Turkey-KRG relations one year after Kurdish independence vote
More than a year after Iraqi Kurdistan's referendum on independence soured hitherto good ties with Turkey, relations are still very significant, particularly on the economic front. However, analysts anticipate that political relations are unlikely to once again become as close and cordial as they were before that referendum.
“Considering its current economic crisis resuming close economic relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, as they existed in the pre-referendum era, will be good for Turkey,” Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst, told Ahval.
“I don't think politically Turkey’s relations will be as they used to be, especially with Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP),” he said, referring to the former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. “But economically Turkey would like to take advantage of the region. Many Turkish companies have been very active in Kurdistan, especially in the western parts of the region where the KDP is the predominant party. To some extent, this is continuing and will likely continue and even get stronger since the Kurdistan region is too important economically for Turkey to ignore or let go.”
Economic ties between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey continued throughout the tense months following the referendum. While Ankara harshly condemned the KRG it never closed its border crossings with it in order to blockade the region, which Iran did from September 2017 to January 2018.
Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst and author of Musings on Iraq, believes that Ankara and the KRG “are set to repair their relationship” one year after it became strained during the referendum.
“While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was angry at the vote, he didn't put as many sanctions on the KRG as he could have,” Wing told Ahval. “Given that it was only natural that the two would eventually move back together.”
At present, economic ties between the KRG and Turkey are still very significant. Turkey's pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported this month that Turkey would “undertake the lion's share of infrastructure projects in northern Iraq”.
Turkey and the KRG also agreed to open a new international border crossing between the two, the first with the Kurdish province of Erbil, where the autonomous region's capital city is located.
“Two weeks ago there was an underground tunnel built in the Iraqi Kurdish border city of Zakho by a Turkish company,” Çiviroğlu said. Iraqi Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani “is very keen to improve relations and open doors for Turkish companies, construction and other, in the region. As a result, we can see the continuation of economic relations and maybe even improvement of relations overall.”
Wing agreed that Kurdistan was an important economic partner that Turkey did not want to lose.
For Turkey, the KDP, the predominant Kurdish party in Iraqi Kurdistan's western Erbil and Duhok provinces, remains “an important ally within Iraq and a counter to other Kurdish groups in the region”, Wing said.
“For the KDP, it's of utmost importance to maintain this ally as the KRG is economically dependent upon its northern neighbour for its oil exports, trade, and investment,” Wing said. “The referendum was more of a bump in the road than a lasting break between the two.”
Bilal Wahab, the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank, where his focus is on KRG governance, also sees the Turkish-KRG relationship improving, but does not see it reverting to its pre-referendum heights.
“Turkish-Iraq economic and security relations are improving, which enables Turkey to be less dependent on the KRG,” Wahab told Ahval.
Wahab is also sceptical that economic relations will return to pre-referendum heights since the KRG will no longer be the exclusive Iraqi market for Turkish investors.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kurdish referendum, Turkey's ultra-conservative press reported that Ankara was contemplating opening a new border crossing near the village of Ovaköy, where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet, to bypass and economically isolate the KRG, and trade directly with Iraq.
Ankara is exploring the feasibility of opening a crossing in that area today. Given that relations have thawed significantly since last year it is much less likely that Turkey is now seeking to isolate the KRG economically. It is more likely trying to lessen its sole dependence on that autonomous region for trade with the rest of Iraq. At present, it is unclear if this project will actually get off the ground anytime soon since the KRG still controls all of Iraq's border with Turkey.
Çiviroğlu does not see military and political relations between Ankara and Erbil improving anytime soon.
“In Turkey, there have been calls to carry out more operations against PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) bases in Iraqi Kurdistan,” he said. “This may lead to Turkey trying to get the KDP to help them in such an operation. Although this will unlikely be possible in the near future since Kurds are more careful not to allow themselves to fight one and another.”
Another major hurdle in the way of restoring Turkish-KRG relations to pre-referendum levels was the political fallout and the harsh words Erdoğan used against then Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani.
“The referendum in the mindset of Turkish leaders was a betrayal by Barzani, and Iraqi Kurds generally, so maybe political relations will never be as good as before,” Çiviroğlu said. “But still I think compared to Turkish and Syrian Kurds the Iraqi Kurds comparatively still enjoy better relations.”
Of course, compared to the PKK and other Kurdish groups that Turkey opposes outright the KDP will always be a favourable choice for Ankara and economic relations will likely endure.
The relationship between Turkey and the KDP is also much more cordial than the one between Ankara and the Patriotic Union Party (PUK), the most powerful party in Iraqi Kurdistan after the KDP.
In August 2017 Ankara expelled PUK representatives from Turkey after the PKK kidnapped Turkish intelligence agents in Sulaimani province, the PUK's main stronghold in Iraqi Kurdistan. Furthermore, while Turkey opened its airspace to Erbil International Airport, following Baghdad's lifting of the post-referendum flight ban over the Kurdistan region's airspace in March, it has not yet done the same for Sulaimani International Airport.
“The KRG is not the united front it once was, whereby the PUK's relationship with the PKK is not the same as the KDP's,” said Wahab. “This manifests in Turkey banning its flagship airlines from flying to Sulaimani.”
Çiviroğlu sees Turkey's refusal to reopen its airspace to air traffic going to Sulaimani as “an indicator of Turkish anger and displeasure with the PUK.”
He said the “PUK's warm relations with Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) in Turkey, and generally with the PKK, makes the PUK less favourable to Turkey.”
But now that Iraq is working to establish a new government, in which there has been consensus “about the designated prime minister, speaker of parliament and Barham Salih being elected president there is some gradual optimism in Baghdad”, he said.
In light of these developments, Çiviroğlu does not believe that Ankara would try to be a spoiler, “but instead may try and use these changes for its advantage, especially Barham Salih becoming president.”
Ankara may also “use these developments to reset relations with Iraq generally and the Kurdistan region in particular, especially Sulaimani which has been suffering from Turkey's closure of its airspace,” Çiviroğlu said.
The selection of Salih, a long-time PUK member, as Iraqi president was warmly welcomed by Ankara. İlnur Çevik, an advisor to Erdoğan, described Salih as a good ally of Turkey.
“Dr. Barham has always appreciated the importance of Turkey and has cherished the friendship of Ankara. Now we have a good ally in Baghdad just like Mam Jalal,” Çevik said in a recent editorial. Mam Jalal - Kurdish for 'Uncle Jalal' - is an endearing term many Kurds call the late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was also the leader of the PUK.
Such sentiments could signify that relations between Ankara and the PUK will be restored in the foreseeable future.
Wahab reasoned that while thawing the frozen relations between Ankara and the PUK “would be an opportunity for President Salih” he also argued that “what factors greater into PUK's calculation of cosier relations with the PKK is its rivalry with the KDP – one that has heightened since the referendum and recently over Iraq's presidency and election results.”
The KDP had sought to have its own candidate, Fuad Hussein, run as the next president of Iraq, a position traditionally reserved for the PUK, but lost that bid to Salih.
While Turkey's relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan successfully endured the worst crisis since its establishment a decade ago, it still has some ways to go before it completely normalises.