For years it was the conventional wisdom that Turkey would use force to prevent a semi-autonomous Kurdish region emerging in northern Iraq. Yet after several years of exchanging hostile rhetoric, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey became economic partners instead. The rhetorical confrontation between Ankara and Erbil has been resurrected as semi-autonomous Kurdistan has decided to hold a referendum on its independence from Iraq on September 25, 2017. Despite Turkey’s threats against the KRG, there are several factors that suggest this crisis will not lead to an armed confrontation between Turkey and Kurdistan.
The Iran Factor
Turkey was the midwife for the KRG’s economic growth and, to some extent, for its successful oil sales ever since the semi-autonomous region lost its 17 percent share of Iraq’s budget in 2014. Nonetheless, growing relations between Erbil and Ankara did not necessarily come at the expense of Erbil-Tehran relations. The KRG, including its main ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has maintained a steady and stable dialogue with Iran. The region’s president, Masoud Barzani, who also leads the KDP, has reportedly turned down multiple invitations to visit Iran during the past two years, but a relatively limited cooperation with Iran, extending from trade relations to military support for Peshmerga forces, continued with no significant disruptions. With that being said, the ruling KDP has definitely favored stronger economic relations with Turkey over improving existing cooperation with Iran for many reasons: Turkey provided an outlet to the sea and thus to global markets; it served as the closest country for KRG to import technology and services; it allowed businessmen from the region to interact with Western investors based in Istanbul; and, it strengthened the region’s standing as an alternative to the Iranian-influenced central government of Iraq. However, at the same time, the growing ties with Ankara did not damage the KRG’s minimal but stable relations with Iran. Indeed, the Kurds turned to Iran when they needed mediation with Baghdad or to relieve Iran’s pressure on the KRG government, which Tehran exerted through its support for Kurdish opposition parties in the region.
Considering the KRG’s desperate need for an outlet to the sea, exporting oil exclusively through Turkey would essentially mean an unconditional dependence on Ankara. Despite this reality, the KRG never gave up hope for using Iraq’s territorial waters to export its oil. Iraq, a mutual ally of the US and Iran, is Kurdistan’s only possible alternative to Turkey. Exporting its oil through Iran would ring alarm bells in Washington and further strengthen the Iranian-backed Kurdish opposition parties in the KRG. Therefore, although tension continues to escalate between Baghdad and Erbil over the latter’s bid for independence and attempts to unilaterally annex the disputed territories, stable relations between Iraq and a potentially sovereign Kurdistan could undercut Turkey’s domination over Erbil’s trade routes.
In February 2016, Turkish authorities halted the flow of oil from Kirkuk through Turkey, citing an attack by the PKK that allegedly targeted the pipeline. The 23 day long suspension ended after Ankara reportedly fixed the damage. However, after the PKK announced that it had not attacked the pipeline, Iraqi Kurds acknowledged that Ankara had closed the pipeline in order to coerce the KRG. A repetition of a similar measure against the semi-autonomous government could be harmful now, but it would be disastrous later, if the KRG declares independence. There is no doubt that the Kurdish leaders in Erbil are aware of this risk and thus they are trying to keep the doors to Iran and Iraq open in the event that they need an alternative means for exporting the region’s oil. This hedge, coupled with Erbil’s minimal but mostly stable relations with Iran, constitutes the delicate part of Turkey-KRG relations. Although the KRG invests a great deal more to maintain its strong partnership with Turkey, it keeps the Iran and Iraq options on the table as an insurance policy. However, both alternatives to Turkey run through Tehran. Therefore, if economic relations between Turkey and the KRG deteriorate, Iranian influence in the KRG will expand. The Kurds feel like they could live with this scenario because their strategic alliance with the US would balance Iranian influence in the KRG, but Turkey would be considerably less comfortable in this case for a set of reasons that are directly related to the balance of power in Syria.
The Syria Factor
The Islamic State’s siege on Kobani in 2014, which led to the Syrian Kurds receiving direct military assistance from the US-led coalition, and eventually becoming military allies for the US, changed Turkey’s strategic calculus in Syria. As of today, containment of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), allegedly supervised by the PKK, is the backbone of Turkey’s Syria policy. Although the epicenter of the Turkey-SDF dispute is Syria, the PKK is still in the Qandil Mountains of the KRG, requiring Turkey to maintain a sizeable military and intelligence presence in this region. Turkey’s strong presence in the KRG allows it to collect the much-needed real time intelligence on the PKK, and the Kurdish nationalist movement in general. Nevertheless, much of the PKK activity takes place in the zone of the KRG controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is not quite as closely aligned with Ankara as the KDP. Presumably, all of Turkey’s intelligence operations in the PUK zone are overwhelmingly dependent on mediation with the PUK by the Erbil-based KDP. In the post-referendum Kurdistan, be it a sovereign or a semi-autonomous region, Turkey’s access to the PUK zone will remain vital for its national security. If Turkey chooses a confrontational posture towards the KRG’s post-referendum process, it would be risking its access to Erbil and jeopardizing its anti-PKK intelligence operations in Kurdistan.
Nonetheless, the Kurdistan Region is not only an intelligence-gathering theater for Turkey. The KRG still serves as the primary diplomatic bridge between Ankara and the PKK, in the absence of active peace negotiations with the separatist Kurdish party. Ankara and the PKK are not anticipated to engage in renewed peace talks as long as the crisis continues in Syria, where the growing military capabilities of the Syrian Kurds have changed the balance of power with Turkey. If the situation between Ankara and Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey and Syria continues to deteriorate, Turkey may well need Erbil’s discreet mediation with the PKK.
Furthermore, the KRG’s participation, via its Syrian proxies, alongside PKK-influenced Kurdish parties, in a future Kurdish-led self-rule in northern Syria is still a possibility. Turkey’s embargo on Kurdish-ruled northern Syria, and deteriorating relations between the US-backed SDF and the Syrian regime, leave the KRG as the SDF’s only possible economic outlet. In the long term, the US may even decide to mediate between the KRG and the Syrian Kurds to achieve a certain level of economic cooperation between the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq, which will make the participation of the KRG’s Syrian proxies in self-rule inevitable. If this ends of being the case, maintaining stable relations with the KRG will be even more important to Ankara.
The US Factor
KRG-US relations are definitely experiencing a tough test as the regional government is determined to hold the scheduled independence referendum despite the opposition from members of the US-led international coalition. While the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, turned down several alternatives proposed by the coalition, the US government and the UN over the past month, as well as the Ministry of Peshmerga, the main military apparatus of the KRG, issued several statements reaffirming that Peshmerga forces will remain loyal US allies. The US-led coalition still relies on the military bases in the KRG-controlled areas of northern Iraq, including the Erbil International Airport, to supply its ongoing operations in Syria.
However, the KRG may still face sanctions from the US after it holds the referendum, which is likely to trigger, at a minimum, small-scale skirmishes with Shiʿi militias of Iraq. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the US and the KRG for continued military cooperation and financial aid in 2016 is the primary aspect of bilateral relations that will be at risk in the post-referendum era. The US may suspend mediation efforts between Iraq and the KRG, which may well be seen as a green light for Baghdad to implement tougher measures against the KRG, including a military option. Nonetheless, the KRG believes US sanctions will be temporary, and it plans on continuing its diplomatic efforts to maintain its relations with the US, regardless of Iraq’s attitude towards it. Kurdistan will remain a US ally, precisely because there is no better option for the Kurds, who are striving to become a sovereign entity ruled by a secular and Western-backed government.
In the event that the KRG remains a loyal US ally, even in the case of temporary sanctions imposed by Washington because of its unilateral referendum, Turkey would be faced with the unbearable scenario of having to live with another Kurdish neighbor in the US camp. Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been an awkward failure, transitioning from the declared strategic goal of “zero problems” with its neighbors to “only problems” with its neighbors in the course of several years. The KRG, as it stands, remains the only Turkish ally in the region that has not joined the US or Iranian camps to confront Turkish ambitions.
The 2019 Factor
The Kurds of Turkey emerged as a game-changing actor in Turkish domestic politics in the aftermath of the April 16 constitutional referendum this year. The ruling AKP’s alliance with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) failed to deliver the results expected from the referendum, whereas Kurdish votes from the predominantly Kurdish-inhabited southeastern Turkey saved the day for Erdoğan. This was a rather unexpected development as the AKP seemingly believed that its alliance with ultra-nationalists would bring about a referendum victory well over 50 percent, with votes from the MHP having delivered 11.9 percent of the vote in the previous elections before the constitutional referendum. Hence, the AKP’s proposed constitutional change got a similar percentage of votes to what the ruling party had won in the 2016 elections. Calculations indicated that the AKP’s popularity decreased in the west of the country, while it increased its votes in the Kurdish region. Most of these votes are believed to have come from conservative Kurds.
Another challenge to the AKP is about to emerge as another ultra-nationalist, the former deputy parliament speaker Meral Akşener, declared that she will be founding a new party after splitting from the MHP. Polls conducted a few days after Akşener’s announcement showed her future party’s votes at around 14.4 percent, leaving the MHP with roughly 4 percent, which is below the electoral threshold for parliament. Akşener, whose popularity comes from opposing the MHP’s alliance with the AKP, is not likely to join forces with Erdoğan in the 2019 elections. As the AKP’s partner MHP is expected to lose a significant portion of its voting base to Akşener, Erdoğan will need Kurdish votes to achieve the required 50 percent +1 margin to win the presidential election in 2019.
The AKP-MHP alliance, coupled with the reconciliation between Erdoğan and conservative Kemalists, who were purged by the AKP from the military in the mid-2000s, have also created an ideological dilemma for the AKP. Ultra-nationalist sentiments with calls for abandoning all of Turkey’s existing coordination with the West, including the NATO, for the sake of a new foreign policy doctrine that will make Turkey an ally of Russia and China are on the rise in Turkey. Even though the AKP and Erdoğan are not devoted friends of the West, the ultra-nationalist ideology that is essentially secular and pan-Turkish has caused rifts between the AKP and the Islamic congregations that support the party. Ultra-nationalists and conservative Kemalists have been useful allies for the AKP in thwarting the threat posed by the attempted coup of 2016, but the alliance has reached a level that has put the ruling party’s ideological consistency at risk, which concerns the party’s ideological base.
Destroying relations with the KRG in the wake of its independence referendum will further strengthen ultra-nationalist and Kemalist doctrines in Turkey and will complicate, if not annihilate, the possibility of offering a new alliance to conservative Kurds for the 2019 elections.
Prospects for Turkey-KRG Relations in the Post-referendum Era
The Turkish military has recently held an exercise along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, following warnings by President Erdoğan and the Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım who have vowed to take action against the KRG if the referendum goes through as scheduled. Nonetheless, there is not much information available to determine whether these threats were made to satisfy the ultra-nationalists and Kemalist partners of the ruling party or whether they were a sincere reflection of Turkey’s plans to take economic, diplomatic, and military measures against the KRG. The KRG does not appear to be overly concerned, yet it has continuously repeated that its independence should not be considered a threat to its neighbors.
Turkey’s foreign policy dilemma in the region, alongside the ruling AKP’s declining popularity among nationalist Turks with the emergence of a new nationalist/center-right party, is putting the 2019 election at risk for Erdoğan. Meanwhile, Turkey’s national security, challenged by the militant PKK, requires a certain level of coordination with the KRG for continued intelligence operations in northern Iraq. Erdoğan still needs the KRG’s communication channel to the PKK, as the intensifying conflict has the strong potential to require some form of indirect talks in the near future, particularly before the 2019 presidential elections.
Turkey-KRG relations may not remain the same after the September 25 referendum in Kurdistan. Turkey is likely to implement some measures against the KRG, but it is unlikely these will include economic sanctions or a military intervention; instead, Turkey’s opposition is likely to remain limited to rhetoric and diplomatic pressure on Erbil.
Ceng Sagnic is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) - Tel Aviv University. He serves as the coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program and co-editor of Turkeyscope. cengsagnic[at]gmail.com
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