Friday, 03 July 2009

America's Withdrawal From Iraq: Implications for the Kurdish Issue in Turkey and Iraq

Published in Articles

By Tülin Daloglu (vol. 2, no. 13 of the Turkey Analyst)

For a long time, the relationship between Turkey and Iraq has been defined by the fact that Iraqi Kurds provide a safe haven for the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization, the PKK. Yet Gen. Ilker Basbug, Turkey’s Chief of Staff, said recently in Washington that Iraq’s Kurdish region is no longer a safe place for PKK terrorists. that gain cannot yet be counted as permanent. Next January, Iraq will see general elections as well as a referendum on controversial issues like the future of Kirkuk. With U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraqi cities, escalating high-profile attacks raise concerns about the Iraqi forces’ ability to secure the country. In this make it-or-break it year for Iraq, the Kurds must decide the price they will pay to retain Kirkuk inside their territory. They will also have to decide whether they are willing to risk a possible breakaway from Iraq.

BACKGROUND: Turkey’s peace is still threatened by the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization, the PKK. An only two years ago, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said that “We will not hand over even an Iraqi Kurdish cat, let alone a man [to Turkey].” Yet Basbug’s statement above suggests that things have changed.

That change began on Nov. 5, 2007, when the United States decided to share “actionable intelligence” with Turkey; but Iraqis have supported the decision as well. Popular support has undeniably changed the Turkey-Iraq relationship for the better. More recently, Basbug stated that “we cannot come to the point we want to be in fight against terrorism without eliminating the PKK’s presence in Iraq’s North.”  But a larger Kurdish question also threatens the country’s peace and security. As the future of Iraq and Iraqi Kurds hangs in the balance, what the Kurds in Turkey will demand from Ankara may be kept vague on purpose. There is no agreement over whether they want to seek independence, or a federal system, or equal partnership to the Turkish constitution – or whether what they really desire is just recognition of their cultural and linguistic differences.

The striking element in Turkey’s Kurdish question is that the challenge faced by Turkey’s Kurdish population is not about being segregated or treated as a minority. Indeed, it is more about status in society. And Kurdish nationalists have already played their hand – they want to maximize their gains, which are first and foremost about economic welfare. Kurds in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern regions constantly complain about being held back, with chronic unemployment and poor education creating a situation in which it is impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the country. In recent local elections, the people of Diyarbakir, the hotbed of Kurdish nationalism, did not elect the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – despite intense AKP campaigning and a blunt statement by Speaker of Parliament Koksal Toptan that the local governments controlled by the AKP will receive more money and better representation.

The AKP-run government has talked a great deal about the Kurdish issue, but there is still no real improvement. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to refuse to shake hands or even converse with the elected members of the Democratic Society Party, (DTP), a Kurdish political party represented in Turkey’s Parliament. The DTP, for its part, refuses even to call the PKK a terrorist organization. Separately, the AKP government nevertheless was quick to recognize both the Hamas government in Gaza and the controversial election results in Iran. Such an untraditional approach to players in the region has allowed the AKP government to claim that it has made Turkey more of a regional power than ever before. But the AKP has failed to accord equal attention to solving Turkey’s internal issues compared to its energies on the regional level. Turkey can only become stronger if it begins solving its own problems first.

IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s unresolved Kurdish question makes the country more vulnerable to chaos, particularly in the face of possibly escalating violence in Iraq. The next six months will be crucial in testing whether Iraq will survive as one country. While the outcome remains unclear, it appears likely that the Iraqi Kurds will give in on almost every demand they have put forward. Getting what they want comes with too high a price. They want to remain part of Iraq in name, but they also want to maximize their autonomous gains, claiming the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as their capital. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), however, recommends that Kirkuk be treated as a separate federal entity on its own. Although it will also be difficult for Iraqi Arabs to accept this proposal, Iraqi Kurds may gain a lot if they accept it.

Street in Kirkuk

As one Turkish official explained, Turkey may provide Iraqi Kurds with the security they need, as well as an export route for any to-be-discovered oil and natural gas to reach European and other foreign markets. The Iraqi Kurdish region is landlocked; it will need assistance to succeed as an autonomous region.

KRG soldiers

What is more, as U.S. troops began their withdrawal from Iraqi cities in recent weeks, tensions in Kirkuk have been on the rise. A car bomb exploded at a city bazaar on June 30, killing 37 people and injuring more than 40. A Turkish official speaking on condition of anonymity told this author that Kirkuk’s Kurdish community asked for Turkey’s assistance and medical support, and the wounded Iraqi Kurds were taken by the Turkish military to Ankara for medical care. During another incident – a truck detonated by an improvised explosive device in Taza on June 20, killing 82 and wounding 200 civilians – the Turkish military also evacuated the critically injured to Ankara and delivered relief supplies to the area.

This is not the first time that Turkey has offered support and medical aid to Iraq – and specifically to Iraqi Kurds. But at this critical juncture, Ankara is proving that it has a constructive role to play to keep the country intact. The cardinal issues, however, still revolve around the desire of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to clamp down on PKK terrorism, giving up the goal of an independent Kurdistan and really becoming a part of Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdish region will hold local elections on July 25 – the first elections in the region after Iran’s controversial outcome. It is crucial for Iraqi Kurds to prove that they can abide by democratic rules and hold free and fair elections that are free of tribal obligations, so that democracy can really flourish in the region.

CONCLUSIONS: With the gradual withdrawal of American troops, all the security gains that have taken place since the U.S. surge in Iraq could easily be lost. It will require real self-discipline and self-control for Iraqi Kurdish politicians not to give in to narrow interests and lose sight of the big picture. The temptation to take to arms on Iraqi streets during this vulnerable time remains real. But at this point, Iraqis do not appear to be surrendering to the impulse for sectarian violence, even though recent attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq are pushing them to fall back into the trap.

A U.S. official pointed out that during a recent attack in Sadr City, the people in the neighborhood were angry and throwing rocks at the Iraqi security forces – because they arrived 20 minutes late. There is, however, a growing concern that Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish population may lose patience with each other, and therefore yield to a violent confrontation. Iraq’s political leadership faces an enormous challenge. As President Obama also warns of possibly increasing attacks, the forces of violence will try to their best to discredit the Iraqi government and show that they cannot deliver security and a democratic example for the region. The outcome of this process will affect not only Iraq, but its neighbors as well, none so more than Turkey.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Tulin Daloglu is the Chief Washington Correspondent of Habertürk, a television news channel and a daily paper.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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