Relations between Baghdad and Arbil — the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq — are at their lowest since the founding of the post-Baathist Iraqi republic. Since that time, the two sides, despite their strategic partnership that played a key role in shaping a federal democratic Iraq, have been sparring over the degree of autonomy the Kurds can enjoy. Matters have devolved to the point where Iraqi government forces and those of the Kurdistan Regional Government are now deployed in a standoff formation in the disputed region of Kirkuk.
Iraq's Shia-dominated central government on Tuesday denied entry to a plane carrying Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who was traveling to an energy conference in Arbil. The incident is not just about Turkish-Iraqi relations; it underscores various conflicts brewing in the region and points to Turkey's inability to deal with Kurdish separatism.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
Turkey is aggravating the struggle between the two authorities in Iraq. From the Turkish point of view, developing ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government serves two purposes: First, it is a way for Ankara to try to contain its own problem with Kurdish separatists because Iraqi Kurdistan is a major sanctuary for Turkey's main rebel movement, the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Second, and far more important, Ankara-Arbil relations can serve as a way for Turkey to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and, by extension, the region.
The administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had already been frustrated by Turkey's support for Baghdad's Sunni opponents. When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a visit to Kirkuk last August without informing Baghdad, it further exacerbated matters between Baghdad and Ankara and between Baghdad and Arbil. For the Iraqi Kurds, Turkey is currently their only possible external ally, especially since the United States is in no mood to re-deploy forces in Iraq or anywhere else in the region.
The Iraqi Kurds also could use relations with Turkey to gain energy independence from Baghdad — although that would be easier said than done. There are just too many factors preventing Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds from establishing the kind of relationship needed for that level of cooperation.
For starters, there are limits to Turkey's cooperation with the Kurds. Ultimately, Ankara needs to contain Kurdish separatism, a Turkish imperative well understood by the Kurds that fuels mistrust on both sides. Such a move would reinforce Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, which would not sit well with the Turks, who need to contain Kurdish separatism on their own soil — and certainly not when the meltdown of the Syrian regime has created a situation in which Syrian Kurds could attain a special status once Syrian President Bashar al Assad is out of the way.
Making matters worse for Turkey is the fact that Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani is the most significant patron of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria. In addition to using the relationship with Syria's Kurds as leverage with the Turks, the Iraqi Kurds are also backing their Syrian brethren in attempt to gain leverage with Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurds gained an autonomous homeland in Iraq after the U.S. move to affect regime-change in Baghdad. This greatly complicated Turkish efforts to combat the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. If Kurds were to gain autonomy in a second Arab country, especially one that borders a substantial portion of Turkey's southern frontier, it would place even more pressure on Ankara to accommodate its own Kurdish population.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that Turkey is interested in getting aggressive with Iraq and its ally, Iran, as part of an effort to develop relations with the Kurds. Currently, at least in terms of the Syrian conflict, Turkey is dealing with Iran and Iraq as opponents. Thus, the Iraqi Kurds may have no choice but to do business with Baghdad and Tehran, considering that their interests converge when it comes to Turkey and Syria.