Turkey's Kurdish Buffer

Why Erdogan Is Ready to Work With the Kurds

People sit in the back of a truck as they celebrate what they said was the Kurdish liberation of villages from Islamist rebels n
People sit in the back of a truck as they celebrate what they said was the Kurdish liberation of villages from Islamist rebels near the city of Ras al-Ain, Syria, November 6, 2013. (Courtesy Reuters)

If anything good comes out of the turmoil in Iraq, it will be improved ties between Turkey and the region’s Kurds.

Until recently, they were bitter enemies. Ankara had never been able to stomach the idea of Kurdish self-government -- in Iraq or Syria or Turkey -- and it had generally refused to give in to Turkish Kurds’ demands for cultural rights. Instead, it preferred to crack down. Meanwhile, the region’s Kurds had never been able to stomach Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish rule and, taking issue with Ankara’s treatment of Kurds within Turkey’s borders, threw their support behind the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a violent separatist movement in Turkey.

The Syrian civil war and developments in Iraq have started to change all that. These days, from Turkey’s perspective, Kurdish autonomy doesn’t look half bad. The portions of northern Iraq and Syria that are under Kurdish control are stable and peaceful -- a perfect bulwark against threats such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). And that is why Turkey has been on good behavior with the Iraqi Kurds, is working on its relations with the Syrian Kurds, and might finally be breaking the impasse with the Kurds in its own territory. It is a tall order, but the stars may be aligned in favor of a Turkish-Kurdish axis.

BACK TO IRAQ

Relations between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds started improving just after the Iraq War, when Iraqi Kurds pivoted toward Ankara to counter Baghdad’s centralizing pull. To the Kurds’ dismay, post-Saddam Iraq remained an Arab country to the core; the power only shifted from Sunni Arabs to Shia Arabs. In those days, Iraqi Kurds started offering assistance to Turkey in its fight against the PKK and also opened markets in Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkish exports and companies. Turkey reciprocated, sending merchants, airlines, and consumer goods into the area. More recently, Iraqi Kurds opted to start selling their oil through Turkey, bypassing Baghdad and giving Ankara a huge gift in transit fees and tax revenue, as well as boosting Turkey’s claim to be a regional energy hub.

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