The Impact on the Politics of Iraq and Turkey and Their Bilateral Relations Regarding Kurds Post-Saddam Hussein Regime


The Kurds live across all of Turkey but the majority live to the east and southeast of the country. The republic of Turkey’s treatment of its citizens of Kurdish ethnicity has been a frequent subject of international criticism. It is generally believed that Kemal Attatuk was the main discriminator of these Kurds, known as ‘Mountain Turks’ here (a deprivation of their religious, ethinic, notional as well as their linguistic identities). The Sevres Treaty of 1920 partitioned Turkey, reducing it to one-third of the Empire’s size, and promised the Kurds a country of their own. Ataturk rejected Sevres and rallied Turks in a “war of liberation.” Victorious, he succeeded in scuttling Sevres and replacing it with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. In 1925, Kurds launched an insurgency to restore the autonomy that existed under Ottoman rule, but the rebellion was brutally put down and its ringleaders hanged in the central square of Diyarbakir. In the 1930s, Turkish government policy has aimed at forcible dissimilation and Turkification policies of the local Kurds. Following the 1937 Tunceli uprising, Turkey adopted draconian measures denying the very existence of Kurds in Turkey and referring to them as “Mountain Turks.” Kurdish language, culture, and geographical place names were banned. Simmering tensions continued until Turkey’s military coup on September 12, 1980.

However, the sudden success the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan , or PKK) had in mobilizing large number of Kurds during 1980s and 1990s in its struggle against the Turkish state showed that  years of Turkish Republican rule that institutionalized and sedimented Turkey’s policy of denial of Kurdish identity, language and culture remained futile. Furthermore, the establishment of the Turkish Workers Party (TIP) in 1961 and its broad agenda offered an election platform where Kurdish demands and national rights could be discussed. The ‘sociopolitical pluralism’ that Turkey experienced during the 1960s weakened the state’s ability to hegemonize the social identity of its citizens resulting in the emergence of a number of alternative discourses challenging the dominant Kemalist identity, the Kurdish nationalist movement among them.

In the present context, Turkey’s  chances of entering  the EU will  significantly increase if it can achieve a long-term resolution of  its Kurdish  issue by continuing and implementing its legal-political  reforms  in  order to  tackle  its  ethnic  plurality via  liberal democracy  and economic  development.  It would also  significantly increase the EU’s  credibility and political-economic weight as a global actor and as a social-political project, in the developing world in general and the Muslim world in particular.  The more Turkey  can secure its relations with its citizens of Kurdish  origin through  democratic and developmental means, the less  it would be threatened  by Kurdish  nationalism in Iraq and elsewhere. With local elections looming, the AKP initiated full-time Kurdish language broadcasts on Turkish Radio and Television in 2009. Recent positive changes are gradually being witnessed like allowing Kurdish names to the children, etc., which were previously outlawed by the government authority.

Turkey and the European Union

Turkey is a state that borders Europe and Asia. It is a democratic, secular, unitaty, constitutional republic, with an ancient and historical cultural heritage. Its constitution reasserts the principle of being a secular state, making the Tukish National the supreme identity  in its soil. However, Turkish as the official language and the complete disregard for the fact that Kurds have a separate identity on any terms have brought into question its secular, democratic nature. Turkey and the EU relations have evolved with lots of difficulties since Turkey’s application date for full membership on September 12, 1987. Historically, Turkey is a strategically important country for the EU. Still there are certain barriers. The minority treatment issue is one of those barriers. In fact, “respect for and protection of minorities” is one of the principles accepted in the Copenhagen Criteria which defines whether a country is eligible to join the European Union.

Turkey’s Kurdish issue, in this sense, is one of the stumbling blocks of Turkey on the road to EU accession. On October 3, 2005, when the European Union formally initiated accession negotiations with Turkey, more attention than ever was focused on the Kurdish problem of Turkey. Until recently, Turkey was even denying having a Kurdish problem to begin with, and speaking Kurdish was a crime according to the law. Therefore, it was sensation when Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan admitted that there is a Kurdish problem. Until then, this problem was “pronounced” as “southeastern problem” or “southeastern issue”.

Bilateral Relations Between Iraq and Turkey: The Kurd Factor

Turkey and Saddam’s regime enjoyed good trade and political relations until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Economic sanctions imposed on Iraq had an obvious detrimental impact on the economic relations between the two states.  Hot air was blown between the two when Turkey allowed NATO aircraft to use its territory to impose the no-fly zone over the north of the country. However, the relations between these two states have entered a new phase since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US forces. Since then, the Iraqi governing authority has coordinated with Turkey over issues like border control and trade. Turkey today is one of the important gateways to Iraqi oil. However, Turkey is vehemently against Iraq’s granting of autonomy to the Kurds in the northern Iraqi provinces, as this could lead to demands of a similar nature back home, an issue the Turkish authorities have not yet come to terms with.

Iraqi Kurds, threatened with a military incursion by Turkey, find themselves in a pivotal—and ironic—position as Ankara and Washington searched for ways to end attacks by Turkish Kurdish militants holed up in semi-autonomous northern Iraq. Turkey wanted a diplomatic solution to a crisis which has seen scores of Turkish troops killed in cross-border raids by PKK forces. Ankara did not recognize the KRG and refused to meet with its representatives in any official capacity. That reflects Ankara’s fear that any international respect shown to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region would only embolden Turkey’s own Kurdish minority to seek similar home-rule status. As Ankara and Washington look for solutions from the Iraqi Kurdish leaders—who are among the strongest supporters of the United States in Iraq—those same leaders see the crisis as presenting them with some valuable bargaining power. One of the main arenas of concern among the recent (post Saddam) bilateral relations between the two bordering state of Iraq and Turkey is definetely the Kurds. Turkey has an abiding fear that if Kirkuk joins the KRG, it will provide the groundwork for an economically viable independent Kurdish state inspiring Turkish Kurds to seek greater autonomy. If Turkey cracked down on the rights of Kurds in Turkey or launched a major military action, either to prevent a referendum on Kirkuk’s status or to attack the PKK, Turkey’s European Union (EU) antagonists could use it as a pretext for impeding Ankara’s candidacy. Its a double jeopardy. Turkey needs a stable and strong Iraq to contain Iran. With powerful Iraqi Shi’a groups acting in ways that advance Tehran’s interests, Iraqi Kurdistan—stable, democratic, and pro-western—could become an essential buffer to sectarian violence emanating from an increasingly chaotic, politically polarized, and religiously radicalized Iraq. But at the same time, the fear remains for Turkey that autonomous Kurdistan could quite obviously entail Turkey’s own domestic Kurds to rise against the Turkish state.

Turkey initially joined the  US-led campaign against Iraq under intense US pressure. Perhaps the rationale Turkey adopted was that if it couldn’t supercede the US decision to invade Iraq, at least it would have some impact on post war reconstruction if it remained a US ally. The newly elected government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gave in to US pressure after a lengthy period of indecision, diplomatic efforts to persuade the Iraqi and US governments to seek a peaceful solution, consultations with the president and the military, and intense negotiations with the US government. However, on 1 March 2003, the Parliament declined the government’s motion to authorize the deployment This was a major blow to US-Turkish relations; Turkey had been a major and consistent strategic partner for the USA, which in turn had supported Turkey in such an important area as the EU membership demands, for one. Turkey had its fear that the PKK, which fought a separatist war against Turkey between 1984 and 1999, would find a safe haven in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

The second possible consequence was Iraqi-Kurdish statehood or autonomy. The PKK had proved to be a major threat to Turkish state security. Armed clashes with it, which were believed to have cost more than 30,000 lives, mostly ended when the movement’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured with US assistance in Kenya and jailed for life in 1999. However, the PKK remained active politically and militarily in Turkey, Iraq, and other countries, including parts of Western Europe.

A substantial portion of Turkish military and political leaders long suspected the USA—and Israel—of sympathizing with Iraqi-Kurdish statehood, which would reignite Kurdish secessionism within Turkey, to its own detriment. In October 2003, the parliament authorized the deployment of Turkish troops to join the coalition forces in Iraq, in accordance with US demands. However, this prospect met with vocal Iraqi opposition, especially from Iraqi Kurds. They feared that Turkey would use its military presence against Kurdish statehood—a well justified fear at that time. Accordingly, Turkey’s primary interests lie in, first, Iraq’s economic and political stability; second, the emergence of a democratic regime in Iraq; and, third, the pursuit of friendly and cooperative relations with Turkey by the new Iraqi administration in general—and by Iraqi Kurds in particular. In fact, this outcomehould probably be the overriding strategic objective for Turkey, as well as or the USA, the EU, and Iraqi Kurds.