(Originally posted by openDemocracy, republished under a Creative Commons license)
Turkey, the Kurdish Regional Government, and Baghdad
The end of Turkey’s ”œred lines”
The turnaround in the relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq has been remarkable, even for the turbulent middle east. Ankara’s approach to the KRG was until 2008-09 driven by a set of so-called ”œred lines”: principally, that Turkey was not prepared to countenance anything beyond the most limited political autonomy and economic viability for the KRG, and that the KRG would not be permitted to expand into territories disputed between the KRG and BaghdadÂ – most notably oil-rich Kirkuk.
Ankara encouraged Kirkuk’sÂ TurkmenÂ population to act as a blocking mechanism to Kurdish aspirations, and worked hard to persuade Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to engage with their country’s politics in the wake of theÂ overthrowÂ of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Ankara’s fear that Iraqi Kurdish autonomy might inspire its own disaffected Kurds was intensified by the freedom enjoyed by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) to launch cross-border attacks into Turkey from sanctuaries within KRG territory.
The United States-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 put an end to Ankara’s freedom to take its struggle with the PKK directly into northern Iraq’s mountains. Now, it was dependent on the KRG and Washington to curtail the PKK’s activities, and it found their efforts wanting. It was only in late 2007 that the George W Bush administration – in the face of a credible Turkish threat unilaterally to intervene against the PKK in northern Iraq – at last agreed to acquiesce in and even assist a resumption of Turkish cross-border raids.
Yet Turkish bombing and commando assaults, which continue to this day, have brought little progress in Turkey’s battle with the PKK. Furthermore, the KRG used the umbrella provided by the US presence to increase its own strength and legitimacy. The Iraqi Kurdish ”œquasi-state” had become a permanent fixture, and it had not responded to Turkish threats that it take action against PKK elements on its territory. A change of tack was needed. [More after the jump]
A new direction
This came in October 2009, when Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a much-preparedÂ visitÂ to the KRG president, Massoud Barzani, in Erbil. This in turn paved the way for an intensifyingÂ roundÂ of diplomacy between Turkish and KRG officials, and the opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil. Ankara appeared to have adopted the American position: that there is little the KRG can do, or be expected to do, about the PKKÂ presenceÂ in northern Iraq, and that in any case Erbil might respond better to persuasion than threat on the issue. The planned withdrawal of US combat-troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 must also have contributed to Ankara’s change of approach.
There were three other factors at work in Turkey’s change of direction. First, Davutoglu’s ”œzero problems”Â approachÂ to Turkey’s neighbourhood diplomacy emphasised cooperation and dialogue rather than confrontation. Second, Turkey’sÂ rulingÂ Justice & Development Party had curtailed the political power of the Turkish general staff, which had been a major factor in Ankara’s hardline approach towards the KRG. Third, Turkey’s impressive emergence as a ”œtrading state” and its associatedÂ championingÂ of ”œsoft power” in its regional diplomacy, had paid dividends.
In fact, the growth of cross-border trade predated the improvement in the political relationship between Ankara and Erbil, and the KRG now accounts for half of Turkey’s trade with Iraq. Most goods on sale in the KRG, and most of its construction projects, are Turkish. Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens work or have established businesses in Kurdish Iraq, many of them Turkish Kurds.
The break with Baghdad
Ankara had simultaneously maintained a cordial relationship with Baghdad. A Turkey-Iraq ”œhigh-level strategic cooperation council” was established in 2008, and bilateral trade grew apace. But Ankara’s attempt at even-handedness between Erbil and Baghdad came screeching to a halt in December 2011, just days after the departure of the last US combat-soldier.
The occasion was the arrest-warrant served by Iraq’sÂ Shi’aÂ prime minister Nouri al-Maliki served for Iraq’sÂ SunniÂ deputy president Tariq al-Hashemi. TheÂ chargeswere of involvement in terrorism, and the affair looked part of a wider marginalisation ofÂ SunniÂ participation in the Baghdad government. Al-Hashemi fled first to the KRG and then to Turkey, which has refusedÂ to hand him over the Iraqi authorities. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instead warned al-Maliki against stoking sectarian divisions, and in turn al-Maliki accused Ankara of ”œinterference” in Iraq’s domestic affairs, describing Turkey as ”œhostile”.
The war of words has since deteriorated further. In fact, Ankara and Barzani appeared to join forces in an attempt to remove al-Maliki from power, such that in May 2012 there were protests from Baghdad that the activities of Turkey’s consuls in Basra and Mosul were incompatible with their diplomatic status.
The energy relationship between Turkey and the KRG has also grown closer, to the detriment of their respective relationships with Baghdad. The Iraqi government contests Erbil’s freedom to by-pass Baghdad in its energy deals with third parties. This did not stop Erbil, earlier in 2012, from proclaiming an agreement to constructÂ pipelinesÂ that could take oil directly from KRG fields into Turkey, as an alternative to theÂ Kirkuk-CeyhanÂ pipeline which Baghdad controls. The KRG also began trucking crude oil directly into Turkey in defiance of Baghdad’s insistence that such trade was illegal.
Ankara has also rejected Baghdad’s complaints, and has not refuted Erbil’s claims of impending new trans-border pipeline construction. Erbil has in addition penned agreements with oil majors such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Total, and with the Anglo-TurkishÂ Genel Energy, which in due course could furtherenhanceÂ the KRG’s independence from Baghdad.
Ankara has not declared that its position on Kirkuk has altered, but it doesÂ seemto have relaxed its ”œred line” approach to the KRG. Davutoglu paid a visit to Kirkuk from Erbil in August 2012 without first informing Baghdad. This led the Iraqi government toÂ threatenÂ to ”œreview” its relationship with Turkey, and a few days later al-Maliki criticised Ankara for treating the KRG as an independent state. The purpose of Davutoglu’s visit was ostensibly toÂ meetÂ the region’s Turkmen, regarded as ethnicÂ kinÂ by Ankara. However, the suspicion is that Turkey is continuing to encourage the formation of an anti-Maliki coalition consisting of Kurds, Turkmen,Â SunniÂ and evenÂ Shi’aÂ Arabs. Turkey might also be reconsidering the desirability of a centralised Iraq, given the degree of Iranian influence in Baghdad. For his part, Barzani has explicitly spoken in favour of autonomous arrangements for Iraq’sÂ SunniÂ ArabÂ provinces.
The internal KRG factor
It is also worth noting, and not just in passing, that Tehran has been making overtures to the KRG’s other political factions in order to shore up al-Maliki and undermine Barzani.Â Jalal Talabani,Â the Kurdish president of Iraq and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as well as northern Iraq’s KurdishÂ Goran(Change)Â party,Â have been uncomfortable with Barzani’s moves against al-Maliki and jealous of his emergence as the KRG’s undisputed leader. This serves as a useful reminder that Barzani cannot always speak for the KRG as a whole, and that Ankara’s relations with the PUK andÂ GoranÂ are less developed than those with Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
In short, Ankara and Erbil are united in more than a shared antipathy to al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. They are closer to each other than either is to Baghdad: official contacts between them are both frequent and trusting, such that the KRG’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani was recently moved to declare Turkey a ”œstrategic partner” for Erbil.
President Barzani was given a lavish welcome during a trip to Turkey in April 2012. There he met with the republic’s president, prime minister, foreign minister and intelligence chief. The fact that he had just a few weeks earlier again raised the issue of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to hold a referendum on the subject, and reiterated the KRG’s stance on Kirkuk, barely raised an eyebrow in Ankara. Might Turkey be calculating that an ”œautonomous” and energy-rich but dependent Iraqi Kurdistan, and a troublesome but weakenedÂ Shi’aÂ Iraq, now represents a tolerable rearrangement of the region’s politics?
[The second part of this article will be published on 31 August]
(Image: Kurdistan Photo Ã™Æ’Ã™Ë†Ã˜Â±Ã˜Â¯Ã˜Â³Ã˜ÂªÃ˜Â§Ã™” , Flickr.)