Why Turkey-KRG ties will likely trump Kurdish solidarity
BEIRUT // The government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region is in an awkward position after Turkey resumed strikes against the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, ending a ceasefire in place since 2013.
Despite a bitter past, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was thrown into de facto alliances with both Turkey and the PKK in recent years.
In the space of a decade, Iraq’s Kurds went from fearing that a Turkish invasion would crush their hopes for independence to becoming strong economic partners with Ankara.
Despite initial mutual suspicion, Turkey quickly found the oil-rich, landlocked and relatively peaceful KRG a ripe market for trade. And in Turkey, the KRG found a destination for its oil. Both sides benefited.
After the KRG solidified control over northern Iraq in the years following the 2003 US invasion, the PKK retained a presence in the Qandil Mountains — which extend into Turkey — where they launched attacks on Turkish forces. Most other Kurds in Iraq had let go of this fight, settling for the autonomy and prosperity won after years of persecution. The more radical PKK were unwanted guests in the KRG and the two sides did not get along. But the KRG did little to bother them and the PKK kept their troubles confined to the remote, mountainous border region.
But when ISIL began launching major assaults on Iraqi Kurdistan last year, the KRG and PKK found themselves fighting as allies on strained front lines. The KRG allowed the PKK to move forces and weapons out of its secluded bases and across Iraqi Kurdistan to aid in the defence and the PKK played an important role in protecting Mount Sinjar on the border with Syria.
As ISIL’s attacks against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria expanded, long-standing and sometimes violent intra-Kurdish rivalries gave way to a unified front to protect the ethnic group. The PKK, its Syrian affiliate YPG and the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters found themselves on the same battlefields, momentarily leaving their political splits aside.
As with the PKK, the KRG has been at odds with the more militant nationalism propagated by the YPG and has at times aimed at vying for influence in Kurdish areas of Syria. But after ISIL, the KRG and YPG find themselves in the same fight.
So too did the YPG become the United States’ spear tip against ISIL in Syria, coordinating air strikes and driving major offensives where no other ISIL opponents could. (While the US considers the PKK to be a terrorist organisation, they do not bestow the same distinction on the YPG.)
Popularity for the YPG and PKK soared.
But then, the KRG’s two odd bedfellows – Turkey and the PKK – again found themselves at war.
Turkish news reports of the operations lumped ISIL and PKK into the same category.
Observers of Turkish-Kurdish relations have pinned the sudden move against the PKK as an attempt by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to build support for his AK party and snowball anti-Kurdish sentiment ahead of snap elections. Analysts say that the move is also likely acting as a counterweight to any domestic opposition to the country’s decision to allow the US to use the Incirlik airbase from which to bomb Syria and Iraq.
For the KRG, which continues to battle ISIL, the latest regional developments have presented a tricky situation.
“The KRG is in a very tight spot,” said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. “The KRG is completely dependent on Turkey. [Kurdish president Masoud] Barzani has a tacit alliance with Erdogan.”
“But in the eyes of Kurds, the perception that the KRG is with Turkey is very problematic,” he added.
After Turkey struck the PKK, Mr Barzani expressed his displeasure to Turkish prime minister Ahmed Davutoglu and asked that Ankara not escalate the situation.
While Mr Barzani may face criticism from fellow Kurds for remaining close to a country that is now bombing militants who have protected the minority group against ISIL, analysts say that the economic dependence of Iraqi Kurdistan on Turkey will likely ensure that the KRG and Ankara remain close.
“The KRG is completely landlocked. Where are you going to turn to? Turkey is their exit out. Turkey is their main trade route. Turkey is their main source of investment. Turkey is the main source where they are sending their exports of oil,” said Mr Barkey. “Where are they going to go? They are completely stuck.”
Bayar Dosky, a lecturer at the American University Duhok Kurdistan, agreed on the KRG’s economic dependence on Turkey, saying that the oil pipeline which connects the two is the only thing keeping the KRG afloat.
“The KRG doesn’t have any other option. They are completely dependent on that pipeline to get enough money to fight against ISIL, to pay its employees’ salaries as they are not getting their budget from Baghdad yet,” he said.
Mr Dosky said that before ISIL began its assault on Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG and Turkey were in a “honeymoon” phase of their relationship, characterised by frequent visits by KRG leaders to Ankara. That sentiment changed slightly with ISIL’s onslaught, he said, as more Kurds saw Turkey do little to counter ISIL’s gains in the region. But the economic ties remain strong.
Meanwhile, Michael Knights, an Iraq specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, downplayed the relationship between the PKK and KRG, saying that political powers in the KRG see the PKK as rivals and likely want to see their power deteriorated.
“The KRG and PKK are not really de facto allies under the surface: They’re rivals who share the same physical space and who are fighting the same enemy, ISIS,” he said.
“But in Syria, Sinjar and Qandil, the Barzanis and the PKK have an escalating rivalry. As a result, I don’t think the KDP (Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party) is at all concerned that the PKK were struck by Turkey,” he said.
“KDP wants the PKK to be reduced in capability at this time. PKK are a potential spoiler in the Ankara-Erbil alliance and a political rival to the KDP.”
Updated: July 27, 2015 04:00 AM