How Turkey-KRG Ties Put Iraqi Kurds At Risk
On July 20th, Turkish bombardment reportedly killed nine Iraqi civilians and injured several more as they visited a popular tourist site near the city of Zakho in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
Protests against Turkish diplomatic outposts and hashtag campaigns calling on Iraq to expel the Turkish Ambassador quickly followed. Condemnations from Iraqi and Kurdish authorities came soon after.
Both developments are rare responses to a pattern of Turkish strikes that have killed, injured and displaced civilians in the region every year since 2015, when peace negotiations between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) collapsed and Turkey resumed cross-border military operations against the group.
Turkey has been the primary obstacle to any form of autonomous political status for Kurds in the Middle East since the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic in the early 20th century. Over the past 20 years scholars, journalists, and political figures have pointed to the relatively warm relationship between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a sign that this repressive approach to Kurdish autonomy and freedom was fading.
Yet subsequent developments in the region have proved this perspective to be gravely wrong. Turkey’s ‘positive’ ties with the KRG are based on unbalanced economic, political and military relationships that benefit Turkish elites first and Iraqi Kurdish elites second—while leaving the Kurdish and Iraqi people less secure.
The tragedy in Zakho and resulting public anger may be a turning point. Local authorities have a chance stand up to outside pressure, defend civilians, and address the issue of Turkish intervention and resulting conflict head-on. For the international community, understanding the nature and impacts of the unbalanced Turkey-KRG relationship is essential in order to help them do so.
An Unequal Partnership
In 2021, Erbil’s International Exhibition for Construction attracted 87 companies from eight countries. Just two of these companies were Kurdish—and the vast majority were from Turkey and Iran. This discrepancy is representative of a wider reality: the KRI has become a major market for Turkish businesses, including those with close ties to Erdogan and his government. By 2013, the KRI was Turkey’s third largest export market, and Turkish companies held power in essential sectors.
Yet the Kurds who benefit most from this arrangement are those who hold positions of power in the KRG. Inequality and unemployment are rising in the region, leading to increased migration and unrest. Local businesses find it difficult to compete with their wealthier Turkish competitors, exacerbating these trends and making the region even more dependent on outside economic interests. While politicians benefit from oil wealth—a sector where the KRI is particularly dependent on one-sided deals with Turkey—public employees are not paid their salaries, and many citizens lack access to basic services.
The issue of Turkish military activity reveals a similar discrepancy between the impact of Turkey-KRG ties on elites and the impact of these relationships on the population of the region.
Rather than work to protect the communities they represent or promote a return to peace negotiations that would end Turkey-PKK clashes in the region entirely, leaders in the KRG often minimize the impact of Turkish intervention or blame the PKK for the violence. They have looked the other way as Turkey has built up military bases in their territory that it appears unlikely to give up—regardless of the outcome of the conflict with the PKK.
For some leaders in the KRG, this position serves the dual function of facilitating strong political and economic ties with Turkey and curtailing the influence of other Kurdish political movements that might pose a challenge to their power.
For civilians, however, it has proven costly. A June 2022 report from Community Peacemaker Teams, an NGO working on the ground in the region to document the impact of Turkish strikes, stated that “since 2015, the Turkish Armed Forces have killed up to 129 civilians and wounded up to 180 civilians in northern Iraq.”
Twenty years ago, there was genuine hope that an autonomous Kurdistan Region would bring the grave injustices Iraqi Kurds had faced to an end and become a lifeline for Kurds from Turkey, Iran, and Syria still seeking their freedom.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Iraqi Kurds today suffer from corruption, repression, and inequality, while their leaders benefit from close collaboration with regimes that oppress Kurdish populations across the Middle East. As long as Turkey maintains undue economic, political, and military power in the region, these trends will continue.
It will not be easy for the KRG to win back its original promise and gain the full autonomy that its people deserve. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect it to do so overnight. Yet improvement on the status quo is not only possible, but necessary—and with public opinion on Turkish strikes reaching a boiling point, now is the time for action.
The international community has a clear interest in helping Kurdish and Iraqi leaders push back on Turkey. Policymakers must understand that Ankara’s ambitions in the region are not confined to targeting the PKK or groups it sees as PKK affiliates. In the long run, Turkey likely hopes to create and exploit security chaos in Iraq, much as it has in Syria, in order to gain territory and resources.
The Turkish presence in Iraq has also reinforced Iranian intervention in Iraqi politics. Pro-Iranian militias are likely being directed by Iran to undermine the KRG’s oil and gas industry in order to ensure that Iran, not Turkey, can profit off of Iraqi and KRI resources. The same groups have also capitalized on anger at Turkish violations of Iraqi sovereignty in order to legitimize themselves—something they can only do because legitimate authorities will not take a stronger stance. The KRG is not strong enough to stop the threat of the pro-Iranian militias alone, and it should not have to choose between capitulation to Ankara or capitulation to Tehran.
Turkey has also sought to provoke intra-Kurdish conflict. To date, it is only the presence of figures in the KDP who have worked to reduce tensions and a commitment by the PKK to avoid another Kurdish civil war that has prevented unfortunate clashes between the two groups from escalating. If they do fight each other, the repercussions will be felt in both the KRI and in North and East Syria—with disastrous implications for stability in both regions.
Turning the Tide
Conventional wisdom in Western capitals is that policymakers cannot oppose Turkish intervention in Iraq more than Iraqi or KRG authorities do. This approach has always been flawed: criticism and pressure from Turkey’s U.S. and European allies would be more impactful in Ankara than criticism from Kurdish or Iraqi leaders, and would signal to Baghdad and Erbil that they would not have to stand up to a more powerful neighbor alone or be forced to turn to Iran to counter Turkey.
In light of the responses to this week’s Turkish attack, it is also no longer an excuse. Following the lead of both Iraqi and Kurdish leaders and public opinion, the U.S. and European governments should condemn Turkish strikes in Iraq. They should make it clear to local leaders that they will support measures taken to protect civilians, and that they will work to prevent Turkey from retaliating militarily or economically.
Going further, the possibility of closing the airspace of regions where civilians are at risk of Turkish bombardment could be considered, and Turkey should be pressured to provide and adhere to a timeline to withdraw from Iraq overall.
There should also be a concentrated international effort to pressure Turkey to return to peace talks with the PKK and undertake the political reforms necessary for a political solution. Such a move would also have beneficial outcomes for democracy in Turkey, stability in northern Syria, and even Turkey’s relationships with European states.