On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, relations among Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been dramatically transformed for the better. While this report examines the change in relations and what led to the improvements, it also argues that grounds remain for continued concern, as sustained attention is needed on the eve of the U.S. military’s departure to prevent events from undermining the progress achieved to date.
- In August 2009, the Turkish government announced that it would undertake a major initiative toward Turkey’s Kurdish minority. In addition to being a major development in the long saga of Turkey’s relations with its sizeable Kurdish minority, this initiative, known as the “democratic opening,” is also a testament to the distance the Turkish government has traveled in its policy toward Iraq.
- Turkey, which had once spearheaded opposition to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is implementing a 180-degree turn in its policy toward the KRG. It is developing close economic and political ties with the KRG, and the two are collaborating on a gamut of issues, including efforts to pacify the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
- At the heart of these changes lay a confluence of developments. They include the new geopolitics of the region, the new foreign policy conception of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s domestic institutional context, changing perceptions within Turkey of the domestic Kurdish question, and efforts by key individual actors within Turkey.
- On the geopolitical level, the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has helped shift Turkey’s approach to Iraq. Whether it is part and parcel of a conscious strategy by Ankara, Turkey’s ability to influence events on the ground is greatest in northern Iraq. In Baghdad, Turkey has to contend with not just American competition but, far more significantly, the Iranian presence. Ironically, any increase in Turkish influence in the KRG translates into more in Baghdad because of the Kurds’ critical role in Iraq’s capital.
- On the foreign policy level, the AKP took advantage of the vacuum created by the war in Iraq and began to fashion itself as a regional power. In a policy that some have come to call "neo-Ottomanism," Turkey is expanding the contours of its influence in regions that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq.
- On the domestic institutional level, the Turkish military is still decisive on some matters, but the government has far more say than ever before in questions relating to national security. Indeed, the AKP wishes to resolve the Kurdish issue partly because doing so will curtail the military’s vast prerogatives and in the process protect the party’s own future from "meddlesome generals."
- On the societal level, there is a deep sense of war fatigue in Turkey, especially in the Kurdish southeast. There the pressure is for political activism rather than armed struggle.
- On an individual level, key actors within the Turkish military and intelligence community have come to realize that after twenty-five years of fighting, a strategy solely dependent on violence is unlikely to subdue the PKK or resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question.
- For all of Turkey’s newfound enthusiasm toward Iraq, the collapse of the Kurdish reform proposals in Turkey could have very serious ramifications for relations between Iraq and Turkey. It would both obviate the PKK’s need to demilitarize itself and, more importantly, lead to increased violence in Turkey’s Kurdish areas, which would complicate Ankara-Erbil relations.
- Both Washington and Ankara want to see a transition toward a stable and unified Iraqi political entity that is pluralistic and well on its way to improving the economic lot of its people.
- Among the recommendations presented herein, the United States should help keep the Turkish-KRG relationship on track; open a consulate in Erbil; build government capacity in the north; emphasize that it does not wish to leave a PKK presence in the KRG after its departure; be more inclusive of Turkish diplomats in Iraq in this period of transition; and help to improve and develop joint commercial ventures and hydrocarbon routes among Turkey, Iraq, and the KRG.
About the Report
On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, relations among Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been dramatically transformed for the better. While this report examines the change in relations and what led to the improvements, it also argues that grounds remain for continued concern, as sustained attention is needed on the eve of the U.S. military’s departure to prevent events from undermining the progress achieved to date. In this respect, this report reflects on an earlier USIP report written by this author titled Turkey and Iraq: The Perils (and Prospects) of Proximity that called attention to the dangers of the then deteriorating relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds to Turkey’s future political stability, Iraq’s unity, and U.S. interests.
Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen Professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Since 2004, he has been an adviser to the Institute‘s work on Iraq and its neighbors. This essay is drawn from forthcoming work on Iraq‘s regional relations, co-edited by Barkey, Scott Lasensky, and Phebe Marr.