The Ankara-Erbil strategic relationship; will it survive?

The transformation in Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over the past six years or so has been remarkable. From a refusal to formally engage with Erbil and even threats to invade, Turkey now enjoys what leaders on both sides sometimes refer to as a ‘strategic’ relationship with the KRG. Turkey accounts for the majority of the KRG’s trade and inward investment and over half of the foreign companies present in the region. Thousands of Turks are resident there. Over half of Turkey’s considerable trade with Iraq is with the KRG. On the energy front, since May the Turkish port of Ceyhan has been storing and exporting oil that has arrived by pipeline from the KRG, in defiance of both Baghdad’s and Washington’s insistence that the trade is illegal and of their fears that the KRG’s energy independence could represent a stepping stone to Kurdish separation from Iraq. Indeed, Baghdad is seeking arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce against the Turkish Republic and its state-owned pipeline company, BOTAS, for their alleged violation of the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline Agreement. Even before the completion of the pipeline route from Kurdistan, Turkey was receiving the lion’s share of the oil that was being trucked from Kurdish Iraq. Ankara and Erbil have also recently announced a fifty-year energy agreement.

Politically Aligned

On the political front, Ankara and Erbil have shared an antipathy towards the government of Nouri al-Maliki for some time, and a frustration with Washington’s continued support of it. They both interpret Iraq’s constitution as permitting Erbil the right to exploit and market its own energy resources, a view quite at odds with Baghdad’s. They also both believe that al-Maliki’s sectarian approach has alienated Iraq’s Sunni Arab communities and contributed substantially to the country’s current turmoil. For both Ankara and Erbil, al-Maliki’s authoritarian, personalised, and corrupt approach to governance has served to undermine Iraq’s constitution and the prospects for an institutionalised, power-sharing and inclusive approach to politics in Iraq, which they believe would offer the country a better basis for prosperity and progress.

Furthermore, Ankara has appreciated KRG President Massoud Barzani’s support for its efforts to curtail the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which largely bases itself in the KRG’s Khandil Mountains, and to develop a political rather than military approach to Turkey’s own Kurdish travails. However, Ankara remains sensitive to the possibility that the Iraqi Kurdish example of autonomy might prove an inspiration to its own Kurds, a more likely scenario should Turkey’s Kurdish ‘peace process’ falter. Should Ankara’s investment in Barzani’s calming effect on its own Kurdish problems fail to bear fruit, it could revert to greater caution in its embrace of Erbil. In the meantime, such is Barzani’s opposition to the PKK, both for its Marxist leanings and for the challenge it could pose to his own authority, that he has cooperated with Turkey in its attempts to isolate and hinder the struggle of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, to establish and defend self-governing Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. Both Ankara and Erbil regard the PYD as a PKK off-shoot, and both have sealed their borders with PYD-controlled areas. Barzani has sought to force the PYD to share power with Syrian Kurdish groups that are more sympathetic to his own Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), whilst Ankara has tried to persuade the PYD to join the mainstream Syrian opposition to President Assad. In fact, it has suspected the PYD of collusion with the regime. Additionally, just about everyone outside Turkish government circles recognises that Ankara has at minimum turned a blind eye to the use of Turkish territory and facilities by jihadist groups that have been ready to combat the PYD’s forces, and may have actively facilitated them – at least until recently.

At the moment, both Ankara and Erbil appear to be holding to their anti-PYD positions. Whether this is sustainable for much longer is questionable. The PYD is fighting for its life against what we might now call ‘Islamic State’ forces in northern Syria. It is hard to believe that Ankara would rather its border with Syria was controlled by jihadists than by the PYD. A similar observation applies to Erbil. As the break-up of Syria appears as a real possibility – not least as a consequence of the Islamic State’s declaration that the border between Sunni Arab Iraq and Sunni Arab Syria no longer exists – then the PYD might well emerge as the lesser evil, in Erbil’s as well as Ankara’s eyes. This might become more likely the more the Kurdish peshmerga finds itself confronting the same Islamic State forces in Iraq that the PYD are battling in Syria. Furthermore, the contradiction between Ankara’s dialogue with the PKK in Turkey and its pressure on the PYD in Syria is glaring.

The Fall of Mosul

However, the dramatic 10 June fall of Mosul to the Islamic State and the sequence of events that is still unfolding in its wake, has altered and will continue to alter the foundations upon which the Turkey-KRG relationship has been built. But what challenges and opportunities are in store for the relationship, and will the new circumstances strengthen or weaken the ties between Erbil and Ankara? With respect to Iraq as a whole, the country now looks far more likely to fragment into at least three parts, as Arab Iraq splits into self-administering Sunni and Shia provinces. Even if al-Maliki is replaced as prime minister – as looks likely, despite his best efforts to hang on to power – it will not be easy to form a truly unified even if nominally inclusive federal government. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are even more fragmented than its Shia factions, and few will commit themselves to any government that smacks of Shia domination. Nor will Iraq’s institutions – and most especially its security forces, headed almost entirely by corrupt and ineffective Shia officers personally appointed by al-Maliki – be rebuilt overnight. Reports have emerged in Washington that Iraq’s armed forces are so penetrated by often Iranian-influenced Shia militias as well as their Sunni counterparts that only around fifty percent of them could be regarded as reasonably neutral, and that they would prove unable to significantly reverse the Islamic State’s recent advances.

Independence or Unity?

This situation surely guarantees the KRG’s continued autonomy from Baghdad, and will even enhance it. The Iraqi entity is today barely functioning, such that Erbil’s ties with it can loosen by default and with little effort. From Ankara’s perspective, the relative order, moderation and goodwill of its Iraqi Kurdish neighbour is now even more welcome given the threats posed by the chaos and sectarianism further south. The time does indeed appear ripe for President Barzani’s call for a referendum on independence. It is probably reasonable to assume that Ankara would acquiesce even to a full declaration of independence on the part of the KRG. However, Turkey’s preference is that Iraq holds together. Ankara also supports current attempts to put together a properly inclusive post-Maliki government in Baghdad. Should such a government emerge – and even more so should it prove to be effective and enduring – it is likely to oppose Erbil’s bid to break away. In such circumstances, Ankara would not stand against Baghdad’s preferences. Nor would Iran, the US, and the Arab world. Turkey would be most unlikely to ‘go it alone’ in recognising Kurdish independence. In short, Ankara’s apparent tolerance of Kurdish moves towards independence depends to a large degree on Baghdad’s continued unattractiveness and ineffectiveness. This does represent Baghdad’s most likely future, but it is not the one that the international community is yet ready to accept. A Kurdish independence bid, conducted against the backdrop of an inclusive post-Maliki government in Baghdad, could well test Ankara’s goodwill towards Erbil.

New Responsibilities

The Kurds have also expanded the territory they exclusively control by over forty percent. In the immediate term this has no doubt secured these areas from the Islamic State, but in the longer term these new ‘facts on the ground’ will not go unchallenged. Both the Arab and Turkmen minorities are already showing signs of resentment at what the Kurds clearly regard as a permanent arrangement, and they may not be easily appeased even by benign and inclusive governance. Iraq’s non-Kurds generally do not accept Kurdish territorial claims, whether they reside in the ‘disputed’ areas or not. In the absence of a degree of ethnic and sectarian separation, whether it occurs benignly and voluntarily or otherwise, the KRG’s newly-acquired territories are unlikely to be tranquil. Ankara has been muted in its response to the KRG’s territorial expansion, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu even advised the leadership of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), formerly regarded as a puppet of Turkish intelligence, not to rock the boat. But Ankara would be highly sensitive to any forceful Kurdish crackdown on Turkmen dissidence in and around Kirkuk, and would also be compromised in the event of Arab unrest – again, particularly if it took place against the backdrop of an inclusive and more or less functioning federal government in Baghdad.

Security Risks

The 1000 kilometre border that the KRG now shares with the Islamic State is holding for the time being, but is being contested along much of its length – even if at low levels of intensity. However, the Islamic State – or, rather, the Sunni uprising – appears to be strengthening, as it gains more recruits, weapons, experience, and wealth. Although most observers appear impressed by the fighting qualities of the peshmerga, they have yet to face the kind of challenge that Sunni forces have posed elsewhere in Iraq. Furthermore, they are under-equipped, notwithstanding their recent capture of material from the retreating Iraqi army. It is not at all clear that Kurdish forces could withstand a concerted and sustained onslaught from Sunni – or indeed Shia – militias seeking to overturn Kurdish gains. Yet such an attack cannot be ruled out indefinitely. The peshmerga might in due course need help, and Turkey would be well-placed to give it, in the form of personnel, training, or equipment. There can be little doubt that Ankara would want the Kurds to mount a successful defence against a challenge from Islamic State forces, but the picture becomes less clear the more the Sunni uprising is led by non-jihadi forces or the more widely it is supported by mainstream Sunni (and also possibly Shia) Arab society. Ankara would also want to factor in the postures adopted by Tehran and Washington. Altogether, Ankara needs to recognise that its Iraqi Kurdish ally could be heading for a rocky road ahead in terms of security, and it is advised to think through what its responses could and should be.

Economic Risks

There are challenges in the economic sphere too. Erbil has not received its share of Iraq’s national budget since the beginning of 2014, and was not in receipt of the full seventeen percent even before that. The result has been unpaid salaries and halted infrastructure projects and welfare programmes. Even with the acquisition of the oilfields of Kirkuk, the KRG will not be in a position to export enough oil to make up for the loss of revenue from Baghdad for some time to come, even if the KRG is able to raise its supply of oil from the current 120,000 barrels per day (bdp) to the declared target of 400,000 bdp by the end of the year. The infrastructure is not in place, and it is still unclear that the Kurdish oil that is being piped to Ceyhan can find ready buyers in the face of Baghdad’s threat of legal action. So far, it appears that three of the four tankers that have left Turkey laden with Kurdish oil remain at sea, destination uncertain. Nor is it clear that the recent visit by a Kurdish delegation to Ankara, led by President Barzani, resulted in the release to Erbil of the funds earned from its oil sales that are currently deposited in a Turkish bank. In the immediate term, Ankara has been ready to make up for petrol shortfalls in the KRG caused by the disruption of supplies from the south, and it has arranged for the extension of credit to Erbil to tide it over the current difficulties. But the KRG’s economic vulnerability is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon, and Ankara might find that the economic lifeline it is currently making available becomes a longer term commitment. This will be even more the case should KRG oil exports via Ceyhan continue to struggle to find willing buyers. Perhaps Turkey will find itself obliged to buy the oil directly, but this would implicate Ankara still further in what many regard as an illegal trade.

Overall, the Ankara-Erbil axis appears to remain firm, and there are good reasons to suppose it will continue to do so. But just as Iraq will never be the same again in the wake of Mosul’s fall, so nor will the Ankara-Erbil relationship. One can more confidently posit the maintenance of a sustained ‘strategic’ relationship in the event of continuing dysfunctionality in Baghdad, chaos and extremism in Arab Iraq (and in Syria), a real prospect of the country’s disintegration, and relative security and order in the Kurdish north. But in the short, medium and longer term, each of these conditions could alter. If that proves so, then the Ankara-Erbil relationship would be confronted with unprecedented challenges, challenges in which Iran, the US and the Arab world would also have a stake. Only then will we really discover how truly ‘strategic’ and long term the Ankara-Erbil marriage proves to be.


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. 

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