Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey

Following the end of World War I and the division of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish areas were re-divided between modern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, with further enclaves inside the old Soviet Union. Soon the Kurdish areas of the new state of Iraq, mainly the old Ottoman Wilayat of Mosul, became a bone of contention between Turkey and Iraq.

Turkey claimed the whole of the Mosul Wilayat, which included the majority of Iraq’s Kurds. The matter was finally settled by the League of Nations, which rejected Turkish claims. Turkey grudgingly accepted the decision but still had to be pacified with Iraqi compensation. (It is not surprising that the Turkish government until now occasionally claims the Mosul Wilayat whenever it feels that the Iraqi state is weak and unable to defend its northern borders.)

Turkey waged a tough war against Kurdish uprisings in the southeastern part of Turkey. It called Kurds "Mountain Turks" and refused them any political, social or cultural rights. It was not until 1930 that the Turkish government was able to militarily end the Kurdish uprisings and resistance. And while the Iraqi government had a similar experience, successive Turkish governments were unhappy about the amount of freedom and official recognition Iraq’s Kurds got. They felt this would only encourage their own Kurdish populations to ask for the same. Conversely, the Turks were always happy to cooperate with Iraq to crush any Kurdish uprising whenever they were asked.

By contrast, Turkish politicians always showed their concern and support for the Iraqi Turkoman community living in the oil rich province of Kirkuk, which was also part of the old Mosul Wilayat. Turkish fears for that community have increased in tandem with the fortunes of Kurdish nationalism in Iraqi Kurdistan, which have gone from decentralization to autonomy and lately to federal statehood. Thus, Turkish fears increased again following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003. Without a central Iraqi government, Iraqi Kurdish influence would increase, not only over Kurdish areas but over Iraq itself. To add to Turkey’s concerns were the activities of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, and the assistance they were getting from inside Iraqi Kurdistan including being offered safe shelter inside northern Iraq. This enabled PKK fighters to revive their armed activities in southeastern Turkey.

The Turkish solution was to wage a massive attack on targets in northeastern Iraq where PKK fighters were hiding, with tensions at times escalated to include threats to the Kurdish regional government and the two political parties dominating it. Since then, Turkey has tried to improve relations with the central government and encourage it to take full control of all Iraqi territory, though this policy has proved hard to pursue due to the influence Kurdish parties wield inside the government. In an extreme change of policy, Ankara also tried to open a dialogue and improve relations with the regional government. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Turkey is uneasy about the growing power and influence of Iraq’s Kurds. Turkey prefers to deal with a strong central Iraqi government rather than a federal Kurdish authority. Turkey is also uneasy about the strong relations between the federal Kurdish authority and the United States and Israel.

Clearly, Turkey is not prepared to accept a semi-independent or fully autonomous Kurdish region or state on its southern border, as some Iraqi Kurdish leaders are aiming for. This will remain the main concern for Turkey and it will increase as long as the rising power and influence of the Iraqi Kurds and the growing weakness of the central Iraqi government continue.

Indeed, on several occasions Turkey has threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, as it did repeatedly in the 1990s to put an end to rising Iraqi Kurdish expectations. Some Iraqi politicians have already shown tacit support for such a move, but it will likely be opposed by the US and Israel, since it would defy the former and represent an important and unacceptable step to re-establishing a stable and able central government in Iraq to the latter.