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Turkey’s Delicate Dance in Iraqi Kurdistan

Jul 24, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

Kurdish officials attend a signing ceremony in Suleimaniyah, Iraq, on May 5, 2019.
(FERIQ FEREC/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • After a brief hiatus following the September 2017 failed independence referendum, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has reclaimed its place at the helm of the Kurdish government in northern Iraq.
  • The return of the political status quo in the region will open the KDP up to deeper diplomatic and economic cooperation with Turkey, its most important external ally.
  • The KDP will continue to grant Turkey leeway to increase its military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in exchange for closer economic and trade ties with Ankara. 
  • But in its effort to curtail an independent Kurdish state, the Turkish government will further irk its own Kurdish population, thus exposing itself to additional security and political risks at home.

On July 17, a Turkish diplomat was shot and killed in eastern Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. The assassination was likely perpetrated by a sympathizer of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Kurdish group that Turkey has been targeting in regional military operations for decades. Ankara’s high-risk tolerance will serve it well in the months ahead, as it continues to prioritize building its Iraqi-Kurdish ties — taking advantage of the economic leverage it wields over the newly formed Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But just how much violence and political backlash Turkey can endure to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdish state will be tested because the ricks in the region, as evidenced by the latest incident, remain as high as ever.

The Big Picture

Iraqi Kurdistan contains roughly a third of the known oil and gas reserves in Iraq, one of the world’s most oil-rich countries. After a tumultuous couple of years, politics in the region are now seemingly returning to equilibrium. Meanwhile, its most important economic and political ally, Turkey, is eager to capitalize on this renewed stability for its own gain.

See Rebalancing Power in the Middle East
See Turkey’s Resurgence
A Return to the Political Status Quo

The KRG has operated as a semi-autonomous region of Iraq since the United States backed a no-fly zone over the province in 1992 to help shield ostracized Kurds from then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In September 2018, the country held an election that failed to produce a government due to inter- and intraparty fighting over coveted Cabinet positions. The election was the first attempt to return to political normalcy after a long-promised independence referendum in September 2017 yielded only lost territory and lost political capital for the Kurdish government. But after a couple of tumultuous years, Kurdistan politics are now seemingly returning to equilibrium.

In early July, the government selected a new, streamlined Cabinet. Longtime energy and foreign ministers have stepped down in recent weeks, creating space for fresh blood in the government for the first time in almost 15 years. But any new faces must still be approved by the old guard, which is led by the Barzanis — the leading family of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). On July 10, Mansour Barzani was sworn in as prime minister of the KRG, shortly after Nechirvan Barzani (the nephew of the former longtime President Massoud Barzani) was selected as the Kurdish government’s president in June, thereby extending the clan’s long reign as the dominant political force in the region.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is the KDP’s primary rival, run by the Talabani clan. Other smaller parties, including Gorran, speckle the playing field and contest elections. But Iraqi Kurdish politics still primarily centers around the KDP and the PUK, with the latter jostling for dominance and the former typically coming out on top. Despite lacking both leadership positions in Arbil, the PUK is still a force to be reckoned with. In addition to having influence with the presidency in Baghdad via Iraqi President Barham Salih, the party has so far been able to thwart the KDP’s ability to name a Barzani member to the now-vacant energy ministry position, and also maintains seats in the Kurdish parliament. Several key points of contention, such as control of the oil-rich Kirkuk province, will cause the two parties to butt heads in the coming months — thus reinstalling the familiar tug-of-war that has long defined Kurdish politics in Iraq.

A New Chapter for Turkey-Kurdish Cooperation in Iraq

The KDP’s renewed place in power, along with its perpetual need to edge out the PUK,  opens the door for Turkey to fortify its own economic, political and security ties in northern Iraq. Ankara has historically worked closely with the KDP because of its proximity (the Barzanis’ tribal reach includes swaths of Iraqi Kurdistan that borders Turkey) and power (the Barzanis have always controlled the levers of the Iraqi Kurdish government including, most importantly, oil and gas policymaking).

Although the KDP-Turkish relations have hit low points over the years, Ankara has recently solidified its relationship with Arbil. Turkey is well-positioned as a much needed economic partner of the Kurdish government (and thereby, the KDP), providing the semi-autonomous region with a valuable trade route out for Kurdish oil. The two border crossings between Turkey and northern Iraq help facilitate $10 billion in annual trade flow. And Turkey is currently in discussions with Arbil to open yet another border crossing to facilitate even more trade.

But for the KDP, this inflow of Turkish funds comes at a cost. Turkey and the KDP have a tacit understanding of Ankara’s ability to target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group — that is, as long as the KDP grants Ankara the freedom to conduct anti-PKK activities in the region, Ankara will continue to provide economic support to the Kurdish government in Iraq. This is possible in part because, among all the many inter-Kurdish rivalries across the region, there is none as pronounced as the animosity between the KDP and the PKK. So while there is an inherent tension in allowing Turkey to target fellow Kurds, the KDP’s own deep-rooted distrust for the PKK helps facilitate this unspoken policy.

Turkey’s Renewed Anti-PKK Push

Here, it is important to understand that when it comes to its regional strategy, Turkey’s primary imperative is preventing the PKK or any of its secessionist sympathizers from forming an independent Kurdish state. Some within Turkey’s own Kurdish population, which makes up roughly 20 percent of its population, have threatened to secede for decades. And Ankara knows that the establishment of a Kurdish state elsewhere in the region could fan the secessionist flames back home, which would have dire consequences for Turkey’s territorial integrity, social stability and economy.

Thus, for years, one priority within Ankara’s regional strategy has largely focused on keeping the PKK from gaining ground and spreading its message. In Syria, this has included amassing troops near Tel Abyad to fight against a PKK ally, the People’s Protection Units. And in northern Iraq, this has meant going head-to-head against the PKK itself in places like Qandil (which is the militant group’s current hub) and Sinjar.

Eager to secure more Turkish economic cooperation, the ruling KDP in Arbil will continue to grant Turkey leeway on its military operations in northern Iraq. And in turn, Ankara will capitalize on that added freedom to move more aggressively against the PKK, which it is already doing. Turkey is deepening its existing military presence in the province via a military operation against PKK militants called Operation Claw, which just recently entered its second phase. And as part of this phase, Turkish forces have also begun killing high-ranking PKK leaders.

The Inherent Risks

These deepening operations, however, will complicate Ankara’s relations with its own Kurdish population at home. Ramped up military action against the PKK will ultimately hamper the prospects for negotiation between the Turkish government and Kurdish interest groups across the political spectrum while fueling the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (the dominant Kurdish political party in Turkey, also known as the HDP) opposition against the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

Allowing Turkey to continue fighting against the PKK also poses political risks for the KDP. Some Kurdish groups in the region are opposed to Arbil working so closely with Turkey, which they see as actively fighting against the whole of Kurdish interests. This delicate balance of allowing certain Kurds to be killed in order to maintain its lucrative ties with Ankara has always been difficult for Arbil to navigate. With its solidified place in power, the KDP is now in a better political position to withstand some of the potential domestic pressure from anti-Turkey Kurdish groups. But the more Turkey pushes against the PKK in the region, the harder it will be for the KDP to justify Ankara’s actions with its citizens.

Targeting Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq will make Anakara a target of retaliation anywhere their sympathizers reside.

But perhaps most importantly, the recent assassination of a Turkish diplomat in Arbil serves as an acute reminder that there is a direct link between what Turkey does in Iraq and what Turkey does at home. In other words, targeting Kurds in one place makes Anakara a target of retaliation anywhere their sympathizers reside. As Turkey broadens its anti-PKK operations in northern Iraq, it exposes itself to more risk of blowback and retaliatory attacks.

Violent clashes between PKK and Turkish forces are already a common occurrence in parts of the country. And this renewed anti-Kurd push in Iraq could result in even more frequent or deadly acts of violence in retaliation. But Ankara sees curtailing the PKK’s ability to extend its reach as more important than protecting Turkey’s overseas presence from overseas attack. And thus, the country will continue to take advantage of the KDP’s renewed power to do just that — opening the door for more political backlash and bloodshed on both sides in the process.

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