Evolution of Turkey - Iraqi Kurdistan’s Relations

The article rethinks Turkish-Kurdish relations in the context of Kurdistan’s referendum for statehood. There has been a growing perception among informed observers of Middle Eastern affairs that Turkey has recalibrated its foreign policy towards the Iraqi Kurds’ ambitions for statehood.
20 December 2017
Iraq, Turkey forces in joint drills after Kurdish vote [Getty Images]

The article rethinks Turkish-Kurdish relations in the context of Kurdistan’s referendum for statehood. In recent years, there has been a growing per-ception among informed observers of Middle Eastern affairs that Turkey has recalibrated its foreign policy towards the Iraqi Kurds’ ambitions for statehood.(1) Such observers were perplexed when Turkey steadfastly opposed the Iraqi Kurdish push for a referendum on independence.  The article advances a twofold argument. Firstly, if anything, recent months have shown that despite difficulties in the relationship that it has with Baghdad, Turkey still values the territorial integrity of Iraq more than its close ties to Erbil. Moreover, and secondly, the episode prior and in the aftermath of the referendum has also illustrated that what was previously been depicted as very close ties between Turkey and Kurdistan region seems to have missed a key point: the two parties do not seem to have gone beyond a fragile transactional relationship.(2)


There are many factors in Turkey's policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan's inde-pendence referendum. The first is Turkey’s default position, which is to support the territorial integrity of countries to its east and southeast. The fact that Kurds almost uninterruptedly populate the belt lying along Tur-key's southern and southeastern borders has been one of the main moti-vations for Turkey to uphold the principle of territorial integrity in its neighborhood so tenaciously. For instance, while any irredentist claims between its Middle Eastern neighbours causes alarm and consternation in Ankara, the same does not apply to its western border. The breakup of Yugoslavia or the emergence of countries like Kosovo caused much con-cern. To the contrary, Turkey welcomed the new states. In fact, when the Kosovo provisional government unilaterally declared independence from Serbia without even holding a referendum, Turkey was among the first group of states in extending recognition to this new state. The major dif-ference in Turkey's ambiguous approach to state break-up along its western borders and its alarm when it happens along its southeastern borders is due to Turkey's ever-present Kurdish issue.

The ‘Golden Era’ in Turkey–KRG relations

However, for a while Turkey's default position, particularly towards the Iraqi Kurds, appeared to be changing. The thaw in Turkey–KRG relations occurred around 2008. Besides the de-securitisation of the Middle East and the Kurdish issue, burgeoning economic and trade ties between Tur-key and the KRG were major contributors to a positive turn in relations. In fact, by 2009–10 Iraq featured among Turkey’s top three trading partners. This received a further boost when Turkey also sought to resolve its own domestic Kurdish issue through peaceful and political means. Despite some interruptions, this policy continued in the 2009–2015 period. The sectarianisation of the region’s politics and the power of Shia parties and Iranian influence in Baghdad further cemented relations.

During this period, personal bonds between President Recp Tayyip Er-dogan and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani appeared to be solid. In the context of improved relations, the two sides reached higher levels of interdependence in economic, political and ener-gy issues.This was an asymmetric interdependency. Kurdistan’s level of dependence on Turkey was greater than the other way around.  In fact, this created concern in regional capitals like Baghdad and Tehran as well as in Washington. Turkey has been the Iraqi Kurds' gateway to the rest of the world. Despite the opposition of the central Iraqi government, Kurdish oil flows to international markets through Turkey. During times of eco-nomic difficulty, Turkey has also provided much-needed economic sup-port to Iraqi Kurdistan.

All these developments have generated questions as to whether Turkey had changed its position on the Kurdish aspiration for statehood in Iraq. Turkey played a crucial role in helping the KRG to lay the foundations for its economic independence from Baghdad. When pro-Iranian former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki cut Iraqi Kurds' share—17 percent—of the national budget, the KRG tried to make up for this loss by independently selling its oil onto the international market. This move, which was facilitated by Tur-key, was seen as a major step towards economic sovereignty. Likewise, during the fight with ISIS, Iraqi Kurds effectively acquired most of the ter-ritories that were designated as disputed between the central government and Erbil. These disputed territories were supposed to be resolved ac-cording to Articles 140 and 119 of the Iraqi constitution by no later than December 31, 2007.(4) The more ground ISIS lost, the more Kurds recov-ered what they considered to be part of a projected state of Kurdistan—claims disputed by the Baghdad government. The KRG has since 2016 expanded its territory by more than 40 percent. This was a direct result of the victorious fight against ISIS.(5) At the time, Turkey either kept silent or offered low-key criticism of the Iraqi Kurds' territorial expansion. More-over, Turkish officials - starting with Erdogan - changed their discourse over Kurdish ambitions for statehood, which they framed as an internal Iraqi dispute only two years ago. Many, including the Iraqi Kurdish lead-ership, interpreted this as Turkey's tacit acquiescence to Kurdish inde-pendence.

The Independence Referendum: A Stress Test of Relationships

Yet these expectations proved to be ill conceived. Leaders ( including Barzani, the president of the Iraqi KRG in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish re-gion announced to the world that the northern territory would hold an in-dependence referendum on September 25, 2017.To scuttle this move, it has pursued, though very belatedly, a policy of active diplomacy. It has since September visited the Iraqi Kurdish leadership at foreign minister and chief of intelligence level to dissuade them from proceeding ahead with this move, and has also engaged with Iran and the central Iraqi gov-ernment. When these visits did not bear the desired outcome, President Erdogan broke his silence on this issue, adopting an increasingly acrimo-nious language on the subject.

However, like the United States,(6) Turkey's diplomacy was stillborn for two reasons. First, it came too late. Barzani was voicing his intention of holding an independence referendum for more than a year; and the KRG set a date for the independence referendum on June 7. Turkey embarked on an active diplomacy to dissuade the Kurds from holding the referen-dum only weeks before the set date for the referendum.(7) At this stage, it was no longer palatable for the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, and particularly Barzani, to accept this demand in terms of domestic political considera-tion. If accepted without any meaningful concessions from the central Iraqi government (which was not forthcoming), this would have signifi-cantly weakened Barzani domestically. Nevertheless, (with the benefit of hindsight) the fact that Barzani had to step down after the referendum clearly backfired. This shows that he, too, miscalculated his options.(8)

Second, Turkey's plea for the postponement of the referendum was not accompanied by a viable alternative offer either.(9) Though Turkey voiced its readiness to mediate between Erbil and Baghdad on legitimate Kurdish demands, it did not put forward any viable and concrete proposal to settle the dispute. Moreover, the prospect of Turkey offering anything concrete to alleviate the Kurdish grievances vis-à-vis Baghdad was already very limited. For, Turkey had little leverage, if any, over the central govern-ment, which made it unlikely for Ankara to be able to play the role of a strong mediator between the sides.

The question that was still on many observers’ mind was the following: Given the nature of relations between Ankara and Erbil in recent years, why has Turkey been so opposed to the Kurdish independence referen-dum and prospect of Kurdish statehood.  Alternatively, why didn’t Turkey try to explore another option that could still prevent the Kurdish independ-ence while not playing into the hands of the central government and Iran?

Turkey’s Concerns over Kurdish Statehood

First, with the break-down of the Kurdish peace process and the subse-quent urban warfare that took place in 2015–16, the Turkish government began once again securitising the Kurdish issue, alongside the securiti-sation of the Middle East as a whole.(10) The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has done its utmost to change perceptions of the Middle East in Turkey. For a long time, the Middle East was largely regarded through the prism of a security threat. It was seen as the geog-raphy of Kurdish separatism, 'Islamic radicalism' and backwardness. Up-on coming to power, the AK Party gradually worked to de-securitise these perceptions of the Middle East through economic engagement. Domesti-cally, this has been accompanied by a new approach to the Kurdish issue and Kurds: adopting a more political and civilian approach rather than a security one.

In recent years, we have witnessed the reversal of this politics of desecu-ritisation, both towards the Middle East and the Kurdish issue. The break-down of state authority, the rise of extremist groups, the Kurdistan Work-ers’ Party (PKK)-Democratic Union Party (PYD) gains in Syria and Iraq, and the pressure that this has put on Turkey's border and internal securi-ty have culminated in a change of approach to the Middle East.

Moreover, the AKP- nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) alliance  and its leader Devlet Bahçeli in the run up to Turkey's constitutional ref-erendum on an executive presidency seems to have had a significant im-pact on the country’s foreign and domestic policy.(11) President Erdogan and the AKP are determined to hold onto this alliance in the run-up to Turkey's three crucial elections in 2019.(12) The implication of this—accompanied by the new type of statism that is prevailing in Ankara—would be a regressive 'Bahçeli effect' on Turkey's domestic and foreign policy. Given the centrality of the Kurdish issue to the political identity of the MHP, it is plausible to argue that in no policy area will the impact of this alliance be felt as strongly as it is on the Kurdish issue and the gov-ernment’s approach to the regional Kurds.

For this domestic policy consideration, Erdogan’s preference would have been not to be forced to have a stance on the Kurdish independence de-bate. In other words, Erdogan’s first choice would have been not to be forced to make a choice. His hope and calculations were probably pinned on the assumption that the referendum would be postponed. Because ei-ther decision he makes would carry political cost for him, particularly in the run up to the 2019. The coalition that made it possible for the constitu-tional referendum, which changed Turkey’s parliamentary-centric political system to that of the executive presidency, to pass on 16 April was also a factor that put him in a difficult position to take a clear stance on the ref-erendum. Both the additional Kurdish and nationalist Turkish voters were crucial for the passage of the referendum with only 51,4 percent of the votes. Erdogan wants to preserve these voting blocs while going for the contests of 2019. He can ill-afford to lose any component of this bloc. In this respect, his strong rejection of the referendum would have alienated the Kurdish voters (particularly the conservative and Islamist Kurds who generally vote for the conservative-Islamic party, currently AK Party). Whereas his silence would have had the same impact on the Turkish na-tionalist voters. When Barzani decided to go forward with the referendum, he had to take a clear stance, as a result of which he was ready to sacri-fice some part of his conservative Kurdish electoral base.

Regionally, the closer the referendum date got, the clearer the positions of regional and international actors have become. At the regional level, Iran has emerged as the most vocal opponent of the independence refer-endum, whereas Israel has become the only vocal proponent of Kurdish independence. Turkey has allied itself with ?ran and the central Iraqi gov-ernment on this issue.  Moreover, while some actors tellingly spoke out, for others, they were recognisable by their relative silence on the issue. Gulf countries are examples of regional actors that have maintained rela-tive silence. Saudi Arabia's minister of Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan visited Barzani and offered mediation between Erbil and Baghdad. The United Arab Emirates kept silent on this issue. This regional picture sheds light on post-Arab Spring regional realignments. The fact that Isra-el is publicly supporting Kurdish independence and Gulf Arab states are not opposing it seems to be further strengthening the Iranian and Turkish opposition to the independence referendum, given the acrimonious nature of relations between them. To be more precise, whereas it was Turkey’s identity-crisis that was largely at play on the Kurdish independence refer-endum. Turkey has not still crafted a notion of an identity which can ac-commodate “Kurdishness”. For Iran, it was the regime’s insecurity that was one of the paramount factors that motivated the Islamic Republic to strongly oppose and quash the Kurdish bid for independence. In other words, what was seen as more threatening from Iran’s perspective was the geopoliticalidentity of a would be Kurdistan. That would place a more or less Western-leaning alliance made up of the U.S., Israel, and Gulf countries  on Iran’s borders. The Iranian regime views this scenario with much apprehension, a threat to regime-security.  This issue also reflects the regional divide that has become more evident with the Qatari crisis. In fact, the recent thaw in Turkish–Iranian relations has been facilitated not by shared interests, but rather by shared concerns. Of the list of shared concerns, the rise of the Kurds of the region tops the list. The same logic applies to Turkish–Iranian pro-Qatari positions during the Gulf crisis. Both countries were concerned about the intentions of the Arab–Gulf coalition that imposed a blockade on Qatar.

The above-mentioned factors have formed a background of forceful Turk-ish reactions to the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum. Beside a powerful discourse, Turkey has tried to express its dissatisfaction with the referendum through several means prior to the event. The Turkish Armed Forces launched a series of military exercises on September 18 outside the town of Silopi, which sits less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the intersection of Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s leadership also sent clear messages that diplomatic, economic and secu-rity options would be implemented if the referendum was not cancelled. Turkey even agreed with Iran and Iraq to consider taking “coordinated counter-measures” against the KRG’s bid to hold the independence refer-endum at a trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in New York. However, none of these warnings dissuaded the Iraqi Kurds from holding the refer-endum on September 25, which received around 93 percent of public sup-port for independence, with a voter turnout of 72 percent. .

In the aftermath of the referendum, despite Turkey’s strong rhetoric, it did not undertake many consequential concrete measures. In fact, it was not what Turkey did; rather it was what Turkey did not do that counted more during this crisis. To be more precise, Turkey not opposing to Iraq-Iran’s plans in the aftermath of the referendum proved to be fateful. At this stage, it appears that most of what Turkey has demanded for normalisa-tion of the relations with the KRG after the referendum has happened. Baghdad took control over disputed territories including Kirkuk.  The KRG accepted the Iraqi federal court’s verdict of annulling the referendum. Probably, Baghdad soon will also co-administer the KRG’s border cross-ings and airports. On top of this, the architect of the referendum Mesut Barzani stepped down from his position as president of the Kurdistan re-gion. In his place, his nephew Nechervan Barzani, which was one of the primary architects behind Turkey - Kurdistan relations, stepped onto the political stage. All this is providing the ground for re-normalisation. How-ever, this re-normalisation will not be swift. It will be a slow and gradual process. The relations are unlikely to go where they were before the ref-erendum. Recovery will take times. However, the speed and evolution of the relations or recovery will not be only dependent on the bilateral Tur-key - KRG relations, but also on Turkey - Iraq and/or Turkey - Iran rela-tions. If Turkey feels that it is unlikely to gain anything meaningful (be it in the form of fighting the PKK, oil or reconstruction contracts) from cen-tral government and Iran for sacrificing the KRG and Barzani, it is then likely to reconsider its recent policy. It will remain to be see if by then, Turkey’s leverage will have been weakened.  

In short, all this has demonstrated that despite the difficulty of the relation-ship that it has with Baghdad, Turkey still values the territorial integrity of Iraq more than its once very close ties with Erbil. But the episode prior and in the aftermath of the referendum has also illustrated that what was previously been depicted as a very close ties between Turkey and Kurdi-stan region seems to haven’t gone beyond a fragile transactional rela-tionships.



(1)   Paul Iddon, “What does Turkey have to fear about Kurdish Indpendence?” http://www.rudaw.net/english/analysis/07072017 , 8/7/2017[retrieved 14/12/2017]

(2)   For another work that rethinks Turkish-Kurdish relations see, Mustafa Gurbuz 2016. Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey: Transforming Ethnic Conflict. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

(3)   A much shorter version of this piece was published by German Marshall Fund of the United States

(4)   To see an analysis of Iraq’s post invasion constitution, see Jawad, Saad, 2013. “The Iraqi constitu-tion: structual flaws and political implications.” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, 01. LSE Middle East Centre, London, UK.

(5)   See, In fight against Islamic State, Kurds expand their territory, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-kurds-land/ (Accessed: 21 Novem-ber 2017)

(6)   On U.S. policy, see Marc Lynch, Securing the Peace After the Fall of ISIL, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [ incomplete citation: year? Link if any?]

(7)   On the miscalculations in the run up to the referendum, see Galip Dalay, After the Kurdish Independence Referen-dum, Foreign Affairs [incomplete citation: year of publication? ]

(8)   Ibid.

(9)   Ibid.

(10) See Akin Unver, Turkey and the Kurds, charting the end of a peace process, Financial Times, 25 May 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/9f06f0cc-1b85-11e6-b286-cddde55ca122 (accessed: 22 November 2017)

(11) See Galip Dalay, "Erdogan's Fragile Referendum Coalition", Foreign Affairs, 9 May 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2017-05-09/erdogans-fragile-referendum-coalition [re-trieved: 15/12/2017]

(12) Ibid.