the KRG is against the usage of its lands to attack neighboring countries, especially Turkey.” He also added that “the main reason for military operations in the region is the presence of PKK there.”
Two years after the independence referendum, it seems that both Turkey and the KRG have concluded once again that their best interests lie in improving cooperation and collaboration in a variety of areas, ranging from trade and energy to the PKK presence in northern Iraq and the Syrian civil war. Thus, in an environment of numerous problems that both Turkey and the KRG face domestically and regionally, both actors seem to be aware that they should leave behind all the disappointments of the past and focus on building stronger connections in order to better realize their mutual interests in the Middle East.
“This research was in part supported by Işık University’s research fund (BAP project no: 19A302)”
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Disputed territories were those territories whose status would be resolved between the Iraqi central government and the KRG through a referendum by the end of 2007 according to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution.
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Mehmet Uyanık, “Turkey and the KRG After the Referendum: Blocking the Path to Independence,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Turkey Project, 2 November 2017, p. 2.
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Aram Ekin Duran (2019).
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Operations Claw 1 and 2 are cross-border military operations conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in northern Iraq, which began in late May and mid-July 2019 respectively and which aimed at cleansing the Hakurk region of the PKK. See Metin Gürcan, “Iraqi Kurds Actively Support Ankara’s Fight against the PKK,” Al-Monitor, 6 August 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/08/turkey-iraq-kurdistan-krg-support-fight-against-pkk.html
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