Our guest author today is Robert Hatem. He holds a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from George Washington University. Several of his articles are currently under review and pending publication with academic journals. All focus on Turkey and the Kurds. He currently works for the Moroccan American Center for Policy. This article is the first in an original series for Al Ajnabee.
The relationship between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey has been something of a bright spot in the Middle East of late. The relationship, given a rough start and the traditional enmity that Turkey showed towards any Kurdish independence or autonomy, is currently doing remarkably well. Unfortunately this collaborative working relationship has placed severe strains on the Iraqi relationship with both Turkey and the KRG, which controls much of northern Iraq.
Initial Turkish fears that the KRG would encourage Kurdish separatism proved unfounded and the relationship between Turkey and the KRG has become rather vibrant. Today there is “free flow of traffic and revenues” at the Iraqi-Turkish border, border security arrangements, and large-scale trade between Turkey and the KRG. The 2005 value of Turkish business contracts in the KRG was $200 million, which increased to $620 million in 2010. Trade between Turkey and the KRG was $12 billion in 2011 and Turkish ministers announced plans to increase this amount to $20 billion by 2015. The majority of KRG consumer goods imported are from Turkey and high-level Turkish businessmen attend the annual trade fairs.
Turkey can expect many benefits from this economic relationship, mostly dealing with the Kurdish issue and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) violence within Turkey. The economic ties give Turkey leverage over the KRG, which it has used to encourage the KRG to take a strong stand against PKK strongholds within Iraq. The other advantage, which is often overlooked, is the fact that the economic benefits from this cross-border trade are localized in the Turkish southeast. Economic growth and infrastructure development will help to drain support away from the PKK. Friendly relations with the KRG also allow Turkey to further its goal of becoming an oil transit hub.
The KRG receives economic benefits as well, which are of some consequence for the autonomous region. But the main benefit of a close relationship with Turkey is that a close alliance with Turkey places restraints on Iraqi action. At least that is the hope of the KRG leadership which fears a new dictatorship in Baghdad and a return to sectarian conflict in which the Kurds are on the losing side. President Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has even gone so far as to directly call Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a “dictator” and has asked the U.S. to block sales of F16s to Iraq fearing they could be used against the Kurds. Tensions have also grown thanks to a controversial oil deal reached between Exxon and the KRG last year.
The KRG is acting as a small, and essentially independent, state attempting to balance against its more aggressive neighbor (i.e. Baghdad) with a shift towards Turkey. This point shouldn’t be driven too far of course. The KRG is not entirely sovereign: it still receives most of its money, including oil revenues, from Baghdad. Turkey would probably be unable, and certainly unwilling, to foot any kind of bill to support the KRG.
This fact alone ensures that the KRG can only pull away from Baghdad up to a point and it’s unclear what Baghdad, or Turkey for that matter, would do if the KRG tried to move too far away from the central government. Baghdad would certainly try to block any independence move, although the military is probably too weak to really subdue the region. And Turkey would be unlikely to look with favor on such a radical move on the part of the KRG.
This implausibility, however, has not stopped a major deterioration in the relations between Turkey and Iraq. Maliki even went so far as to label Turkey a “hostile state” in April 2012. Turkey has also refused to extradite Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a political competitor of Maliki charged with running death squads, back to Iraq. Tensions between the two states are higher then at any point since the First Gulf War and the relationship is extremely strained. At this point, Turkey and Iraq are basically competing for influence/control over the KRG and, right now, it’s quite clear that Turkey is winning.
The concerns of each actor are profound and will not be resolved easily. Turkey fears the PKK and is seeking a way to end that threat once and for all—not a simple prospect. The KRG fears another Halabja and wants enough power and independence to prevent this and is unlikely to be mollified by half-measures or confidence-building measures given the number of times the Kurds have been left out to dry in the past. What Iraq wants, at this point, is unclear. Maliki may be on the road to a new dictatorship, in which case his goal would probably be some form of central control, but this is unclear and probably more medium to long-term, especially given the current weak state of the military. Short-term Maliki is likely seeking a more centralized control over the country particularly over the oil wealth. The ultimate goal of this plan, a dictatorship or simply a shift from an Articles-of-Confederation-style government to a Constitution-style government, is unclear. (For an excellent discussion of this point see Judith Yaphe’s article here).
Look forward to more articles covering more specific aspects of these issues, and others, in the near future.
Bonus: For more analysis on these issues see Matt’s Middle East Policy Council brief from May, titled “Iraq, Turkey, and the New Kurdistan Pipeline Deal.“