One does not need to be a confirmed Turkophobe or Kurdophile to see something has gone amiss with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Kurdish policies. I refer specifically to his self-defeating negative reaction to the advisory referendum on independence held by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on September 25, 2017.1 Given Erdogan's earlier attempts towards ameliorating the Kurdish problem to the mutual benefit of both Turkey and the Kurds, why this unfortunate contretemps?2
FAILURE AND CAUTIOUS REFORM
During Ottoman times and even into the early republican periods, the Kurds were granted a type of separate status befitting their unique ethnic identity. Around the time of the Sheikh Said Rebellion in 1925, however, Kemalist Turkey abruptly canceled this policy and initiated one of denial, assimilation and force. Indeed, even in foreign policy, the Saadabad Treaty of 1937 with Iran and Iraq, as well as the Baghdad Pact in 1955 with those two states plus Great Britain and Pakistan, had in part the aim of keeping the potentially volatile Kurdish issue quiet. The fear was that the Kurds might challenge Turkey's territorial integrity and divide the state.
Only gradually, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, when this position of denial, assimilation and the fist had clearly failed, did Turkey cautiously and incrementally begin reversing course and granting the Kurds some type of recognition. Turgut Ozal's domestic and external proposals for Kurdish rights in the 1980s — although followed by a return to what was essentially denial by Suleyman Demirel, Tansu Ciller, Bulent Ecevit and Ahmet Sezer — adumbrated Erdogan's domestic Kurdish Opening and subsequent peace process with the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party) as well as the de facto alliance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. This demonstrated Erdogan's initial willingness to pursue imaginative new policies for the benefit of both Turkey and the Kurds, including the KRG. Indeed, in August 2005, then-Prime Minister Erdogan declared that Turkey had a "Kurdish problem," had made "grave mistakes" in the past, and now needed "more democracy to solve the problem."3 Never before had a Turkish leader made so explicit a statement on this subject. As then-progressive Islamists, however, Erdogan's Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) was increasingly opposed by the Kemalist establishment, which included the influential military, fearful of losing their long-held privileged positions.4
This situation eventually led to the crisis of 2007 over the election of the AKP's Abdullah Gul as Turkey's new president. The AKP triumphed by winning an enormous electoral victory on July 22, 2007 (even slightly outpolling the pro-Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi [DTP, or Democratic Society Party] in the southeast) and then electing Gul as president. Gradually, the AKP began to reduce the political influence of the military and the secretive deep state,5 which opposed Turkey's democratization and Kurdish rights.
Behind Erdogan's policy of cautious change, however, remained the pull of continuity. He still saw Turkey's Kurdish problem and the KRG as one of security, while the Kurds viewed it as one of achieving human rights, democracy and — in the case of the KRG — eventual independence. Moreover, the sudden explosion of the Kurdish problem in Syria, due to the anarchy the civil war created there, presented Turkey with a whole new security concern at the very time Ankara was supposedly trying to implement change in its Kurdish dealings. In Syria, Turkey correctly viewed the Partiya Yekita ya Demokratik (PYD, or Democratic Union Party) and its armed militia, the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG, or Peoples Defense Units) as affiliates of the PKK, the enemy that had begun its insurgency against Turkey in August 1984. In addition, the new, more inclusive, pro-Kurdish Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (HDP, or Peoples Democratic Party) became the first pro-Kurdish party to cross the high 10-percent threshold and enter the Turkish parliament in the election of June 7, 2015.
The HDP's success helped to deny Erdogan's AKP its governing majority and led him to seek ultra-nationalist support to regain it. This he accomplished in the snap election of November 1, 2015. "However, Erdogan's turn against the Kurds helped lead to the failed cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK and a return to bloody struggle in July 2015."6 Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the HDP, also made a strategic error by declaring that Erdogan would never achieve his ambition of becoming a powerful executive president. The Kurdish leader, possibly alluding to the required repetitions of the traditional Islamic formula for divorce, three times declared: "Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you will never be the head of the nation as long as the HDP exists and as long as the HDP people are on this soil. …We will not make you the president."7 This unwise stand against Erdogan's ambitions clearly helped to provoke the Turkish leader's anti-Kurdish reaction.
ERDOGAN BEFRIENDS THE KRG
By 2005, the peaceful situation in the KRG had begun increasingly to attract Turkish business interests.8 Turkish firms became heavily involved in such projects as constructing international airports in Irbil and Sulaymaniya and building cement plants, among others. Erdogan supported these initiatives for at least two reasons: First, such projects would help alleviate the economically depressed situation in southeastern Turkey and lessen Turkish Kurds' support for radical Kurdish groups such as the PKK. Second, Turkish-KRG economic relations would help bind the two together — with Turkey, of course, as the senior partner. By the end of 2005, Turkish-Iraqi trade (much of it involving the KRG) had reached $2.6 billion.9 On March 11, 2010, Turkey, in its own words, even opened a consulate in the KRG capital of Irbil "towards bolstering and advancing the friendly ties and cooperation between Turkey and the KRG in every field."10
Turkey's inherent entrepreneurial spirit and the KRG's establishment of a business-friendly climate soon began to promote an "undeclared economic commonwealth"11 between the two. In 2011, the KRG became the sixth-largest export market for Turkey, with exports of $5.1 billion. This had expanded to $8 billion by 2013. The KRG had become Turkey's third-largest market for exports. When Sinan Celebi, the KRG minister of trade and industry, visited Turkey in April 2012, he declared that 25 Turkish companies were being launched every month in Iraqi Kurdistan, while — incredibly — more than a half of all the foreign companies registered in the KRG were Turkish. The 485 Turkish companies in the KRG in 2009 had by 2013 grown to approximately 1,500. "From shopping centers to housing projects to furniture stores and ubiquitous consumer and commercial … goods, Turkish trademarks are to be seen everywhere, … including agriculture, banking and finance, construction, education, electrical-power systems, health care, oil/gas extraction and services, telecommunications, transportation, tourism, and the water industry."12 Turkish soft power seemed to promise a better life for both Turkey and the KRG.13
Economic cooperation inevitably began to lead to political cooperation. In 2013, Erdogan invited Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, to Diyarbakir, Turkey's de facto Kurdish capital. There Barzani was addressed as the president of the KRG, instead of being a mere warlord from northern Iraq, as previously described. Twice the then-prime minister of Turkey also used the heretofore forbidden term "Kurdistan" while addressing his audience. Erdogan and Barzani appeared hand in hand on the podium before hundreds of thousands to declare "the brotherhood of Turks and Kurds,"14 as Erdogan proclaimed: "We are building a new Turkey, dedicated to all ethnicities and faiths."15
What at the time seemed a historic rapprochement made the KRG one of Turkey's closest regional allies as well as its third-largest export market after Germany and the United Kingdom. At the same time, the Turkish-PKK peace process that had begun the previous March emphasized the concept of Turkey as the joint homeland of both Turks and Kurds. Turkey had become one of the main states supporting the KRG's economic independence, serving to facilitate its selling oil and gas to the world market by circumventing Baghdad. Erdogan even went so far as to declare that KRG independence was an internal Iraqi affair.16
However, Erdogan's support for Barzani was in part a mere tactic to win conservative Kurdish domestic support against the PKK, not a full-blown backing of the KRG. That Erdogan was not fully on board with all this apparent new thinking also arose when the Turkish leader failed to send military aid to the KRG after it was suddenly attacked by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in August 2014. Indeed, only timely U.S. air support stopped the jihadists, who had driven within 20 miles of Irbil. Earlier, Erdogan had also allowed the ISIS recruits to traverse Turkey to Syria to join the group.17 Apparently, the Turkish leader saw ISIS as a tool to combat the PKK and its affiliate, the PYD/YPG's Rojava, in the Syrian civil war, as well as a means to help bring down the Assad regime.
Despite Barzani's strong opposition, the Syrian Kurds' campaign to establish Rojava as a de facto Kurdish state on Turkey's border with northeastern Syria possibly became conflated with Erdogan's inherent fear of any Kurdish state — such as the KRG.18 Already, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Turkey's rightwing nationalist Milliyetci Hareket Partisi (MHP, or Nationalist Action Party), had decried Erdogan's November 2013 Diyarbakir meeting with Barzani: "The day Erdogan went on stage with the murderer Barzani was truly a day of historical high treason. We Turks have never seen such a betrayal in the history of the Turkish Republic."19 Thus, it only remained for the pro-Kurdish HDP to help deny the AKP a ruling majority by entering parliament in the elections of June 7, 2015, for Erdogan to take up a strong Turkish nationalist stand against the Kurds and regain his ruling majority. Kurdish politics in Turkey and Syria hit the KRG when it announced its intention to hold the referendum on independence on September 25, 2017.
Although Barzani had long made clear his intention to eventually seek KRG independence, his announcement in June 2017 that an advisory referendum would be held at the end of September incited outrage from Erdogan as well as from leaders in Baghdad and Tehran. Even the United States voiced opposition, largely on the grounds that it would splinter the alliance against ISIS.20
Erdogan accused Barzani of "betrayal,"21 threatening to starve the KRG's population and even claimed Israel had a hand in the matter: "Once we put our sanctions in place, you'll be out in the cold. … If we turn off the [crude oil] valve, it's over. If trucks do not take stuff to northern Iraq, they won't find food or clothing. How then will Israel send them anything?"22 At a forum in Istanbul, the enraged Turkish leader added: "After this, let's see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it."23 Feisal al-Istrabadi, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, identified the ancient Turkish fear of the Kurds dividing and destroying their state when he added that, particularly for Turkey, the KRG referendum was "an existential threat. … How Turkey will deal with an independent … Iraqi Kurdistan, but deny their own Kurds independence is a problem requiring Solomonic wisdom."24 Ali Cinar, the president of the Turkish Heritage Organization in Washington, DC, and normally a voice of reason, threw additional fuel on the flames by supporting Erdogan: "It's time that the Kurdish Regional Government listened to its neighbors and the international community and did what is right. The necessary action is to cancel the referendum vote in order to prevent bloodshed, a potential civil war, and major destabilization of the region that can have catastrophic consequences."25
The Iraqi and Iranian governments joined in the denunciations, with Baghdad closing the two KRG international airports, in Irbil and Sulaymaniya, an action that immediately hurt the KRG's important international travel links and lucrative tourism. All three bordering states held military exercises along the KRG's borders.26 As already noted, even Washington voiced displeasure, a position the KRG found particularly galling given that the United States had in effect birthed the KRG by destroying Saddam Hussein.27 However, since Turkey was the KRG's largest trading partner as well as the transit country for the oil pumped out of the areas controlled by the Kurdish authorities, Erdogan's threats were paramount.
As fallout from the negativity of Turkey, Iran and Iraq toward the KRG referendum, Iraqi forces with strong Iranian support and Turkish and U.S. compliance quickly occupied Kirkuk and other disputed territories, closed the KRG's international airports, and took over its border crossings, among other things. Massoud Barzani resigned as KRG president, and the Kurdish region toppled from the heights of ambition back down to earth.
Despite its denunciations of the United States and others for this disaster,28 the KRG was partially to blame. It had badly miscalculated by including Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the referendum in an overly aggressive attempt to unilaterally implement the Iraqi Constitution's Article 140 on the future of the city.29 The failure to put up a fight for Kirkuk also illustrated ongoing Kurdish disunity — despite the KRG's 25 years of existence. The Kurds had also grossly exaggerated their military power.30 Despite the appearance of strength, based on its success against ISIS, the KRG Peshmerga remained divided between Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). They lacked heavy weapons, as Baghdad controlled the materiel Irbil received from foreign sources, and had achieved recent victories only because of indispensable U.S. air support, assistance that was lacking when Baghdad reclaimed Kirkuk in October 2017.
This did not mean, however, that Kurdish hopes for eventual independence were forever crushed. More likely, it was simply another setback along the road to that eventual achievement, which even strong Turkish supporters have recognized. For example, in the case of Turkey, M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Ozcan recently suggested that Kurdish autonomy can be considered a solution: "For the first time, some Turks are thinking about separating from the Kurdish minority,"31 and that "a Kurdish state seems to be inevitable, given the current political fragmentation throughout the Middle East."32
The current defacto anti-KRG alliance among the strange bedfellows of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and the United States is not likely to last. The situation might even allow the KRG to use imaginative divide-and-rule tactics against its opponents, an ironic reversal of the usual case. For example, Sunni Turkey is not likely to continue to countenance Shiite Iran's domination of Iraq and the KRG region, especially after Turkey had earned a special position for itself there. Nor is Sunni Saudi Arabia likely to look with favor upon Iran's fitting another piece into its jigsaw puzzle of a Shiite crescent reaching to the Mediterranean Sea. Iraq, of course, remains divided between the ruling Shiites against Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In addition, influential Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's recent turn from Iran to Saudi Arabia has further fragmented the de-facto anti-KRG alliance by weakening Iranian control over Iraq. In addition, the United States will not continue to allow Iran to call all the shots in Iraq and the KRG. Nor will Israel permit Iran or Hezbollah to sit on its borders in southern Syria. So the anti-KRG alliance is not likely to keep the KRG down forever.
Meanwhile, Erdogan's knee-jerk, anti-KRG reaction to what was a delayed and merely advisory popular referendum on whether the Iraqi Kurds wanted to pursue eventual independence hurts Turkey in the long run as much as it does the KRG. His lack of vision or historical context has damaged Turkey's own economic and political interests. They are based on the incorrect assumption that competition with the KRG is a zero-sum game instead of a win-win relationship. This article has argued that Erdogan largely took his imprudent actions for narrow political goals involving Turkish nationalist politics in the run-up to the next Turkish elections, scheduled in 2019.
In his and, more important, Turkey's own long-term interests, Erdogan needs to reverse his losing strategy and begin re-imagining Turkey as the multiethnic country he had earlier recognized it as. Rather than returning to the old, tired paradigm of a Turkey battling against the Kurdish reality, he should see eventual KRG independence and general Kurdish rights in Turkey, Syria and Iran as inevitable and morally justified, and become the Kurds' natural leader and protector. A strong and democratic Turkey might offer the vast majority of Kurds in the world a bright future. For their part, the Kurds, ironically, would offer Turkey the Kemalist security it has always sought — before, to the detriment of the Kurds, but now with their support and cooperation. What just a decade ago might have seemed counterfactual would become reality. This is not a novel idea; it has been presented elsewhere.33 Indeed, U.S. President Donald J. Trump has already recommended that Turkey and the Kurds work together. During a talk about the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 16, 2016, he declared: "I'm a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think … we could have … potentially very successful relations with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together."34
1 For a wide-ranging collection of chapters analyzing the KRG's situation leading up to the referendum, see Sasha Toperich, Tea Ivanovic, and Nahro Zagros, eds., Iraqi Kurdistan Region: A Path Forward (Center for Transatlantic Relations, 2017).
2 For earlier analysis of Erdogan's precipitous decline into authoritarianism and paranoia regarding the Kurds, Gulenists, and other perceived enemies, see Michael M. Gunter, "Erdogan and the Decline of Turkey," Middle East Policy 23 (Winter 2016): 123-35.
3 Cited in "The Sun Also Rises in the South East," Briefing (Ankara), August 15, 2005.
4 For background, see Michael M. Gunter and M. Hakan Yavuz, "Turkish Paradox: Progressive Islamists versus Reactionary Secularists," Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 16 (Fall 2007): 289-301.
5 On Turkey's deep state, see Michael M. Gunter, "Turkey, Kemalism and the ‘Deep State,'" in Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East, eds. Mehmet Gurses and David Romano (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 17-39.
6 The PKK's callous strategy of fighting in the cities added to the civilian losses. For further thoughts on the failure of the Turkish-PKK peace process since July 2015, see Michael M. Gunter, "The Kurdish Issue in Turkey: Back to Square One?" Turkish Policy Quarterly 14 (Winter 2016): 77-86. The entire issue of this journal was devoted to an analysis of the failed ceasefire.
7 "We Will Not Make You the President, HDP Co-Chair Tells Erdogan," Hurriyet Daily News, March 17, 2015, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/we-will-not-make-you-the-president-hdp…, accessed November 15, 2017.
8 For background to this situation, see Michael M. Gunter and M. Hakan Yavuz, "The Continuing Crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan," Middle East Policy 12 (Spring 2005): 122-133.
9 See www.Kurdishmedia.com, May 2, 2006.
10 Cited in "Erbil Turkish Consulate," http://erbil.co/listing/erbil-turkish-consulate, accessed October 5, 2017.
11 This citation and the following data were gleaned from Soner Cagaptay et al. "Turkey and the KRG: An Undeclared Economic Commonwealth," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch 2387, March 16, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/turkey-and-the-…, accessed October 5, 2017.
13 For background, see Mesut Yegen, "The Kurdish Question in Turkey: Denial to Recognition," in Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey: Political Islam, Kemalism and the Kurdish Issue, eds. Marlies Casier and Joost Jongerden (Routledge, 2011), 67-84.
14 Mehmet Umit Necef, "Barzani and Erdogan Meet in Diyarbakir: A Historical Day," Center for Mellemøststudier, December 2013.
15 Cited in Asli Aydintasbas, "Why the Kurdish Referendum Is None of Turkey's Business," Washington Post, October 2, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2017/10/02/why-t…, accessed October 2, 2017.
16 Galip Dalai, "After the Kurdish Independence Referendum: How to Prevent a Crisis in Iraq," Foreign Affairs, October 2, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2017-10-02/after-ku…, accessed October 2, 2017.
17 Monica Marks, "ISIS and Nusra in Turkey: Jihadist Recruitment and Ankara's Response," Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2016. See also the comments of Marc Pierini, the former EU ambassador to Turkey, and John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state, in John Vandiver, "Europe's Fear: Turkey's Porous Border Serves as Gateway for ISIS's Spread," Stars and Stripes, July 5, 2014; and the comments of Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, in Deborah Amos, "A Smuggler Explains How He Helped Fighters along ‘Jihadi Highway,'" NPR, October 7, 2014, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/10/07/354288389/a-smuggler-e…, accessed January 8, 2017. See also Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt, "A Path to ISIS, Through a Porous Turkish Border," New York Times, March 9, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/10/world/europe/despite-crackdown-path, accessed January 9, 2017; Emrullah Uslu, "Jihadist Highway to Jihadist Haven: Turkey's Jihadi Policies and Western Security," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 39, no. 9 (2016); and Hardin Lang and Mutah Al Wari, "The Flow of Foreign Fighters to the Islamic State," Center for American Progress, March 2016.
18 See, for example, Hande Firat, "We Will Not Allow a Kurdish State on Our Borders: Erdogan," Hurriyet Daily News, August 24, 2017, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/we-will-not-allow-a-kurdish-state-on-o…, accessed August 30, 2017, where Erdogan was quoted as declaring that the term "Kurdish state" is an "insult to my Kurdish brothers. … We will send those who want to break this nation [Turkey] apart to the grave."
19 Cited in Necef, "Barzani and Erdogan Meet in Diyarbakir," 3.
20 U.S Department of State, "Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government's Planned Referendum," September 20, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/09/274324.htm, accessed October 8, 2017.
21 Cited in Mustafa Gurbuz, "Does Turkey Really Want to Punish Iraqi Kurdistan?" October 3, 2017, http://www.Arabcenterdc.org/policy-analyses/does-turkey-really-want-to-…, accessed October 4, 2017.
22 Cited in Aydintasbas, "Why the Kurdish Referendum Is None of Turkey's Business."
23 Cited in "Iraqi Kurds Vote in Independence Referendum," Al-Jazeera, September 25, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/iraqi-kurds-vote-independence-ref…, accessed September 27, 2017.
24 Cited in ibid.
25 Cited in Ali Cinar, "The Kurdish Referendum Will Destabilize the Region More," September 24, 2017, http://augustafreepress.com/kurdish-referendum-will-destablize-region/, accessed September 27, 2017.
26 Dalai, "After the Kurdish Independence Referendum."
27 Interview with Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG representative to the United States, September 27, 2017. However, once the referendum was held, the United States made it clear that it would take no sanctions against the KRG. David Ignatius, "The U.S. Owes It to the Kurds to Help De-escalate Tensions after the Independence Referendum," Washington Post, September 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp, accessed October 8, 2017.
28 See, for example, "Barzani: No U.S. ‘Support' for Kurdish Referendum If Postponed," Rudaw, November 11, 2017, http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/11112017, accessed November 15, 2017.
29 For background on Kirkuk, see Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
30 For further penetrating thoughts on the KRG's miscalculations, see Denise Natali, "Iraqi Kurdistan Was Never Ready for Statehood," Foreign Policy, October 31, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/31/iraqi-kurdistan-was-never-ready-for…, accessed November 15, 2017; and Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, "Iraq Kurdistan's Crisis: A Failure of Strategy," American Spectator, October 22, 2017, http://www.meforum.org/6976/iraqi-kurdistan-crisis-a-failure-of-strategy, accessed November 15, 2017.
31 M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Ozcan, "Turkish Democracy and the Kurdish Question," Middle East Policy 22 (Winter 2015): 76.
32 Ibid., 78.
33 See most recently Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds: A Modern History, 2nd ed. (Markus Wiener Publishers, 2017): 58-60; and Michael M. Gunter, Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (Hurst & Company, 2014): 119-128.
34 "‘I Am a Big Fan of the Kurds,' Says Donald Trump," Rudaw, July 22, 2016, http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/22072016, accessed January 8, 2017.