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Turkey and Kurdistan: Reluctant Partners


The widely accepted prediction by analysts and mainstream media that an independent Kurdistan will soon emerge, seldom addresses the range of implications that are yet to unfold in the region. The world is about to witness a shift in its geopolitical landscape, with very serious tremors that will be felt in all sectors – security, economy and politics. This is especially true for Turkey, which has had a difficult and often violent history with its own ethnic Kurdish population. In light of the further deterioration of stability in Iraq and the on going civil war in Syria, it will be prudent for Turkey to facilitate an open and continuous discussion with Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan and within its own borders. It is too soon to tell what shape and form this new state of Kurdistan will take, regardless it is something to be kept under a watchful eye, particularly by observers and lawmakers in Turkey’s capital Ankara. The political situation continues to unfold and the moves made in the next twelve months will be critical both for Kurdistan and Turkey, with repercussions for Syria, Iraq and possibly Iran as well. Of course, the US and its allies will keenly observe every new development and trend, hoping that the final outcome will co-align with their own objectives in the Middle East. Turkey is aware that the developments across the Iraqi border could easily re-kindle internal conflict with its Kurdish citizens, potentially causing serious security and economic repercussions. However, thanks to Iraqi Kurdistan’s dependence on Turkey as an export channel for its oil, as well as on Turkey’s membership in NATO, Ankara has enough leverage to maximize its gains and minimize harm to its interests. While Turkey may fare well in the near future, what lies ahead for its relations with Kurds across multiple borders is highly unpredictable and laced with inherent dangers.

In consideration of the complex relationship with its own Kurdish people and the raging conflict on its eastern flank, it is important for Turkey to fully understand the current political leanings of the Kurds and ensure that political platforms of the Turkish state are more appealing than the ideas coming from radicals in the Kurdish political leadership in both Turkey and Iraq. While it is true that more than half of Turkey’s Kurds vote for non-Kurdish representative parties, with most supporting current president Erdogan,1 the decades of armed struggle by Kurdish political groups against a repressive Turkish government cannot and will not be forgotten. With the conflict costing between 30,000 to 40,0002 lives on both sides, and with peace being signed just over a year ago in March 2013, it is safe to say that ethnic tensions still dominate Kurdish life in Turkey and that ambitions of greater autonomy strongly exist among them.3 It is hard to imagine 16 million Turkish Kurds accepting the same rule and lack of autonomy in Turkey while their Iraqi and possibly Syrian brethren are at the finish line of their long dreamt goal of an independent homeland.4 Especially concerning for Ankara are the Kurdish groups fighting in Iraq with popular support and operational base in Turkey, of which the most notable being the Kurdistan worker’s party (PKK). It should be noted the group has undergone some ideological restructuring, subdivision and official name changes, but allies and enemies of the group still use PKK to refer to a core leadership still in power today.5 The PKK is of particular interest because of its prominence in the sphere of Kurdish politics and combat efforts. Kurdish identity is often closely tied to the PKK, due to the PKK’s unwavering drive for Kurdish autonomy and its past gains.6 Support for the PKK can be quantified by looking at the support money they receive from sympathizers, with €15-20 million being raised annually from the diaspora and other unknown sources, but it is suspected a larger quantity is being raised domestically.7 Even some who disapprove of the PKK’s violent tactics believe they are somewhat of a necessity. This is a by-product of the belief that the Turkish government has not facilitated any peaceful options for Kurds to achieve their goals, according to a Kurdish community leader.8 This quiet but strong and lasting support for the PKK among Turkish Kurds presents several concerns for Ankara. The first is that the PKK established bases of operation in Northern Iraq as early as 2007 and are currently involved in operations that are leading to the creation and defence of an independent Kurdistan.9 The second concern is that the group’s founder and official leader Abdullah Öcalan, whose approach to the conflict has significantly softened since his imprisonment, is believed to have limited control of the group.10 There is an underlying fear that any solution negotiated through Öcalan would not stop radical factions within the PKK or other organization from continuing their use of violence.11 Thousands of Turkish citizens of the Kurdish ethnicity who are currently fighting in Iraq under the PKK’s banner of an independent Kurdistan will be returning to Turkey where they are treated like “second class citizens”12 and are “beaten down” for their Kurdish identity and language. 13 By not taking immediate action and eliminating laws that oppress Kurdish identity and people, Turkey risks further alienating its Kurdish citizens and closing non-radical routes of political action. More than ever before, it is of the utmost importance that Ankara’s new vision appeals to the interests of the majority of its Kurdish citizens in order to distance the radical and unpredictable ideas and organizations from growing roots inside the Turkish Republic.

Turkey is not without a bargaining chip in this state of affairs, as it is the only route through which Iraqi Kurdistan can effectively export its oil. Consequently, Ankara’s willingness to support Kurdistan in this venture will come together with a package of demands designed to protect key Turkish interests.

The Kurdish regional government (KRG) in Iraq has accomplished over many years a formidable level of autonomy through a series of political, business and military campaigns. These include drafting new oil laws to allow foreign investment into the oil industry, fully independent of Baghdad’s control, as well as appointing ethnic Kurds over Turkmen and Arabs to public offices in the region.14 The KRG leadership based in Erbil succeeded in establishing control of the Kurdish region, as well as controlling some additional disputed territories, with its own security force rather than giving physical control to an armed force that answers to Baghdad.15 Despite this improved autonomy in regards to political representation and security, Iraqi Kurdistan could not break free of its dependence of the central government due to the KRG’s financial reliance on federal coffers and the ability to export oil. Iraqi Kurdistan would have to replace at least the annual budget allocated by Baghdad, which in 2012 equalled $11 billion USD to sustain itself independently of the rest of Iraq.16 The only viable method of generating this kind of revenue domestically is the extraction and export of oil. Until recently, this revenue stream heavily relied on Baghdad’s good will, as it controls export pipelines and sales channels. The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and collapse of Baghdad’s control of the country provided the long awaited opportunity to take this final step towards independence. Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga were able to seize the city of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq in June.17 Kirkuk is crucial as it is the beginning point of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, a channel of export for Kurdish oil running to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan.18 Once again, the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan lies in the hands of a greater regional power. Through controlling parts of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline and the port of Ceyhan, Turkey can heavily influence the success or failure of an independent Kurdistan and negotiate its interests in exchange for facilitating Kurdish oil exports. Without this, Kurdistan risks becoming a failed state, relying on foreign financial support like Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo. An equally unappetizing outcome is being muscled back into a united Iraq in a post-war treaty.

Turkey’s willingness to assist the Kurds of Iraq and deliver their crude oil was first seen in the shipments of Kurdish oil that arrived via tanker first near Galveston Texas in late July and then in Croatia in mid August. It should be noted that only the tanker that reached Croatia was able unload its cargo of 80,000 cubic meters of oil and allow the delivery of it to the customer.19 The tanker in Galveston has not yet been able to unload its cargo due to legal actions taken by the government in Baghdad.20 Seven other tankers have also been sent out from Ceyhan and it is estimated that Erbil has delivered 6.5 million barrels of crude oil.21 The government in Erbil has so far seen 450 million USD in profit and is expected to reach 4 billion by the end of the year.22 There is an assumption that some countries will opt to compensate deliveries of Kurdish oil in the form of arms deliveries and military training, which again may require Ankara’s blessing. What exactly Turkey has demanded from the leaders in Erbil in exchange for the export of Kurdish oil is unclear, but we can be certain Ankara is carefully crafting its list of conditions and demands to ensure Iraqi Kurdish ambitions do not clash with Turkey’s interests.

Turkey may be able to satisfy the desires of its Kurdish populations and impose its will on Iraqi Kurdistan through careful management of its exclusive oil export channel for the foreseeable future. It is questionable whether this two pronged approach is sustainable in the long run. Ankara may have to make concessions in order to sway Kurdish political opinion to its side. Greater autonomy, more active inclusion in the political structure or even territorial concessions might be on the list. Some of these concessions could have future repercussions. Too many concessions, particularly greater autonomy or territorial partitions may not sit well with conservative Turks, particularly among the historically praetorian officer corps. 23 Ankara will have to sell this package of measures and concession both to the Turkish majority and its ethnic Kurds.

A possible solution would be to employ a multistep approach starting with meaningful political concessions, such as greater political representation, language, cultural and educational freedoms or even limited autonomy for majority Kurd populated areas. However, these measures could be slowly expanded and used in the future to facilitate a free referendum for secession of Kurdish occupied lands from Turkey. Limited autonomy for Kurds could be an acceptable solution for Turkey as it would deal with many of the issues such as freedom of Kurdish identity and the use of the Kurdish language in public institutions and commerce.

However, Kurdish irredentism will require that Ankara maintains some leverage against Kurdish factions both within and beyond their border Turkey still has a great level of influence over Iraqi Kurdistan as it has the power to cut off Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil revenue as its exclusive exporter, but this could change. Iran, a neighbour of Iraqi Kurdistan, is looking for ways to address its increasing energy demands.24 It could be in a position to import more significant quantities of Kurdish oil than what are now being smuggled into Iran by overland transport.25 Syria, still in the midst of a civil war, may not be a promising partner at the moment, but in the future it could present an alternative route for a pipeline to Mediterranean ports.

Increasing trade and investment with Iraqi Kurdistan is a developing and growing trend that benefits Turkey’s economy, yet it could contribute to future difficulties.26 By increasing economic activity in the Kurdish areas in the country’s east, it allows for the building of greater connections between Kurds in Turkey and those in Iraq. This would counter a decades old Turkish strategy that impeded inter-state collusion of any sort between Kurds and deprived the Kurds of any significant revenue. This fragmentation has been important in the past as it limited the potential of Turkish-Kurdish conflicts intensifying with the Kurds receiving outside assistance. Turkey may be able to reap benefits now from making settlements with its Kurdish population and maintaining relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, but the long-term implications of these actions will spawn even greater challenges to Turkey’s interests in the future.

The effects of the conflict in Iraq on Turkey, and especially the emerging independent Iraqi Kurdistan, are complex and if left unchecked could be of serious detriment to Turkey and the preservation of its security. Although Ankara may currently enjoy the support of many of its Kurdish citizens, it cannot ignore the aspiration to independence that still persists and will only grow stronger with the emergence of an independent Kurdistan next door in Iraq.

Turkey may be able to formulate an immediate and relatively painless package of measures designed to appeal to the Kurds at home and Iraq, but this only delays the escalation of conflict between Turkey and its Kurds. It is not unimaginable that at some point in the future, succession of the Kurds from Turkey is a possibility.

Turkey must not become overly confident with Iraqi Kurdistan’s reliance on Ankara’s cooperation for the assurance of its financial wellbeing. Future economic developments in Iran or Syria would both increase demand for Kurdish oil and give rise to export channels that could rival the pipeline currently exclusive to Turkey.

Turkey will have to balance its position in NATO, and the member responsibilities that come with it when formulating its short and long term response to the Kurdish question. This factor could limit Turkey’s ability for military intervention in case of failed negotiations or further security deterioration at home.

Whatever action Turkey takes in response to Iraqi Kurdistan, it cannot predict how the future will play out and how far reaching dangers to its interests may be. It can be sure of only one thing – the status quo is unsustainable, particularly for the Kurds. Change is knocking on Turkey’s door and it must be willing to be an active partner in the changing landscape of the region. Some painful concessions will have to be made for the sake of lasting peace and economic prosperity for all in the region.

Works cited

Bohn, Lauren, “Turkey’s PKK Fighters in Iraq and Syria revive Kurdish Cause, ”NBC, August 28th 2014,

Ilic, Igor, “Update 1-Oil cargo from Iraqi-Kurdistan has arrived in Croatia-source,” Reuters, August 17th 2014,

“Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit,” International Crisis Group (2012), Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/ Iraq/120-iraq-and-the-kurds-the-high-stakes-hydrocarbons- gambit.pdf.

Morris, Loveday, and Liz Sly, “Iraq disintegrating as insurgents advance toward capital; Kurds seize Kirkuk” Washington Post, June 13th 2014,

“Turkey: The PKK And A Kurdish Settlement,” International Crisis Group (2012),

Ünal, Ali, “KRG to increase capacity of oil pipeline via Turkey amid conflict,” Daily Sabah, July 20th 2014,

Wade, Terry, and Anna Louie Sussman, “Disputed Kurdish oil tanker mysteriously goes dark off Texas coast,” Reuters, August 28th 2014,

Yıldız: Seventh Kurdish oil cargo to leave Turkey,” Today’s Zaman, August 18th 2014,

1 “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit,” 21.

2 Ibid, 1.

3 “Turkey: The PKK And A Kurdish Settlement,” 25.

4 “Turkey: The PKK And A Kurdish Settlement,” 20.

5 Ibid, 8.

6 Ibid, 18.

7 Ibid, 13.

8 Ibid, 18.

9 Ibid, 7.

10 Ibid, 10.

11 Ibid, 12.

12 “Turkey’s PKK Fighters in Iraq and Syria revive Kurdish Cause,”NBC.

13 “Turkey: The PKK And A Kurdish Settlement,” 23.

14 “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit,” page i, 2.

15 Ibid, 2.

16 “Ibid, 7.

17 “Iraq disintegrating as insurgents advance toward capital; Kurds seize Kirkuk” Washington Post.

18 “KRG to increase capacity of oil pipeline via Turkey amid conflict,” Daily Sabah.

19 “Update 1-Oil cargo from Iraqi-Kurdistan has arrived in Croatia-source,” Reuters.

20 “Disputed Kurdish oil tanker mysteriously goes dark off Texas coast,” Reuters

21 Yıldız: Seventh Kurdish oil cargo to leave Turkey,” Today’s Zaman.

22 “Kurdish Annual Oil Income Tops Four Billion Dollars,” BasNews.

23Turkey: Army will not get involved in politics,” BBC.

24 “Iran’s economy growing despite West sanctions: Vice president,”PressTV.

25 “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit,” 16.

26 “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit,”17.

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