Why an independent Kurdistan could suit Turkey’s strategic interests

By on October 8, 2017

As widely expected, the independence referendum of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) held on September 25th showed huge support for the separation of Erbil from Baghdad. What failed to take place – at least, for now – is the equally expected harsh reaction from Iraqi authorities, as well as from Turkey and Iran, both extremely worried by the potential consequences of the referendum on their local Kurdish communities. The days before September 25th were marked by some heavy posturing by Ankara and Teheran, aimed at making the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) revoke the vote. President Erdogan threatened to cut the only way out for Kurdish oil exports – a pipeline crossing Turkish territory – while launching unannounced military exercises together with the Iraqi forces at the Habur border crossing, Turkey’s main gateway to the KRI. At the same time, Ankara’s parliament voted a one year-extension of Turkish troops deployment in Northern Iraq and Syria.

Up to now, the “serious consequences” vowed in the wake of the vote did not materialise, except for the suspension of Turkish commercial flights to Erbil and Sulaimaniyah (although Turkish Airlines seemed to have uphold the ban for three days only). On a geopolitical level, the referendum pushed Turkey into a very unnatural axis with Iraq and Iran – countries that have both been widely despised by Erdogan during his years in office, as he feared the growing Shiite clout on the region. Even if the Turkish president reiterated his anti-independence stance during his October 4th visit to Teheran – a stance echoed by his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani – and stated that the Kurdish referendum was “conducted side by side with the Mossad”, he and his newfound Shiite allies did not translate into action any of the military, economic and political threat issued so far.

Notwithstanding his harsh rhetoric, Erdogan knows very well that his proximity to Teheran and Baghdad is purely dictated by circumstances, while Turkey’s interests in Iraqi Kurdistan are longstanding and strategic, from several perspectives. The KRI is the third market for Turkish goods as well as a key actor in Ankara’s energy diversification strategy, as the only pipeline linking Kurdish oil wells to the outside world passes through Turkish territory. An energy partnership between Ankara and Erbil was sealed in 2014 with a 50-year supply agreement, which bypasses the Iraqi government in a move that, at the time, many saw as bolstering Kurdish statual aspirations. More than 4,000 Turkish companies operate in KRI and bilateral trade between Ankara and Erbil reaches 9 billion dollars, according to Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci who openly spoke against a commercial embargo against the Kurds.

That is where the paradox lies: since the overthrow of the Saddam regime, Turkey has been instrumental in helping the Iraqi Kurdistan’s state-building process, investing heavily in KRI’s economy, trade, infrastructure and international status: strengthening the Kurds allowed Ankara to secure its southern border against the sectarian violence in Iraq and to gain a precious ally against the PKK, whose sanctuary lied in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq. Furthermore, KRI represents a strong and reliable Sunni actor in a region where Iran is rapidly advancing its influence – definitely, Erbil looks as a more natural ally for Ankara than Baghdad or Teheran.

As the main actors in the field – first and foremost, the US – still ponder their next moves, harsh rhetoric and posturing will have the central stage on the Kurdish issue. But as soon as meaningful negotiations between KRI and Iraq will begin, Turkey might find out than an independent Iraqi Kurdistan suits its strategic needs in the region better than anyone else.


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