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Why does Turkey fear 'another northern Iraq' to its south?

By Paul Iddon 26/2/2019
SDF fighters gather at a scanning area near al-Baghouz, Syria, in Deir ez-Zor governorate on February 25, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP
SDF fighters gather at a scanning area near al-Baghouz, Syria, in Deir ez-Zor governorate on February 25, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP

When talking about the future of the Kurdish regions of northern Syria or Rojava, the Turkish government has declared that it doesn't want "another northern Iraq", hence another Kurdistan Region. Given the fact that Turkey has had about a decade of cordial relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), why would Ankara see "another northern Iraq" on its southern border as a negative development?

"We are talking of a safe zone against terrorists. We cannot give consent to an implementation similar to that in northern Iraq," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in January. He was referring to the proposed safe zone for northern Syria. 

Erdogan is on the record saying he doesn't want a repeat of the safe zones in the Kurdistan Region established in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein and provide humanitarian aid, the two Provide Comfort operations. 

Turkey gave the US-led coalition access to its strategically-important Incirlik Airbase in the country's southeastern Adana Province, which made the no-fly zones possible and helped incubate the Kurdistan Region of today. 

Ankara ultimately did not support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. If it had then about 70,000 Turkish troops would have entered the Kurdistan Region and would likely have moved to dismantle the de-facto autonomy the region had had since 1991. That ultimately, of course, never happened. 

Between 2003 to around 2009 ties were not so good and many Turks viewed the development of the Kurdistan Region, the autonomy of which was enshrined in Iraq's Constitution, in a negative light. 

One former Turkish air force officer, Mesut Hakki Casin, once went so far to predict, back in 2005, that the Kurdistan Region would use its oil reserves to build a military and directly threaten Turkey: "Within 10 years the Kurds will have an army and air force, same as the Israel model, and they will request some territorial parts from Turkey."

In reality, the KRG consistently avoided intervening in the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and never laid claim to Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast. 

Around 2009-2010 ties between Ankara and Erbil thawed and both sides forged close economic and political ties. 

Erdogan visited Erbil in 2011, the very first time a Turkish leader visited the region. The Turkish and Kurdish flags were flown alongside each other, a sign of changing times and of a changing Turkish perception of the region. 

"We have a historic relationship with Iraq and with this beautiful region," the Turkish president said in his speech. "The security of Erbil means the security of Turkey." 

Then, in November 2013, Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani visited the major Kurdish city of Diyarbakir (Amed) in southeast Turkey along with Erdogan. That visit was heralded as historic at the time. Barzani was accompanied by the Sivan Perwer, a Kurdish poet and singer, who had had to flee Turkey in 1976 and hadn't been back until then. 

The Kurdish president made his speech — which he concluded by shouting "Long live Turk-Kurd brotherhood, long live freedom, long live peace" in Turkish – under the flags of both Turkey and Kurdistan. Erdogan, for the first time ever, publicly said the word 'Kurdistan'. 

It seemed that another page had been turned on broader Turkish-Kurdish relations and a lasting peace was finally attainable.. 

Ultimately, the ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK broke down in July 2015. Then, for the first time, the PKK fought the Turkish military in an urban warfare campaign in the southeast that reduced several Kurdish towns, and parts of Diyarbakir to complete rubble. 

Still, relations between Ankara and Erbil remained cordial. The Kurdish flag was invariably displayed, even flown over Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, when Kurdish officials visited Turkey.

"Perhaps the KRG remains the only entity in our immediate region that Ankara feels at ease with," observed Turkish journalist Cans Camlibel back in March 2017. 

While Erdogan reacted harshly and even personally attacked Barzani over the Kurdish referendum in September 2017 he never closed Turkey's border crossings to the region, as Iran did, or the pipeline that exports Kurdish oil from Kirkuk through the Turkish port of Ceyhan – although he did briefly suggest he would do so. Today, just under 18 months since the referendum, economic ties between the two are still very significant. 

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has visited Ankara since the referendum and ties remain cordial. If Turkey and the PKK ever try and establish a new ceasefire or peace accord Erbil will more likely than not prove to be an important intermediator since it desires an end to that four-decade-old conflict. 

The storming of a Turkish base in Shiladze inside the Kurdistan Region by local Kurds, angry over the killing of six civilians by Turkish airstrikes the previous week, this January shows just how fed up civilians in the Kurdistan Region are of being caught up in the lengthy conflict between the PKK and Turkey. 

Neither the PKK nor its affiliates have ever been leading powers in the Kurdistan Region. Turkey perceives the leading Kurdish authorities in the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as directly linked to the PKK. It used to oppose any form of Kurdish autonomy in the Kurdistan Region, arguing that it would constitute a threat, but gradually came to see the benefits of forging cordial ties with its autonomous neighbour. 

Consequently, when Erdogan and members of his government or the Turkish press speak of opposing the establishment of "another northern Iraq" in northern Syria they seem to suggest that the Kurdistan Region has been nothing but a negative development for Turkey. 

History shows this has not been the case and if there is a chance that northern Syria could become something even remotely resembling "another northern Iraq" then Turkey should welcome it.


pre-Boomer Marine brat | 26/2/2019
Regarding the perennial question, Why does Turkey...? --- See this Gökhan Bacık column: "Misreading Turkey: the false promise of 'rational choice theory'" ---
Save the Kurds | 26/2/2019
Dear Paul Idden, the conclusion of your article stated at the end is a wise idea, but my perception is that the PKK is doing exactly what Turkey wants it to do, which is evident that the PKK is precisely there to justify the Turkish invasion of Kurdish land and killing everyone Kurdish and destroying everything Kurdish. So it seems that PKK is the secret Turkish army commissioned to destroy Kurdistan and kill Kurds.
Kurd | 26/2/2019
Double standards, hypocrisy and utter bullshit, in other words middle east politics and politics of the "brotherhood"
ISIK | 27/2/2019
Too many unknowns for the safe zone. What is going to be local forces of the zone? what is education and administration like? KRg based , YPG ideology, or TFSA style. If the safe zone becomes a Krg Turkey at least lives with it. IF YPG admin continues it will be hostile to it. Remember during Davutoglu era, Turkey has seen even the YPG cantons as likes of KRG as part of the "peace process". It is a different time now though.
Leon | 27/2/2019
I have higher hopes for democracy and the rule of law in Rojava than I do in Bashur. Bashur has become the bases of two militias: KDP and PUK. Rojava has one Government and one Military, the south has two militias. Rojava is transparent in everything they do, Bashur is not. Rojava Authority takes action when someone in Authority breaks the law, but in bashur the Barzanis and Talabani are untouchable (Saddam thought the same). Rojava is and will be more democratic and Liberal than Bashur. It will see more progress and technological advancement if given the opportunity. I have almost totally lost hope for Bashur. It is quickly becoming a two militia totalitarian state. Rudaw I know you don’t like criticism of the mafia but this is what liberty looks like.
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