Few were surprised that the independence referendum held in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) on 25 September 2017 produced a 93% ‘yes’ vote. But many have been surprised by the subsequent turn of events in the region. By mid-October the disputed but Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and its surrounding province fell without a fight to an assortment of Iranian and Iraqi forces supported by irregular Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). The formidable reputation of the Kurdish peshmerga was seriously deflated as forces belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), almost immediately followed by those of the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP), withdrew. This in turn led to a substantial revenue loss for the Kurdish authorities given that most of the oil they had been exporting via Turkey came from the Kirkuk fields.
Already heavily in debt and unable to pay the salaries of many of its employees, burdened by the costs involved in hosting well over a million refugees, and now with a substantially diminished oil revenue, Iraqi Kurdistan suddenly found itself begging for a resumption of budget transfers from the federal government in Baghdad. Following some tough negotiations, Baghdad agreed to pay the salaries of some of Kurdistan’s workers, and in March 2018 also agreed that flights into Erbil and Suleymaniya could resume in return for a federal presence at Kurdistan’s airports and borders.
However. some economic sanctions remained in place as Baghdad set about recovering the ‘lost’ proceeds from what the Iraqi authorities regard as Erbil’s illegal exports of oil. Baghdad also reduced the share of the federal budget that is earmarked for the Kurdish provinces. Iraqi Kurdistan was further weakened by an intensification of the squabbling between the PUK and the KDP and between warring factions of the PUK. These two patronage-based parties that have dominated the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since its formation in 1992 are also increasingly threatened by the dissident Gorran (Change) party and by the emergence of new parties that might yet mount a serious challenge at the ballot box. Popular disturbances on the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan, directed against the corruption and oppressiveness of its rulers, added to the sense of disarray.
Turkey had opposed the referendum, fearing the dismantling of Iraq and the encouragement it might offer to the separatist aspirations of some of its own Kurds. As the referendum approached Ankara threatened to terminate its energy relationship with Erbil, cut supplies of foodstuffs, and even to take military measures. Its bark proved louder than its bite, however, as in practice Ankara largely contented itself with offering rhetorical backing to Baghdad’s tough stance. This confirmed the widespread suspicion amongst Iraqi Kurdish leaders that Turkey’s harsh rhetoric was aimed primarily at a domestic audience. After all, Turkey would be the biggest loser from Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic troubles. Not only will it lose transit and storage fees from the – illegal, according to Baghdad – export of Kurdish oil via the Turkish port of Ceyhan, but it will also lose lucrative opportunities for trade, construction, and investment that the KRG’s ‘other Iraq’ model had provided. Well over half of Turkey’s trade with Iraq has been with the KRG.
There could be political costs to Turkey too, however. Its close relationship with the KRG had largely been conducted via the KDP, and especially with its head and KRG leader Massoud Barzani. He has been prepared to cooperate with Ankara in minimising the damage the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could do from its bases in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains. He shares Ankara’s antipathy to the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed People’s Protection Units (YPG). Barzani has refused to cooperate with the PYD-run cantons of Rojava in northern Syria, sought to strengthen the role of more Erbil and Ankara-friendly Syrian Kurdish groups, and has carefully distanced Iraqi Kurdish aspirations from those sections of Turkey’s Kurdish population that favour the PKK. Both Ankara and Erbil demand that PKK/YPG units that had established themselves in Sinjar in northern Iraq should leave the area. In the summer of 2014 peshmerga units had deserted the local Yazidi communities when Islamic State (IS) forces made their appearance in the region. The Yazidis were then rescued by PKK/YPG forces, and some even joined them. The PKK/PYD has sustained its presence there ever since.
Other Iraqi Kurdish factions, such as Gorran, parts of the PUK, and some smaller parties, have long been less convinced of Turkey’s goodwill than had the KDP, and their more pronounced pan-Kurdish sentiments sometimes cause them to exhibit sympathy with the PKK. In fact, scepticism about Turkey has now increased throughout the KRI. The failure to come to the aid of Iraqi Kurdistan when it was threatened by IS in 2014 upset even Barzani and his inner circle. Ankara’s inaction contrasted tellingly with Tehran’s readiness to come to the KRG’s assistance. Ankara’s fierce rhetoric against the referendum, and its championing of the Turkmen of Kirkuk to counter more exclusive Kurdish claims to the city has not gone unnoticed.
Many Kurds are also troubled by Ankara’s seemingly relaxed approach to IS and other jihadi groups, both in Iraq and Syria – and indeed in Turkey too, where the crackdown against the Kurdish movement has been far more determined than measures to combat jihadism. Turkey’s passivity as the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane was besieged right on its doorstep, its bombardment of Kurdish towns and cities in Turkey’s southeast, and its more recent incursion against the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin, where it has deployed some distinctly anti-Kurdish and jihadi units affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), have added to anti-Turkish sentiment amongst Kurds everywhere, including in Iraq.
There have been Iraqi Kurdish demonstrations against the Turkish onslaught against Afrin, a hostile debate and censure in the KRG’s parliament, informal boycotts of Turkish goods, and the dropping of Turkish programmes from Iraqi Kurdish media schedules. On its side, Turkey is delaying the resumption of flights into Suleymaniya as punishment for the PUK’s and Gorran’s alleged support for the PKK. It will not be easy for Ankara to re-establish the close economic and political relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan that it once enjoyed. The influence of Baghdad and Tehran is now more in evidence there, Barzani is weaker, anti-Turkish sentiment has grown, and the economy has less to offer.
None of this means that Ankara’s relationship with Baghdad will necessarily prosper. Erdogan and Barzani shared an antipathy towards the sectarian character of former Iraqi prime minster Nouri al-Maliki’s government, and have been unconvinced by his successor Haider al-Abadi. They both hold Baghdad’s sectarianism responsible for the rise of IS in Iraq, while Ankara’s cultivation of Arab Sunni leaders and its support of Iraqi Turkmen caused tension with Baghdad. The Iraqi government was angry at Turkey’s readiness to facilitate the export of oil from Kurdistan, and is intent at clawing back the proceeds, whether from Erbil or Ankara. In future it is likely that any oil exports via Ceyhan will require Baghdad’s approval. Baghdad has also repeatedly protested at both the presence of Turkish military bases and Turkish military strikes on Iraqi territory. If anything, these protests have become louder since the Kurdish referendum. Should the sectarian undercurrent in the region persist, Ankara might come to rue the weakening of the KRG’s role as a buffer between itself and an unfriendly Iraqi Shia government, as well as the increased Iranian influence that is now in evidence.
Kurdish demands for greater self-determination, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Turkey itself, cannot be militarily quelled, and are more likely to be intensified by Ankara’s and Baghdad’s repressive approaches. A continuing Turkish war against Kurds in Turkey and Syria is likely to strengthen pan-Kurdish sentiment and yearning, which a weakened and discredited KDP will be less able to distract.
Furthermore, the KRG’s humbling should not be equated with an end to Iraqi Kurdish aspirations. Opposing Iraqi Kurdistan’s rash referendum was one thing. Failing to act in a way that helps shape a more positive outcome both for the KRI and for Iraq as a whole is something quite different. Although the blame for recent events in Iraq cannot be laid at Turkey’s door, Ankara’s capacity to act destructively, confrontationally, and emotionally is affecting almost all its regional relationships. It continues to shoot itself in the foot, and the conduct of its relationship with Erbil has in recent months been no exception.
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