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ISIL unintentionally solidifies Turkish-Kurdistan relationship

In the wake of ISIL’s rampage in Iraq, a new and unlikely alliance based on strong economic ties and a common enemy has come to the fore of regional politics
Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk, Iraq on June 17, 2014 (AA)

GAZIANTEP—A few weeks ago, an announcement from a Turkish government spokesman that the Kurds had the right to self-determination would have sent shock waves across the region.

Given the timing, however - Mosul had just been sacked by the Al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who are now holding nearly 100 Turks hostage, including the Turkish Consul General, diplomatic staff and their families, while marching on Baghdad - the statement went largely unnoticed.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were too busy protecting their lands from ISIL advances, coping with the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who fled to Erbil to escape the violence, and taking Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, with their powerful Peshmerge forces.

Both AKP spokesman Huseyin Celik’s comments and the Kurdish taking of Kirkuk caused a stir among Turkish observers, who say it represents a clear shift in Turkish-Kurdish relations.

“Three years ago, this would have sounded the alarms all over Ankara — it was a red line,” Sinan Ülgen, a visiting a scholar at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Middle East Eye. “That the Kurds have taken the occasion to secure Kirkuk and it hasn’t rattled Ankara, is very significant and demonstrates a change in trust of the relationship — KRG is not viewed as a security threat, but more of an economic partner for the integration of energy deals and Turkish companies and trade in the region.”

Energy security and economic independence

Turkey’s relationship with Kurdistan has never been stronger — exports to Iraq amounted to $12 billion last year, and is the country’s second largest trading partner after Germany. However, as relations with Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki (whose precarious premiership is all but over) soured, Turkey firmed up energy deals with the KRG, with the signing of a lucrative oil pipeline deal.

Kurdistan relies on Turkey for investment and as an exporter of its oil, which it is supposed to export via Iraq. There is currently one million barrels of Kurdish oil in a Turkish tanker in the Mediterranean, exported through Turkey, an illegal move in the eyes of Baghdad. Even without Kirkuk, the KRG has 45 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.  

Till Paasche, a doctor of Political Geography at Soran University in northeastern Kurdistan, argues that Turkey is just as dependent on the KRG for energy security. “If you look at Turkey’s main source of energy resources, it’s basically rivals in the region —Assad’s patron Russia and Iran, where you have the Shia issue,” he told MEE.

Turkey also has large degrees of ownership of KRG oil, with both production sharing and service contracts, meaning Turkey has some level of control of Kurdish oil fields. This control transforms Turkey’s energy security, making for a complex partnership that goes beyond just mere dependencies and diversification of energy sources, according to Dr. Paasche.

“For an economic and military powerhouse, there is a strong geostrategic component to it. They can plan with energy, and even if they fall out with Iran or Russia, they still have guaranteed resources flowing in, and this makes a big difference to Turkey,” he said.

This relationship has not been well received by Baghdad, or indeed Washington, who insist that all oil revenues belong to Iraq as a whole. Now that Iraq is back on the brink of civil war, having lost significant territory to both the KRG and ISIL, Baghdad is in no position to reprimand the Kurds for exporting oil.

Kurdish unity

Now Ankara is also facing a strengthening of Kurdish unity, as Syrian and Kurdish officials hold meetings in Erbil and Istanbul, while Syrian and Iraqi Kurds join forces on the ground, for the first time, to tackle the ISIL onslaught.

The highly publicised haul of heavy weapons ISIL seized in Mosul — including US-made Humvees — have been taken across the border into Syria, seriously concerning Syrian Kurds, who fear a reinforced attack on fronts there.

“Our very existence is being threatened by ISIL; this requires all Kurdish sides to work hand in hand and lay down common strategies and plans to cooperate and coordinate to face and stop these groups,” Abdulsalam Ahmed, the co-chairman of the Western Kurdistan's People's Congress (WKPC) told MEE from Istanbul.

High-level, closed-door discussions are taking place in Erbil between KRG and PYD officials, and a delegation of Syrian Kurds travelled to Istanbul for the first time last week, as Saleh Muslim, leader of the Democratic Union Party told Turkish television that he was prepared to present a united front with Turkey against ISIL.

Abdulsalam Ahmed emphasized the need for Turkey’s engagement with the Syrian Kurds to contain the mutual threat. “It’s in Turkey’s interest to reach agreements with the Kurds inside of Turkey and with Kurds in the neighbouring countries, because if ISIL goes beyond the Turkish borders, there will be a direct threat to regional stability,” he said.

Knock-on effects — Turkey and the Syrian Kurds

While the integration of Turkish and KRG economic interests come as no surprise however, there is a very real possibility that Syria’s Kurdish population, who have been embattled with ISIL for months, will see some benefits, now that they face a common enemy.

Turkish authorities have previously held the Syrian Kurdish party (PYD) at arms- length, as an affiliate of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is listed by Turkey, US, NATO and the EU as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has, however, shared a border with ISIL since 2013, and has come under increasing fire for its implicit tolerance of the group, by tacitly ignoring the large numbers of foreign fighters using Turkey as a transit point to enter Syria.

The PYD and its fighting arm, the YPG on the other hand, have been a powerful force against ISIL in Syria, and in many cases, have been a handy buffer along the north-western border with Turkey, even though ISIL already holds three border posts between Syria and Turkey.

Further complicating matters, is the frequent accusations from YPG fighters that Turkey is aiding ISIL.

Now that ISIL is a direct threat to Turkish interests in Iraq, however, Ankara may begin some level of talks with the PYD.

Sinan Ülgen said, “Both sets of leadership have to each think about regional dynamics with the rising threat of ISIL and there will be, I think, a rapprochement between them, if Turkish issues are settled. The PYD stands to benefit now they have a common enemy with Turkey.”

Steps taken by the PKK pre-ISIL attacks have made the PYD more palatable.

The PKK have dropped their “all or nothing” approach to self-determination and have moved towards demands for regional autonomy instead, leading to a significant shift from what has stymied discussions in the past.

Domestic blowback

While the country has taken steps to fall in line with US desires in Syria, having officially designated Al-Qaeda’s official delegate in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra, a terrorist group at the beginning of June, fears are growing that an ISIL attack will soon be felt on Turkish soil.

Turkey denies any domestic threats from ISIL, as Senior Advisor to President Gül for Middle East Affairs, Ersad Hurmuzlu told MEE, “There is no concern of ISIL attacks on Turkish soil”, despite past foiled attempts.

Nevertheless, expectations of ISIL attacks in Turkey are high, with conversations in the southern city of Gaziantep routinely ending in sober agreement that it has become a case of when, not if an ISIL attack occurs inside Turkey’s borders.

According to Turkish analyst, Sinan Ülgen, law enforcement are on high alert, trying to understand the sense of the network, which raised its head in Turkey earlier this year.

A heavily armed ISIL cell was raided in March in Istanbul and three men were shot dead and five soldiers were wounded by three ISIL fighters during a routine stop in the same month in the south of the country.

As ISIL strengthens in Iraq and Syria, the prospect of attacks is undoubtedly not far from the Turkish consciousness.

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