June 14, 2014 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s ISIS Crisis

June 14, 2014 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s ISIS Crisis

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham  — “Sham” is Arabic for the Levant) took over the key Iraqi city of Mosul on June 11. Northern Iraqi Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, exploited the absence of Iraqi security forces further south and seized control of the city of Kirkuk the following day. This chain of events is sending shock waves through Turkey.

Sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem of the Kurds,” Kirkuk is widely regarded by Kurds as their historic capital. This strategic city lies to the south of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq. The Kurds have long harbored irredentist ambitions for the city; its political significance combined with its oil reserves explain why the Kurds have held off on declaring full independence without it. The city’s seizure is now prompting concerns that the Kurds could be preparing for secession.

While Turkey has an uneasy history with its own Kurdish population, it enjoys a close economic relationship with the KRG. These ties have come at the expense of Ankara’s relationship with Iraq’s central government. Last month, Turkey began to export KRG oil to international markets, which Baghdad considers illegal. Iraq reacted by filing a request of arbitration with the International Chamber of Commerce. In a provocative response, Ankara signed a 50-year energy accord with the KRG.

Turkey, however, was not prepared to welcome an independent Kurdistan. Ankara’s concern is that Kurdish independence could send a signal to its own disaffected Kurdish population. Among its challenges on this front has been a battle with the Kurdish separatist-terrorist group, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). After 30 years of fighting, the government is now engaged in negotiations with the PKK, but significant tensions remain.

Ankara grew concerned after the seizure of Kirkuk when the PKK announced its support for the peshmerga forces, saying it was ready to fight alongside them. The move by the PKK could be construed as a call for Kurdish unity, which is surprising, given the historic animosity between the KRG and the PKK.

Apart from the Kurdish angle, the crisis in Iraq threatens Turkey economically. Iraq has become a major trade route for Turkish trade with the Gulf, especially with Syria in turmoil. This is bound to prompt Turkey to look for other means to establish trade routes.

Turkey is understandably on high alert, and it is seeking Western assistance to bring an end to this crisis. However, to some extent, this is a crisis of Turkey’s making. Ankara has been supporting Sunni extremists within the Syrian opposition and turning a blind eye to the activities of foreign jihadists on its eastern frontier. ISIS has benefited from this lamentable policy, and Turkey is now dealing with the repercussions.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Turkey.