Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Turkey's Changing Relations with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Turkey's Changing Relations with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government

Article excerpt

Turkish policymakers have always been uneasy about the Kurdish nationalist movement in northern Iraq, fearing that it might encourage Turkey's Kurdish citizens to take similar steps and lead them towards establishing an autonomous structure within Turkey or even an independent Kurdish state. Especially in the aftermath of the 1958 coup, which overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, Turkey began to feel concerned that the political uncertainty in Iraq would provide a favorable environment for the Iraqi Kurdish nationalist movement to flourish. During this period, Mustafa Barzani called for the Kurds of Iran and Turkey to join forces in a common struggle.1 As a result of the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion in the early 1960s, Turkish policymakers pursued a cautious policy, and they supported the Iraqi regime's efforts to suppress the Kurdish rebellions in Iraq in the decades that followed.

Turkey' s uneasiness about the developments in northern Iraq increased with the beginning of the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, PKK) against Turkey in the early 1980s. Since then, Turkish policymakers have perceived northern Iraq as an area where the PKK found easy refuge and Iraqi Kurds as actors providing help and support for the PKK. Thus, throughout the 1980s, they pursued a policy of cooperation with the Iraqi regime against both countries' Kurdish nationalist movements. The hot pursuit agreement signed between Turkey and Iraq in 1984, which allowed Turkish and Iraqi armed forces to cross the border into each other's territory in order to follow criminals, was a good example of this situation. Furthermore, since the early 1980s, cross-border operations into northern Iraq have been a significant aspect of Turkey's counterinsurgency policy against the PKK. Although Turkey made an effort to seek the alliance of the Iraqi Kurdish leaders in its fight against the PKK in the early 1990s, both the Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish actors could not completely get over their distrust towards each other. On one hand, during this period, Turkish policymakers worked with Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani as allies in the struggle with the PKK, granted diplomatic passports to these Iraqi Kurdish leaders, and allowed them to open representative offices in Ankara. On the other hand, Turkish policymakers' concerns about the possibility of an independent Kurdish state persisted as the Iraqi Kurds gradually established a regional government in northern Iraq.2

Although Turkey' s concerns about northern Iraq decreased to some extent in the aftermath of PKK founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan's capture and imprisonment in 1999, this period did not last long, and the US. war in Iraq in 2003 provided new opportunities both for the Iraqi Kurds and the PKK. Eventually, in 2004, the PKK ended its unilateral ceasefire (which the PKK had declared after Ocalan's capture), encouraged both by new political developments in Iraq as well as by Turkey's failure to find a lasting solution to its Kurdish issue. At this point, the PKK relaunched its attacks against Turkey, and the PKK presence in northern Iraq once again began to occupy a significant place on Turkey' s security agenda.

Despite this troubled background in Turkey' s relations with the Iraqi Kurds, there has been a sweeping change in Turkey's northern Iraq policy from the mid-2000s onwards. In a period of a few years, the Iraqi Kurds turned into Turkey' s economic partners; Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), began to play an important role in Turkey' s efforts to resolve its Kurdish question through political means; and Turkey allied with the KRG against the rise of Syrian Kurds in the ongoing Syrian civil war. This is a very interesting turn of events, given Turkey's perception of northern Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds as an existential threat to its national security for several decades. This article analyzes the major causes of this change in Turkish foreign policy and discusses the prospects for the future of Turkey-KRG relations. …

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