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Studies 01 June, 2015

Erbil-Ankara Relations: Paradoxes, Challenges and Harmonization

Sardar Sharif and Khalid Said Towfiq

​​Sardar Sharif is a doctoral candidate at the University of Dohuk in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where he has been an assistant lecturer since 2010. Sharif holds a BSc and an MA, both in Public Administration, from the Roskilde University Center in Denmark. Prof. Khalid Towfiq is a Professor of Political Science at Salahaddin University in Erbil, Northern Iraq. Prof. Towfiq earned his PhD from the University of Baghdad.

The Nature of Turkish Foreign and Security Policy     

“Domestic policy and foreign policy must always be linked.” K. Ataturk[1]

“It is time for Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis to rebuild the Middle East… it is time for everyone to take brave steps.” A. Davutoğlu[2]

When analyzing Turkish foreign policy, it is necessary to consider the cultural principals from which it derives its values. Simultaneously belonging to the Muslim and Western world, Turkey can be perceived negatively in both. Politically, Turkey actively seeks to become a member of the West, yet culturally it remains within the Muslim world. Turkish foreign policy is shaped by deep-rooted factors and priorities: first, territorial integrity and power distribution; second, realpolitik with respect to security and state-centric matters; third, a preference for non-interference, particularly in the Middle East; and fourth, the impact of traumatic national historical experiences such as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sevres Treaty, and the war of independence, in addition to external factors such as the activities of super powers (e.g. the Gulf Wars) and the emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan.[3] Contemporary challenges and crises faced by Turkey, however, are having a significant psychological influence on the country’s future position in the region.

Pan-Turkishness, Euro-Asianism and New-Ottomanism have historically remained the main basis of Turkish foreign policy, and are related to core political, geographical and cultural challenges since the policy’s outset. Potential geopolitical changes in Turkey’s foreign policy can only be understood within such a context.[4] For instance, it was only the collapse of the Ottoman Empire due to defeat by the Western powers, and the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) and Treaty of Lausanne (1923) that saved Turkey from sliding into a war of independence. On the other hand, the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), a Kurdish political and military organization that became prominent in 1984, has agitated for independence for Kurds not only in Turkey, but in the Middle East more broadly.

The historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire plays an important role in Turkish imagination, and contributes to the new self-confidence that has shaped the Islamist Turkish foreign policy doctrine of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Davutoglu strongly argued for a geopolitical positioning of Turkey in the territory of the Ottoman Empire (the Balkans, Middle East and Caucasus) as the central objective of Turkish foreign policy –  this a matter of Turkish power[5] with implications for Turkey’s future geopolitical role.[6] When it comes to relations between Ankara and Erbil, there are four major factors that have had a significant impact on changes in foreign policy: domestic political developments; the influence of regional factors; a liberal socio-economic stance; and a realist-exclusivist view of Kurdish questions as a threat to the Turkish state’s security and integrity.[7]

The Context of Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish Relations    

Iraqi Kurdish-Turkish relations are mostly synonymous with former-President Turgut Ozal’s historical initiative. As thousands of Kurds fled to Turkey, Ozal met secretly with Kurdish Iraqi leaders on March 8, 1991 (a gathering that became public on March 22). Additionally, the United Nations Security Council Resolution[8] to protect Kurds in northern Iraq could not have been implemented or have succeeded without Turkish permission. In Ozal’s words aptly summarizing his political approach in protecting the Kurds: “There is nothing to be afraid of talking” […] “We must be friends with them. If we become enemies, others can use them against us'',[9] an approach that changed the policy toward the Kurds from one based on enmity to one based on friendship. In contrast, the presence of the PKK within Kurdish territory in northern Iraq transformed Kurdish-Turkish relations, with Turkey increasing its political pressure on the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to cooperate to defeat the PKK. As Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, confirmed, “There has been no change in our stance on this issue, the PKK’s presence in our region is unacceptable.”[10] Although Turkey was becoming more anxious, in 1991 it allowed both the KDP and PUK to open official representative offices in Ankara to conduct diplomatic relations with the government. These developed into meaningful channels of communication with the international community, through embassies located in Ankara.

In contrast to Ozal who recognized Kurdish political demands within Iraq such as federalism, Turkish leaders opposed the idea.[11] As the US support for the Kurdistan region grew, Turkish PM Bulent Ecevit characterised this engagement as the first steps toward the creation of a Kurdish state.[12] Over the decades, Turkish foreign policy abandoned any political or official relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. Departing from a hard-line security perspective, the new foreign policy procedures are intended to help prevent Turkey from becoming a vulnerable state in a region undergoing significant political and security changes. This has required a redefinition of Turkish policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan away from that articulated by Davutoglu on his visit to Erbil, when he told the Kurds: “Let’s rebuild the entire region, let people travel from Basra to Edirne without any security concerns.”[13] This represented a clear recognition of the Kurdistan region, yet also stressed the need to establish a mutually-beneficial security, economic and political interchange, linked to the nonviolent cohabitation of indigenous and spiritual associations.

In fact, the road to building such positive relations would not have been possible if the structure of the Turkish National Security Council (TNSC) had not changed, as it was dominated by military. The most significant change occurred in 2003, with the new TNSC directive that authorised the Turkish state to establish relations with all Iraqi political organizations.[14] Domestic perceptions on Kurdish issues coupled with new political objectives are forcing Turkey to build mutual political and security relationships with regional actors – and in particular, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). At the same time, developments in the Middle East, and the need to challenge the Iranian position in Iraq, militate for a Turkish foreign policy towards the Kurdistan region.[15]

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[1] F.S Larabee and I.O.Lesser “Turkish Foreign Policy in the Age of Uncertainty”. RAND, Center for Middle East Public Policy , 2003, p.165

[2] Kurdistan Regional Government, “Time to Rebuild the Middle East”, http://www.krg.org/a/d.aspx?s=010000&l=12&a=32240 (Accessed: 19 Dec 2013).

[3]  M.B. Altunisik “Turkey’s Security Culture and Policy Toward Iraq”. Perception. Spring 2007.

[4] S. Tahmasseb, “Turkey’s New Activist Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities for Iran“. Just Peace Diplomacy Journal , no 3, January-March 2011: International Peace Studies Center (IPSC), USA P.7.

[5] S.E.Cornell. “Changes in Turkey: What drives Turkish Foreign Policy? Middle East Quarterly. No 14. Winter 2012.18

[6] M.F  Tayfur and K. Goymen, “ Decision Making in Turkish Foreign Policy: The Caspian Oil Pipeline Issue”. Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.38, no.2 (Apr.2002). 101-122;107

[7] T.Oguzlu “Turkey’s Northern Iraq Policy: Competing Perspectives.” Insight Turkey. Vol 10. No.3. 2008.5-22;10  

[8] M.M. Gunter, ” A De Facto Kudish State in Northern Iraq”. Third World Quarterly, Vol 14, No 2, 1993: 295-319;295

[9] The Christian Science Monitor, ” Turks Talk to Iraqi Kurdish Rebels. Secret Dialogue is change that provokes further debate after years of ignoring Kursih at home,” http://www.csmonitor.com/1991/0315/okurd.html [Accessed 25 Nov 2013]

[10] Barzani: PKK'yı bölgeden çıkarma mücedelemiz devam edecek”, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/ShowNew.aspx?id=-242057 [Accessed 25 Nov. 2013]

[11] Gunter, “A De Facto Kurdish State in Northern Iraq,” 309-310.

[12] The Christian Science Monitor, “Kurdish Groups Unite as Turkey Watches, Warily, Anticipating US action against Baghdad, Two Iraqi Kurdish Factions Will Meet Friday,” http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1004/p07s01-wosc.html  [Accessed 25 Nov. 2013].

[13] Kurdistan Regional Government, “Time to Rebuild Middle East, Davutoğlu says in Erbil,” at: http://www.krg.org/a/d.aspx?s=010000&l=12&a=32240. [Accessed 20 Nov.2013].

[14] London School of Economics, “Turkey and Iraq,” at: http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/SR007/iraq.pdf  [Accessed 07 Oct. 2013], p. 43.

[15] F. Joseph, “Competition for Influence in Iraq Heats Up, Iran, Turkey Vying For Inside Track in Dispute Involving Kurds.” G2 Bulletin, 2012, at http://www.wnd.com/2012/10/competition-for-influence-in-iraq-heats-up/  [Accessed 13 Oct. 2013].