Turkey: Midwife for a Kurdish State?

By Ofra Bengio

If there is one country that has helped build a Kurdish entity in Iraqi Kurdistan it is Turkey. This assertion seems paradoxical in view of Ankara's traditional opposition to such an eventuality in Iraq and the well known pressures it applied on its allies, especially the United States, not to lend any support to the Kurds of Iraq because of the possible spillover effects on its own restive Kurds. Turkey's new stance appears even more paradoxical against the backdrop of the latest upheavals in the region and their contagious effects both on its own Kurds and those of Syria.

How is one to explain these paradoxes? First let us have a quick look at the facts on the ground. Since the 1991 Gulf War and much more so after the 2003 Gulf War Turkey has turned itself, slowly but surely, and against its better judgment, into the lifeline for Iraqi Kurdistan, which is led by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the euphemism for a Kurdish state in the making.

The slow change in Ankara's policy towards the KRG was not due to any altruistic considerations but for very pragmatic, down to earth ones. Immediately after the 1991 Gulf War and the crushing of the Kurdish uprising which ensued, Turkey was confronted with the problem of a million Kurdish refugees on its border. Unwilling to burden itself with another million Kurds, Turkey devised with the Allies the 'Provide Comfort' project for the fleeing Kurds to enable them to go back to their homes.

This plan, together with 'the no-fly zone' where the Iraqi army could not act against the Kurds, as well as the ruptured relations between Ankara and Baghdad due to the war, set in motion the schizophrenic relations that would develop between Turkey and the KRG.

Receive email alerts

[+] More

On the one hand Turkey was extremely apprehensive of the possible contagious effects of the KRG on its own Kurds, hence Ankara's attempts to thwart any political and diplomatic gains by the KRG. On the other hand Ankara did its best to reap the fruits of its relations with the emerging entity, one of the most important of which were economic gains. This approach turned the Kurdistan Region into a huge investment area for Turkish companies whose number reached around 900 by 2012 and amounted to half of the companies acting in the KRG.

To this list one should add other large business, cultural and social ventures which turned the KRG into an undeclared Turkish sphere of influence. The net result was that no less than seven percent of Turkish exports went to the KRG.

Ankara's thirst for oil and gas and the pressure brought to bear on it to stop importing from Iran go a long way to explain the surprising pipeline deal it cut with the KRG on May 20, 2012, without the approval of the central government in Baghdad. If it materializes, the deal, which envisaged the building of two oil pipelines and one gas pipeline from the Kurdistan Region to Turkey, might give further boost to Kurdish aspirations for independence.

Interestingly, the Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Taner Yildiz, declared on that occasion that 'Turkey should also be considered as the Regional Kurdish Government's gateway to the West.'

A second important aim for developing these relations was the hope that the KRG would help in solving Turkey's own acute Kurdish domestic problem, namely the ongoing attacks which the armed Turkish Kurdish PKK continued to launch against Turkish state targets.

However, Ankara's hope that the KRG would fight against, or at least contain the PKK, whose bases are found in Iraqi Kurdistan, was not fulfilled. The third and perhaps most important consideration was Ankara's need to attune itself to the region's changing geostrategic map, which pushed it to act according to the dictum 'my enemy's enemy is my friend.'

1 | 2 | Next Page››

Prof. Ofra Bengio is head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.

Sponsored Links
Related Articles
June 12, 2012
Australia Is Not Just a Lucky Country - Julia Gillard
June 5, 2012
The End of Counterinsurgency - George Friedman
Ofra Bengio
Author Archive