Turkey’s policy toward the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has undergone an important shift since 2009. Only a few years ago, Turkey did not recognize Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government and refused to meet with its representatives in any official capacity due to its fear that recognition would embolden Turkey's own Kurdish minority to demand similar home-rule status.

Beginning in 2009, Turkey has adopted a “dual track” approach toward the KRG. On one hand, Turkish warplanes have stepped up attacks against the camps of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who use safe havens in northern Iraq to carry out cross-border terrorist attacks against Turkish targets. The Turkish Parliament recently approved the extension of the mandate to conduct military operations against the PKK bases in northern Iraq. On the other hand, economic, political, and diplomatic relations between Turkey and the KRG have been deepened and expanded. There are currently around 3,200 Turkish firms operating in the KRG, and the annual trade volume between Turkey and the KRG has reached $6 billion. The Turkish government has initiated high-level talks with the Kurdish authorities.

The “dual track” approach reflects a compromise between two opposing views within Turkey. The Turkish military and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) view Kurdish nationalism and the KRG as existential threats to Turkey’s territorial integrity and oppose any engagement efforts with the KRG leadership. They advocate intensifying military pressure on the KRG and isolating it politically, economically and diplomatically in order to force the KRG leadership to crack down on the PKK. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), on the other hand, believe that engaging the KRG through deeper diplomatic, political and economic relations, rather than attempting to isolate it, is the key to obtaining KRG support against the PKK. The current policy combining military pressure, diplomacy, and political and economic incentives represents the middle course between these two views.

Eliminating the PKK, protecting Iraq’s territorial integrity, and curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq are at the heart of Turkey’s KRG policy. From Turkey’s perspective, a fragmented, unstable Iraq would remove a counterweight to Iran’s increasing influence and, more importantly, lay the foundation for the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which Turkey fears would intensify separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish population. As a result, Turkey has sought to promote a strong central government in Baghdad and prevent the escalation of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq and the strengthening of the PKK in northern Iraq. These goals have formed the backbone of Turkey’s Iraq policy and have been shared by both the traditional establishment and liberal circles within the Turkish elite. What is new is the approach on how to achieve them.

President Abdullah Gül’s 2009 visit to Iraq reflects this change and gave it important political impetus. Turkey has come to accept that Iraq is a federal state and the KRG is a legitimate part of it. The key question has now become how strong the central government in the federation will be. As part of its strategy to engage the KRG, to ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity, and eliminate the PKK strongholds in northern Iraq, Turkey has developed close economic ties with the Iraqi Kurds. Turkish firms dominate markets in northern Iraq. Some of the area's largest construction projects have been carried out by Turkish firms, including the region's two airports, in Arbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah. Turkey and the KRG have struck energy deals regarding the importation of oil, while Turkish oil exploration companies have signed contracts with the KRG to develop fields inside the Kurdistan federal region. Through investments and deeper economic ties with the KRG, Turkey aims to increase the economic dependence of the land-locked KRG on Turkey and use the KRG’s economic dependence as leverage to induce the KRG to cooperate with Turkey in its struggle against the PKK. While Turkey plays a crucial role in the economic development of the KRG, it is critically important to Ankara to have a strong, stable, and unified Iraq. Therefore, Turkey is cautious about developing close relations with Baghdad and does not want to damage the already strained relationship between the KRG and the central government of Iraq. Recently, the Iraqi central government and Turkey signed an agreement that will block the KRG’s efforts to export gas to Europe. The agreement states that without the approval of the Iraqi government, Turkey will not allow KRG’s gas exports to pass through its soil.

The agreement is one of several steps Ankara has taken to show its support for a unified and stable Iraq that accommodates multiple ethnic and sectarian groups. Within the framework of this new approach, Turkey started to use the term “all ethnic and sectarian groups” in the National Security Council (MGK) decisions pertaining to Iraq. It opened consulates in Mosul, Basra, and Arbil; established a high-level strategic cooperation council with the Iraqi government; signed a military cooperation accord with Baghdad, as well as deals on energy cooperation and water sharing; toned down its support and cooperation with the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITC) and has hosted a number of Iraqi politicians representing the country’s rival political factions all aspiring to form the government since Iraqi parliamentary elections in March. Through these initiatives, Turkey seeks to give a clear signal that it aims to curb Iran’s influence, gain access to Iraqi oil and gas and ensure Iraq’s territorial unity by keeping the Iraqi Kurds part of a unified Iraqi state.

All parties seem to be benefiting from the deepening relations. The withdrawal of US combat forces has removed the Iraqi Kurds’ most important supporter and left the Kurds dependent on the Iraqi federal government and neighboring countries. In the face of increasing tension between the Iraqi Kurds and the country’s Arab population, Turkey is a valuable partner for the Kurds and serves as their gateway to the West. Turkey is a trans-shipment country for Iraqi oil and gas and can invest in major infrastructure projects in Iraq, which is essential in rebuilding the country. Besides the strategic dimension of the emerging alliance, there is an important economic dimension: Iraqi gas is crucial to Turkey for the realization of the EU-sponsored Nabucco pipeline project, which is designed to transport Caspian gas to Europe. In addition, the KRG serves as a gateway for Turkey to the rest of Iraq and the Gulf.

The future of Iraq holds important consequences for the US, Turkey, and the region. In post-US Iraq, security no longer depends simply on fighting insurgents; it requires eliminating the risk of civil war, building national unity, and political reconciliation between Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups. Constructive engagement with Iraq and its ethno-sectarian groups is an important tool in this process, which makes Turkey’s proactive foreign policy approach even more important for the stability of the region after the US withdrawal from Iraq.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.