Ankara-Arbil relations on verge of a litmus test

Ankara-Arbil relations on verge of a litmus test

I have known Safeen Dizayee for almost 18 years, since his days as the Ankara representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Back then, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani were treated as little more than tribal leaders by Turkish generals. As a journalist I witnessed the difficult times that the Iraqi Kurds went through with Ankara in the late 1990s and also after the removal of Saddam regime in Iraq, which paved the way for the legalization of the autonomy of the Kurdistan region under Iraq’s first federal constitution.

The existence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) headquarters in the Kandil Mountains, Kurdish ambitions to de facto rule the oil-rich city of Kirkuk (which has historically been home to a majority of Turkmens), and an outspoken Massoud Barzani never hiding his ultimate goal for independence, were always chronic hot potato issues between Ankara and Erbil. 

Dizayee was at the heart of where the anger toward the Kurds exploded, and he personally had to buffer threats from an angry Turkey. But then he was lucky enough to be among the team of facilitators who planted the foundations of a Turkish-Kurdish spring, which started in late 2009. At that time he was serving as the education minister in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Arbil. The opening of the Turkish consulate in Arbil in 2010 was a historic move from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which meant the Turkish state had come a long way to recognizing the KRG as a legitimate administration in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as its flag. 

The Turkish government always tried to disguise this reality at home, amid fears of nationalist backlash. Even today, after seven years, the issue of how the president and the KRG prime minister are received in Ankara, or whether the Kurdish flag is raised for photo ops, can still make news in some Turkish media outlets. 

The so-called Arab spring and mutual economic interests were instrumental in drawing the two sides together, after they both found themselves desperately short of allies in a Middle East that has increasingly become a bloody battleground for sectarian war games. The landlocked KRG, struggling to receive its share of the federal budget and oil-exporting rights from the central Iraqi government, simply went ahead with supplying oil to world markets via Turkey, without waiting for Baghdad’s approval. Ankara, meanwhile, got the backing and assistance of Barzani while navigating a peace process to find a solution to Turkey’s open wound – the Kurdish question - between late 2012 and summer 2015.

Today, the era when Turkish leaders could proudly brag about a “zero problems with neighbors” policy are long gone. Perhaps the KRG remains the only entity in our immediate region that Ankara feels at ease with. A few weeks ago, Barzani made an official visit to Ankara, where he met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. I have that heard the meetings went so well that the Kurds were even able to table a request to borrow a few billion dollars in credit to pay debts and salaries.

One has to remember this backdrop while trying to put into perspective the recent irritation in Ankara fueled by the raising of the KRG flag in public institutions in Kirkuk, the status of which remains disputed. I was also surprised to hear my old friend Dizayee, who is the spokesman of the KRG today, go on the record to talk about the region’s preparations for an amicable divorce from Iraq.

“Once we have the results of a self-determination referendum as a card in our hand, we will enter negotiations with Baghdad before anybody else. Then hopefully we will go to our other neighbors so they do not see this new entity as a threat to their security and stability,” he recently told me in Istanbul. He added that they are waiting for the referendum on the executive presidential system to be concluded on April 16 to enter a dialogue with the Turks on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.

So far the KRG has failed to secure the support of the United States regarding its independence push, as Washington has been sticking to the “One Iraq” rhetoric – particularly since the rise of ISIS. However, the Iraqi Kurds believe that Washington will eventually recognize an independent entity.

Undoubtedly, these moves will bring relations between Ankara-Arbil to the verge of a litmus test. That is particularly true at a time when the PYD/YPG, which Turkey regards as an affiliate of the PKK, has gained an upper hand through success in battling ISIS in Syria (and therefore the sympathy of the West). It is not difficult to imagine how Turkey would fear that a move toward independence by Iraqi Kurds could chart an inspiring path for Kurds in both Syria and Turkey. 

Clearly, after the constitutional referendum Ankara will have a lot on its plate in terms of dealing with the Kurds, both at home and in its neighbors.