The Middle East Channel

Under the radar rapprochement: Turkey and Iraqi Kurds

As if the Turkish government didn’t have enough on its agenda amid the flotilla fallout, Iran’s nuclear program, and plummeting relations with Washington, late last week Turkey raided Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq. Turkish warplanes allegedly bombed targets across the border and deployed elite commandos to hunt insurgents on the ground, killing more than ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As if the Turkish government didn't have enough on its agenda amid the flotilla fallout, Iran's nuclear program, and plummeting relations with Washington, late last week Turkey raided Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq. Turkish warplanes allegedly bombed targets across the border and deployed elite commandos to hunt insurgents on the ground, killing more than 100 Kurdish fighters and suffering 43 losses of its own.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which rules the semiautonomous region of northern Iraq where the incursion took place, has been noticeably quiet in the aftermath of this dust-up. Despite a long history of animosity, it turns out that Turkey and the KRG largely agree on the need to snuff out rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK. And the Kurdish government's silence speaks volumes about just how solid this consensus is.

As if the Turkish government didn’t have enough on its agenda amid the flotilla fallout, Iran’s nuclear program, and plummeting relations with Washington, late last week Turkey raided Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq. Turkish warplanes allegedly bombed targets across the border and deployed elite commandos to hunt insurgents on the ground, killing more than 100 Kurdish fighters and suffering 43 losses of its own.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which rules the semiautonomous region of northern Iraq where the incursion took place, has been noticeably quiet in the aftermath of this dust-up. Despite a long history of animosity, it turns out that Turkey and the KRG largely agree on the need to snuff out rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. And the Kurdish government’s silence speaks volumes about just how solid this consensus is.

During a recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, we learned that cooperation against the PKK is just one of the many signs of a major rapprochement between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds over the past several years. This quiet and remarkable shift comes after decades in which Turkey sought to suppress any move toward autonomy among Iraq’s Kurds, fearing that a push for independence could lead to similar aspirations among Turkey’s own Kurdish population. But as Turkey’s domestic policy on "the Kurdish Question" has grown more accommodating, so has its external policy toward Iraqi Kurdistan. Simultaneously, the Kurdistan Regional Government has increasingly opened its doors to foreign investment and pursued an active foreign policy largely independent of Baghdad — including toward Turkey.

In one of the most important signs of improving ties, this spring Turkey established a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan — essentially a pseudo-embassy to conduct direct diplomacy with the KRG without involving the central Iraqi government. Consulates in Erbil are hardly unique given that more than a dozen other countries have a diplomatic presence in Iraq outside Baghdad. But the historical enmity between the Turks and the Kurds makes it remarkable. Even more notable, Turkey assigned one of its star diplomats to the consular position: Aydin Selcen, a bright, smooth, and experienced operator who has served in both Baghdad and Washington. Selcen’s mandate extends beyond the traditional consular duties of protecting citizens and issuing visas to include political and security issues.

Turkey’s diplomatic and business presence in northern Iraq has also surged dramatically in the last several years. More than 1,000 Turkish companies now do business in Kurdistan, an area only a bit larger than Maryland, and Kurdish officials estimate that well over half of foreign investment is Turkish — not Iranian, American, or Chinese.  As one Kurdish leader explained to us during a recent trip to the region, the Iraqi Kurds have come to see the burgeoning economic relations with Turkey as "an investment in our own security."

Indeed, the rise in cooperation is no accident. It reflects significant political efforts by both parties to build a stable, long-term relationship based on enduring mutual interests. Both sides see economic opportunities. Both are keen to limit Iranian influence in northern Iraq. Both are wary of too much power accumulating in Baghdad. And both have a stake in protecting the region from terrorists — notably the PKK.

For its part, the KRG has embraced the Turkish presence. Selcen enjoys direct, high-level access to Kurdish leaders, and the Kurds have appointed Sinan Chalabi, a dual Iraqi-Turkish citizen to run the ministry of trade and industry, facilitating communication and coordination with Turkish businesses and the Turkish government. On a recent visit to Ankara, almost every key Turkish political leader made time to meet with Chalabi, again suggesting the emergence of a strategic partnership rather than a short-term tactical accommodation.

Where is the United States in all of this? Despite its recent squabbles with Turkey, the two countries continue to engage in low-profile cooperation with the KRG. This includes U.S. participation in tripartite security negotiations and, if reports are to be believed, provision of intelligence to Turkey about the PKK positions in northern Iraq. All three governments seem to recognize the benefits of cooperation, even though the Turks clearly have a more robust diplomatic and economic presence in northern Iraq than do the Americans.

As the United States draws down its forces in the rest of Iraq, of course, Turkish-Kurdish cooperation could stumble. Nevertheless, warming relations between the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds serve as a reminder that every once in a long while, the fault lines in the Middle East can shift beneath our feet — even where supposedly ancient hatreds run deep.

Mara E. Karlin is a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Caitlin Talmadge is a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They recently returned from the Kurdistan region of Iraq as part of a delegation formed by the Center for a New American Security.

Mara Karlin is an associate professor of the practice of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She worked for five U.S. secretaries of defense.

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