February 25, 2004 | National Review Online

The Ankara-Erbil Axis

Authored by Andrew Apostolou

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN–One of the greatest headaches facing the U.S. in Iraq is how to address the aspirations of the long-repressed Iraqi Kurds, who work closely with U.S. forces, while not antagonizing its longest-standing ally in the region, Turkey. A year ago Turkey was threatening to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, whether the U.S. liked it or not–prompting the Iraqi Kurds to threaten to fight both Baghdad and Ankara simultaneously. Much has changed in the last year, but few Americans reading the op-ed columns or listening to the Beltway pundits would know this. The belief that Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds are almost at daggers drawn is still widely held. The reality, as seen from Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, is that the two U.S. allies are drawing closer together.

The best evidence of burgeoning Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations is the traffic jam on the road to the Turkish-Kurdish border crossing at Habur. Until last year the only trade in this region was illicit: smuggled oil from Iraq, and the usual shipments of cigarettes, whiskey, and bootleg films from Turkey. There were U.N. sanctions on Iraq while Turkey applied its own partial embargo against the Iraqi Kurds.

Now the border is open and trade is flourishing, giving the underdeveloped southeast of Turkey a significant lift. Getting to the border can be tricky. The roads are narrow and the snow has been deep in recent days. The biggest challenge is weaving your way through the line of hundreds of tankers and trucks that stretches for a couple of dozen miles on both sides of the crossing point. Turkey sells Iraq gasoline, liquefied natural gas, and consumer goods. In return, Turkey buys Iraqi diesel and fuel oil. Perhaps the strangest sight on the road going north out of Iraq is of trucks carrying broken-down Iraqi armored cars, made in Russia but now heading for Turkey where they will be turned into scrap.

The growing Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish rapprochement is based on the notion that by cooperating commercially the two sides can build confidence politically. Turkish companies are winning contracts all over Iraqi Kurdistan. With a healthy appetite for the sort of risky environments in which U.S. companies barely dare to dream to operate, working in places like Iraqi Kurdistan is second nature for Turkish firms. For their part, the Iraqi Kurds are keen to open the door to foreign investors. The unquestioningly pro-U.S. Iraqi Kurds have created the most secure region in Iraq and their administration works more efficiently than any other in Iraq, including that of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

One of the most important deals between the two sides is to develop an oil field at Taq Taq in the center of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Taq Taq contract was signed by a Turkish company and the Iraqi Kurdish administration of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (one of the two dominant Kurdish parties) based in Suleimani. The Taq Taq field could contain a couple of billion barrels in oil reserves. By way of comparison, Britain, with all its North Sea oil wealth, only has total national oil reserves of five billion barrels of oil. Development of the field is currently on hold pending approval by the U.S. and Iraqi authorities in Baghdad. Far from objecting to one of its companies striking an oil deal with the Iraqi Kurds, the Turkish government has been thoroughly supportive, lobbying the U.S. government to sign off on the contract so that work can begin.

Publicly, the Turkish government has said that it rejects the idea of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, fearing that this could lead to the breakup of Iraq. Turkish officials also avoid referring to Iraqi Kurdistan or the Kurds, preferring to talk of “northern Iraq” and the “northern Iraqi people.” Turkey has also had discussions with Iran and Syria, not countries well respected in Washington, D.C., to build a diplomatic front against a possible independent Iraqi Kurdish state.

Yet while the careful choice of language seems to mask latent hostility to the Kurds, an inability to acknowledge that they are a separate ethnic group, Turkish officials stress their years of help to the Iraqi Kurds. Claiming that Turks and the “northern Iraqis” are relatives, Turkey was involved in reconciling the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties after bloody infighting in the mid-1990s. The reconvening of the Kurdistan parliament in October 2002, the most democratically elected body in Iraq's recent history, was facilitated by patient Turkish diplomacy.

The Turkish desire to stress good intentions, not ethnic hostility, was made clear when Turkey stepped in with medical assistance following the al-Qaeda-linked suicide bombing in Erbil on February 1, 2004. The worst suicide bombing in Iraq to date, the Erbil atrocity claimed more than 100 lives and injured scores. The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, made a point of visiting the wounded in Turkish hospitals, drawing praise from the Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey, which opposed the Iraq war, now says that it backs the U.S. policy of democratizing the Middle East. The best example of how pluralism can be promoted in the Middle East has been the experiment in democratization in Iraqi Kurdistan, which began during the northern “no-fly zone” years between 1991-2003. The “no-fly zone” could not have existed without Turkish support.

For all the occasionally barbed rhetoric between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, both parties know that they are the two Muslim nations in the Middle East with the closest links to the U.S. Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds look at the rest of the Islamic Middle East with ill-disguised dismay. Both favor the emancipation of women and a predominantly secular political system. Close to a year on from the liberation of Iraq, the promise of trade, rather than the threat of war, between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds shows how the Middle East can change for the better.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is presently traveling in the Middle East and went into Iraq with an engineer working on the Taq Taq oilfield.



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