Events

Turkey, Iraq and the Future of Kirkuk

June 21, 2007 // 10:00am12:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Middle East Program

June 21, 2007 10:00a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Co-sponsored by the Southeast Europe Project, the Middle East and West European Studies Programs

The subject of Turkey, Iraq, and the future of Kirkuk has been a critical issue in US-Turkey relations, especially since the onset of the war in Iraq. The March 2003 Turkish parliamentary vote triggered tremendous political problems in Turkish-US relations which was significantly aggravated by the stand off in Northern Iraq, in the Sulemana area, in July 2003 where eleven Turkish special forces members were seized by US troops. This event gave rise to a severe crisis of confidence between Ankara and Washington which culminated in very intense discussions between Vice President Chaney and Prime Minister Erdogan in the summer of 2003.

This talk focuses on the critical issues in Northern Iraq as they pertain to Turkey's perceived interests, those of the US, and those of a new Iraq. Kirkuk, one of two centers of Iraq's oil industry and vital to the country's economy, has been a source of tension largely because of its significant population of Kurds. Historically, Kirkuk was a mixed city populated by Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomen, Arabs and Armenians. In April 2003, shortly after Saddam Hussein's government fell, Kurdish refugees began to return to the city in hopes to reverse the "Arabization" policy in the city of previous governments. Its rich oil fields have pitted Arabs (Sunni and Shiite) and Turkmen against Kurds, who view the city as vital to Kurdish national identity. Turkey opposes Kurdish control of Kirkuk as it may mean a strengthening of Kurdish autonomy.

The current political situation in Turkey and perhaps an internal standoff between Kemalists and supporters of the current government, which will culminate in elections on July 22, 2007, makes all of these issues timely from Washington's perspective and its relationship with the new government in Iraq.

Cengiz Candar, Chief Columnist for Referans daily newspaper and Turkish Daily News, discussed the repercussions of Turkish foreign affairs in regards to Iraq and Kirkuk. He offered a philosophical perception of how and why official Turkey perceives the issues of Northern Iraq and Kirkuk.

There is increasing concern in the US over a potential Turkish incursion into Iraq. This is a burning issue in the US because a Turkish intervention would negatively impact US policies in Iraq as well as that country's fragile domestic balance. Candar explained that Turkey's motivation for military intervention stems from Northern Iraq's position as a strong hold and safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. He points out that the real issue is beyond the PPK or the threat of terrorist attacks and is rather centered on the establishment of a separate Kurdistan. He argues that, in Turkey, Northern Iraq is synonymous with Iraq.

Turkey's concern with Iraq relates to the historical development of territorial boundaries in the Middle East. These boundaries were drawn by the victors of WWI who divided the Kurds among the many countries of the region. Any historical development that might herald a change in this setup resonates as an existential question in the psyche of Turks, and the government, that might result in a break up of Turkey. Any change in the status quo in the territories surrounding Turkey may have a devastating impact on Turkey and its survival. Hence, Turkey has a self-interest in protecting its own borders and preventing the development of a Kurdish state.

Candar then brought up the role of Kirkuk in relation to the Turkey-Iraq issue. He explained that there is a strong historical, traditional, and tribal relationship between Turkey and the Kurds, so any political development in Iraq which would lead to an independent Kurdish state will have an impact on Turkey. He warned that if Kirkuk is incorporated into Kurdistan, which is recognized by the Iraqi constitution, that it would be a formidable source of support for an independent Kurdistan. The economic element of Kirkuk, in that if it succeeded to Kurdistan, would provide the necessary economic infrastructure for Kurdistan to become sustainable. Turkey is also concerned with the cultural aspects of Kirkuk, in that Kirkuk is considered by the Turks to be a Turkmen city that has strong cultural ties to Turkey. Kirkuk is a microcosm of Iraq and its multiethnic character. If Kirkuk joins Kurdistan then it will accelerate the dismemberment of Iraq and Turkey is fearful of the consequences of such an event.

Mr. Candar concluded with an optimistic view of the situation positing that Northern Iraq presents an extremely generous opportunity to Turkey in regards to its abundant oil reserves. Given Turkey's proximity, connections, and relations with Northern Iraq, it has a great prospect of Turkish businesses working with the Kurds to capitalize on this resource. He argued that Turkey should shift its position away from a military approach towards a more diplomatic and economic approach that engages the Kurds in the region.

Dr. Henri Barkey, Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center and a Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, delved into the US's perspective of Northern Iraq as the anchor that is keeping the country together. The US thinks that without a stable Northern Iraq it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make any political progress in Iraq as a whole.

Dr. Barkey explained that the domestic conflict between the Turkish government and its military exacerbates Ankara's approach to Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds in particular. The Turkish government has limited ability to influence events in large part because the military has the upper hand when it comes to controlling and setting the agenda on northern Iraq and the PKK. The PKK's presence in northern Iraq and its activities reverberate back in Turkey due to the casualties suffered by the military.

Next, he discussed Turkey's three main concerns regarding Northern Iraq including the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), Kirkuk, and the potential independent Kurdish state. With respect to the PKK, Dr. Barkey argued that recently the domestic-political context of the PKK has been used as a football between the government and military. The fact that the PKK still exists and is active causes the public to conclude that little or nothing is being done about it. Barkey highlighted the dramatic rise in the lethality of PKK attacks as this organization learns from the experiences and technology of Iraqi insurgents. The PKK's ability to cross borders at will undermines confidence in both the military and the Turkish government.

Turkey's second concern regarding Northern Iraq is Kirkuk. He began by talking about the diverse population in Kirkuk and how Saddam manipulated the Kirkuk province by attempting to "de-Kurdify" and "de-Turkmenize" the area to make it look more like an Arab area. He touched on the possibility of the Kirkuk referendum, scheduled to take place by the end of 2007 which could solidify the Kurdish regions within Iraq. However, he pointed out that the normalization needed before the referendum can take place will not be completed in time and, therefore, lead to its postponement for technical and not political reasons. He concluded by discussing the Iraqi-Turkmen Front, where the Turkmen in the area are divided over whether to support the inclusion of Kirkuk into Kurdistan. The division stems from the multiplicity of Turkmen identities, Sunni vs. Sh'ia, and where they tend to live.

Turkey's final concern is the potential independent Kurdish state. Turkey fears that an independent Kurdistan will cause Turkey's own Kurds to seek a similar arrangement. A mistake that Turkey has made is to look at Iraq only through the prism of Northern Iraq. The situation in Iraq being as chaotic and unstable as it is now, Turkey should not lose sight of the broader implications of an Iraqi collapse. It is wrong to assume that Turkish Kurds even want to move to northern Iraq in the event an independent state is formed. Turkey is not only a far more attractive place to be but, more importantly, Kurds in Turkey do not feel they live in a foreign land.

Dr. Barkey concluded by saying that there is a deal to be made between Iraqi Kurds, Iraq, Turkey, and the US that essentially satisfies both the security needs of the Turks and Kurdish aspirations. A Kurdish federal arrangement has to be solidified and it remains to be seen if it will include Kirkuk. Turkey could be both the gate to Europe for the Kurds while simultaneously exercise a great deal of economic and political influence over the Kurdish federal state.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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