The Middle East Channel
Turkey’s Kurdish cards
Turkey’s air strikes in recent weeks in search of Partiye Karkaren Kurdistane (PKK) insurgents along the Iraqi Kurdish border have fueled a growing crisis. They have caused civilian deaths and displacements, raising criticisms by human rights organizations, local populations, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and even the Baghdad Parliament. This predicament has not only undermined ...
Turkey’s air strikes in recent weeks in search of Partiye Karkaren Kurdistane (PKK) insurgents along the Iraqi Kurdish border have fueled a growing crisis. They have caused civilian deaths and displacements, raising criticisms by human rights organizations, local populations, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and even the Baghdad Parliament. This predicament has not only undermined possibilities for negotiating Turkey’s Kurdish problem, but has also heightened tensions among Kurdish groups in Iraq and the region.
Still, complaints against Turkish incursions will continue to be checked by concomitant demands to control the PKK, assure regional security, and guarantee shared economic interests. The military interventions may therefore have less effect than expected on the alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, but may further fragment cross-border Kurdish groups and encourage regional unrest.
Turkish military interventions should come as no surprise to a region where the PKK is still active and borders are highly porous. They have been occurring sporadically for over two decades, since the Government of Turkey signed a hot pursuit agreement with Baghdad to search and seize terrorists along the northern Iraqi border area. That security agreement did not necessarily include bombing campaigns that violated Iraqi sovereignty, but aerial incursions were tacitly recognized by regional states with Kurdish populations of their own. They also were tolerated by the Iraqi Government, which had insufficient resources and checked political authority to monitor its northern air space.
The security pact eventually became part of a leveraged deal between Ankara and the KRG as well. In exchange for shared communications and border security assistance, Iraqi Kurds were given access to an open Turkish border that provided them with humanitarian goods and lucrative profits from the food-for-fuel smuggling trade. Given the double embargo placed on the Kurdish north at the time, it was in KRG’s interest to maintain the deal with Turkey, which had become a lifeline to the landlocked northern region. The need for a security pact also reflected the shifting geography of the PKK. After being expelled from its Beqaa Valley base in Syria in 1998, the PKK relocated to the Kurdish safe haven, where it re-established training camps and military operations in the mountainous regions, as well as offices in Iraqi Kurdish towns and cities.
A triangular relationship soon emerged between Ankara, Iraqi Kurds, and the PKK that created a more regionalized Kurdish problem, although one that each party has used to its advantage. Ankara could pursue the PKK in Iraq with reluctant assistance from the KRG. Iraqi Kurds could keep minimal PKK forces in their region to leverage Turkey and regional security interests. The PKK could use its new base to exert pressure on uncooperative regional states and mobilize or oppose fellow Kurds. Even then, the relationship — and the nature and timing of Turkish cross-border interventions — was largely defined by Turkey’s own Kurdish problem that waxed and waned between ceasefires and renewed conflict between Ankara and the PKK.
Although unable to resolve its internal Kurdish problem, Turkey has increased its leverage over Iraqi Kurds, and its ability to maneuver the PKK issue. With the creation of a federal Iraqi state Turkey has become a key source of investment in the Kurdistan region, alongside the KRG and its affiliated families. Turkey not only provides Iraqi pipelines access to European energy markets via its Ceyhan port, but continues to control the only legally open border point for commercial trade into the Kurdish north. Turkey’s guardianship role over the Kurdistan region, alongside its growing position as a regional security policeman, has allowed Ankara to pursue the PKK unilaterally without legal or political sanction from Arbil or Baghdad. In fact, the more embedded Turkey has become in the Kurdistan region, the more autonomy it has gained in influencing PKK activities outside its borders.
To be sure, the KRG has attempted to differentiate its economic and political interests with Kurdish nationalist demands, both internally and across borders. It has closed down PKK offices inside urban centers and condemned all forms of terrorism. While calling on the PKK and its Iranian Kurdish affiliate, The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), to cease all military operations, Iraqi Kurdish officials have also assured the PKK that they will not send their peshmerga (militia) to the border area to fight their Kurdish brethren. Kurdish President Mas’ud Barzani reiterated to the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament last week that if Turkey fails to control the PKK, the KRG would "not want to be part of this fight."
Yet given its satellite status with Turkey and position as an emerging energy market, the KRG may indeed have to become part of the PKK fight. In contrast to the 1990s, when Iraqi Kurds had little to lose from internal instability, the political and financial stakes today are much higher, and the dependencies far deeper. Not only does the KRG have to protect its special status in Iraq and alliance with Turkey, but it has to assure regional states and the international community that it is serious about combating terrorism and keeping its region safe for investment. Protecting these security and financial interests will become increasingly salient as the United States withdraws its combat forces from Iraq, and Turkey asserts greater influence in the region.
As long as the Kurdish problem in Turkey remains unresolved and the PKK can use the Kurdistan region as a base, Turkish military incursions in the northern Iraqi border area are likely to continue. Similarly, as discrepancies become increasingly evident between Iraqi Kurdish autonomy and Kurdish claims across borders, the Kurdistan region will continue to attract and repel Kurdish dissidents. Instead of disengaging from these cross-border conflicts, the KRG may find itself in the uncomfortable position of clamping down further on radical Kurdish nationalists in support of its own interests and its regional allies.
Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse University Press, 2010). The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.