Turkey President Erdogan and KRG President Barzani

06/06/2016 - 20:43 0
The Self-Determination Policies of Kurds in Iraq and Syria: How it Affects Turkey’s International Relations


This paper analyzes how the self-determination declarations of the mainstream Kurdish political parties in Kurdistan Regional Government (Iraq) and in Rojava (Syria) influenced Turkey’s foreign policy preferences in the light of liberal theory of international relations. More specifically, the paper examines the role of ideology and political goals of the PDK (Iraq) and the PYD (Syria), two non-state actors, in their self-determination policies and aims to investigate how they have influenced the AKP’s (Turkey) moves in the regional and international politics. The paper tries to investigate how Kurdish Question as a regional fact impacts Turkey’s relations with Syria, Iraq, Russia, and USA.


Kurds are one of the biggest nations without an independent nation state. Being divided by Qasri Shirin (1639, the Ottomans and Safavids), Sykes Picot (1916, Britain and France), and Lausanne Treaty (1923), Kurdistan has never been a united country for Kurds. However, the national political struggle of Kurds for self-determination has always existed both in and beyond the territory of Kurdistan. It is still difficult to predict the population of Kurds in Kurdistan and the rest of the world since their national identity is not recognized, except for the Kurdistan Regional Government (the KRG). The KRG is located in northern Iraq and was established in 1992 as a result of a long and bloody conflict with the Iraqi government and “following the no-fly zone designed to protect the Kurdistan Region from the violence of Iraq’s former Ba’ath regime” (the KRG website). The PDK has been the strongest and main party in policy making in the KRG. As it is discussed in the following sections of the paper, most of the events in one part of Kurdistan still directly affect other parts, which in fact is one of the reasons that makes the so called ‘Kurdish Question’ a regional and an international problem. Thus, the division of Kurdistan, has on the one hand prevented a unity among Kurds, and on the other, caused regional or international crisis. The same can be observed in Rojava[1], where Kurds under the leadership of the PYD, declared an autonomous administration with the participation of some social and political groups from different ethnic and religious identities in 2014.

The declaration of self-determination and local political formations (federation in the KRG and de facto autonomy in Rojava) has been another recent example of such crisis, especially in a context where the influence of the Turkish state is significant. Despite the fact that the approach of Turkey’s ruling elite towards the KRG has recently changed, at the beginning of the establishment of the federation until early 2000s, Turkey was strongly against any type of political status for Kurds in any part of the world. Now, Turkey has adopted different policies towards the KRG and Rojava. Turkey has maintained good financial and diplomatic relations with the KRG, but declared Kurds in Rojava as enemies. The reasons behind Turkey’s diverse policy towards the same ethnic group are worth discussing since they have also affected Turkey’s international relations with the countries that are involved in the current and past conflicts in Iraq and Syria, namely the US and Russia. Although the reason behind these conflicts are not only Kurds’ struggle or fight for self-determination, the nature and background of this struggle has become one of the main reasons behind some foreign policy preferences of the Turkish state.

KRG - Turkey relations

The political conflict between Kurds and the Iraqi state started in 1932 following an uprising in the Barzan region after the decision of the League of Nations to admit Iraq as a member state while ignoring Kurds’ demand for autonomy (BBC, 2015). In 1943, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of current KRG President Massoud Barzani, launched another uprising and took most of Erbil and Bahdinan under the control of the Kurdish forces. At that time, Kurds living in the territory of Turkey also led two important uprisings: the Sheikh Said Uprising in 1925 and Seyyid Riza Uprising in 1937. All of these three uprisings shared common points: recognition of Kurdish identity and establishing self-rule in Kurdish territories.

Kurds’ attempts to achieve these two aims were and still are considered as a threat to the national unity and sovereignty of Turkey and Iraq. The Kurdish uprisings in Turkey were crushed violently and until the emergence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), there were no serious Kurdish counter-movements pursuing political autonomy or independence. Rashid Ali al-Gailani, known with his pro-Nazi attitude against the Jewish migration to Palestine, occupied the prime ministry office of the Iraqi government from 1933 until 1941 (Hahn, 2012). “German nationalism, with its emphasis on language and history as unifying factors, was the perfect model for Arab nationalism” and al-Galiani was the main actor of that time to achieve Arab nationalism by “a sense of common identity in the Iraqi people by stressing Arab history and culture, promoting standard Arabic over regional dialects, and trying to suppress particularistic identities such as those of the Shia’s, Kurds, Christians, and Jews” Mufti (1996: 28). Iraq’s national politics and armed mobilization of Kurds against these policies deeply affected both the past and current conflicts in the country.

The same manner was followed in Turkey, too. Following the war of independence in Turkey, Kurdish uprisings broke out mainly due to the Turkish government’s failure or unwillingness to grant territorial autonomy to Kurds. From this period on, the ‘Kurdish Question’ both in Turkey and Iraq started to influence both domestic and international politics. Soon after the Kurdish uprisings and the end of WWII, the first treaty between (the Kingdom of) Iraq and Turkish Republic was signed in 1946. Article 14 of chapter III of the treaty reads “with the object of providing permanent protection for the frontier against attempts by armed individuals acting singly or in groups, the High Contracting Parties agree to take all necessary steps to prevent access to the frontier of any individual bearing arms or munitions of war, including pistols and revolvers of any kind”[2]. Given the time and context of the treaty, both countries aimed to secure their sovereignty and protect their borders against any possible attacks. The emphasis on “armed individuals acting singly or in groups” can be understood as a reference to the ethnic minority groups that have historically been considered threatening to national unity and sovereignty of both countries. Kurds and Armenians are the two main groups still widely accepted both by the political elite and society in general as a threat in Turkey. The historical Sunni-Shia conflict and Kurds’ struggle for self-determination have been two main ‘issues’ in Iraq.

Kurds in Iraq started negotiations with the Iraqi government for an autonomous status in 1970, but their demands were never fully met until 2005 when the first session of the Kurdish parliament was held in Hewlêr (Erbil) under the leadership of Massoud Barzani. The US invasion of Iraq was one of the main facilitating factors for Kurds to gain their official status recognized both by the Iraqi government and international system. Turkey supported the US forces during the invasion by allowing them to use several bases in southern cities. Increasing sovereignty and close relations between the USA and Kurds made Kurds an important agent in the regional and international arena. Turkish governments for a long time resisted against any regional or international attempt that would provide Kurds with a national or international status, but the emergence of the KRG has changed the Turkish governments’ perspective. There were of course certain conditions for this.

Oran (2004: 271) argues that in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkish foreign policy was much related to the US’s interests. In the 1980s, the US provided military support to Iraq against Iran and Turkey supported Saddam Hussein against Kurds in northern Iraq. In the 1990s, however, the US supported Iraqi Kurds against the Iraqi government to topple Saddam. Turkey also developed some relations with Iraqi Kurdish parties (the PDK and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or the PUK). Also, Turkey was a strong partner of the US in the Middle East; any military, financial, or diplomatic development between the Americans and Iraqi Kurds would also benefit Turkey in the sense that Turkey would eliminate or minimize the possible adverse effects with the formation of a Kurdish political entity in northern Iraq. The presence of the PKK guerrilla bases in northern Iraq was the main threat to Turkey and it could gain support of the KRG against the PKK. This, in fact, happened in the 1990s. With the approval of the US and cooperation of the KRG forces, Turkey launched several cross-border operations against the PKK guerrillas (Oran, 2004). This relationship has been maintained and the USA, Turkey, and the KRG have cooperated for many years due to security interests. There is also the economic aspect of the relationship of course: the KRG’s need for development and reconstruction has been a great opportunity for the Turkish economy while Turkey has benefitted from oil trade with the KRG.

To sum up, a relationship based on cooperation and recognition between Turkey, the USA, and the KRG, was a win-win situtation in many senses. Romano (2015: 89) argues that “the relationship between the two [the KRG and Turkey] likely represents an emergent strategic alliance more than a temporary marriage. Shared national interests appear particularly strong, while mutual respect and interdependence have been growing”. After a decade of remaining a federal region in Iraq, the KRG officials now aim to declare independence from the Iraqi government. Regarding the current developments in Iraq, the Turkish government supports the “preservation of Iraq’s territorial integrity, strengthening its democracy, ensuring its stability, security and prosperity and Iraq’s reintegration with its neighbors and the international community” (Turkish Republic Foreign Affairs website). Since 2005, Turkey-KRG relations have strengthened while Turkey-Iraq relations have remained the same or worsened due to Turkey’s support of the KRG and the signing of (oil) agreements without the involvement of the central Iraqi government. In short, Turkey on the one hand has made the KRG an important partner in both domestic and international relations and on the other resulted in weakening relations with the Iraqi government.

Rojava and Turkey relations

Kurds in Syria shared similar experiences with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. The popular Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa also hit Syria where it turned into a civil war that has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people. This extremely fatal uprising, however, offered an important opportunity for Kurds in Syria, who took the opportunity, afforded by the weakness of state authority in Northern Syria and established an important degree of autonomy throughout the region just at the southern border of Turkey. Soon after the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Rojavan Kurds mobilized and formed armed forces to keep the war between the Syrian Regime and the Syrian National Coalition out of the autonomous cantons declared in 2014. The Syrian regime had denied the rights of Kurds and had not recognized the citizenship of some 200.000 Kurds from 1962 until 2012, meaning 50 years of denial of identity, political and social suppression, and imprisonment. A sudden shift from such a long experience of deprivation to a strong political and military mobilization was certainly not anticipated.

The main force behind the formation of Rojava’s Democratic Autonomous Administration through the Democratic Union Party (PYD) leadership was the PKK. Democratic autonomy has been the PKK’s main project for the solution of the Kurdish Question; however, it has never found a political space to be negotiated in Turkey. The AKP, CHP (Republican People’s Party), and MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), the three main parties of the Turkish parliament, have always considered Kurdish autonomy in Turkey as an attempt at separation and/or a first step towards Kurdish independence from Turkey. Although the CHP leadership supports some degree of decentralization though the municipalities, it does not advocate the PKK’s demand for democratic autonomy. In line with this, even though these parties do not share a common policy on the Syrian civil war, they all consider Rojava’s autonomy as threatening the domestic and regional interests of Turkey. Thus, it is obvious that Turkey does not welcome the democratic autonomy proposal of the PKK neither in Turkey nor in Syria. Following the very beginning of the Kurdish mobilization in Syria, the AKP government stated that Turkey will not allow any type of Kurdish political formation under the leadership of the PKK in northern Syria. However Turkish officials still met with the PYD Co-chair Salih Muslim several times in Ankara to impede the autonomy building process, but all these attempts failed, which triggered many foreign policy changes and crisis both with the regional and international forces including the USA, Russia, and Iraq.

Turkey’s international relation’s dilemmas in regards to the Kurdish Question

The Kurdish Question, with its domestic, regional, and international aspects has been one of the main factors in determining Turkey’s foreign policy and international relations strategy. The Kurds’ social, political, and military mobilization in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran as well as the Kurdish diaspora, especially in European countries, has played a role in defining Turkey’s foreign policy preferences.

Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran share a common identity, language (with different dialects), and culture. However, the physical borders that separated Kurds, social, political, and economic dynamics that influenced the perceptions of Kurds, has created a diversity in the way that Kurds mobilized in those countries. Kurds in Turkey, for instance, have participated in the social and political organizations of the PKK, which has a leftist and secular orientation. Despite the majority of Kurds in Turkey being Muslim, they have still supported the PKK due to ongoing suppression of the Turkish state and belief that the PKK struggles for the national rights of Kurds. Also the PKK, socially, politically, and militarily, has been the most powerful movement in the Kurdish region and this, for decades, has not let any other strong movements emerge and mobilize. The leftist and secular nature and the military and social development of the PKK have been the main concerns of the Turkish state and society. The PKK, as mentioned, has also affected Kurds in Syria since the 1980s. Syria hosted PKK members and even their leader for 20 years, and during this period the PKK mobilized and gained the support of the Kurds in Syria. Syria’s hospitality to the PKK was one of the main problems between Turkey and Syria until 1999, when Öcalan was forced to leave Syria to Kenya, and was arrested by the Turkish intelligence service with the help of the US (Oran, 2004). However, even though Öcalan was arrested and PKK members were forced to leave Syria, the political and ideological influence of the PKK both in Turkey and Syria remained. Today, Kurds in Syria have formed a de facto autonomous administration in northern Syria and Kurds in Turkey still fight state forces after failed negotiations with the Turkish government.

The affiliation between the PYD and the PKK has been another source of concern for the Turkish state. Turkish officials have never welcomed Kurdish autonomy neither in Turkey nor in Syria. However, Turkey has developed strong diplomatic and economic relations with the KRG despite the fact that the KRG, under the leadership of the PDK, plans to declare independence from Iraq with a referendum. What makes the PYD ‘bad’ and the PDK ‘good’ for Turkey is partly about their nature.

The PDK, compared to the PKK, does not have a socialist or leftist orientation and shares similarities with the religious perception of the Turkish state. The Muslim-Sunni aspect has been very dominant in Turkey and all leftist, socialist, and communist movements or groups have always been considered ‘anti-Islam’, ‘anti-Sunni’, and thus ‘anti-Turkey’. Yeşiltaş and Balcı (2013: 28) argue that for the AKP religion and culture have been two basic determinants of geopolitics and international relations. The Turkish state’s support to Sunnis in Syria and Iraq is an example of the AKP’s religious-oriented foreign policy. The KRG and Kurds in Syria who ally with the Syrian National Coalition have received military, diplomatic, and financial support from Turkey. Also, “the AKP and its more Islamist predecessor parties have downplayed nationalist discourse when dealing with the populations of the largely Kurdish regions, preferring instead to emphasize the religious unity of Kurds and Turks”  (Barkey, 2010: 10).

The AKP used the same strategy in Iraq and Syria as well, but it did not work because of the PKK’s considerable influence on the developing political autonomy in Rojava. The way that the PKK perceives religion or ethnic identity is different from that of the AKP. For the PKK, Kurds are a separate ethnic/national identity and can co-exist with Turks if Kurdish identity is recognized and Kurds are granted political autonomy. However, the AKP considers Kurds as a sub-unit of a bigger Turkish identity and does not want to share power with the Kurdish parties or organizations affiliated with the PKK. The PDK theoretically agrees with the PKK in terms of the solution of the Kurdish Question, but in practice supports the AKP’s policies, despite the fact that the armed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state damages the PDK’s economy and sovereignty. In this sense the long-term financial and diplomatic relations with Turkey are more worthy to maintain for the PDK than the ethnic identity it shares with the PKK.

The PKK’s socialist and secular ideology and antagonistic relation with the Turkish government has negatively influenced the perception and attitude of the Turkish government towards the PYD while Sunni identity and interests that the PDK and the AKP share has fostered political and economic relations between the KRG and Turkey.

Representation and State Preferences

Turkey, for a long time, did not want to have direct contact with the PDK due to domestic opposition. However, since Turkey was a close ally of the US, and the US supported and received the support of Iraqi Kurds, Turkey indirectly developed relations with the PDK. After the AKP came to power in 2002, the nature of the relation started to change. Tocci (2013: 68) argues that “following the transfer of the Iraq dossier from the Turkish military to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alongside extensive intelligence sharing with the US that allowed Turkish special forces to target PKK training camps in the Qandil mountains [the PKK’s base in South Kurdistan], [the Turkish government] reconciled with the KRG”. Due to the asymmetric relationship between the Turkish government, army or security forces, it had not been that easy for the governments before 2002 to make a similar (dossier) transfer, but the AKP took a risky step and has seemingly gained from this because the KRG has let Turkish forces operate in northern Iraq against the PKK and economic relations between the two has boosted significantly (Cagtapay and Evans, 2012).

It was not only the transfer of a dossier from the military to a ministry that facilitated the KRG and Turkey relations. The AKP’s religious aspect and its approach to the Kurdish Question and Turkish-Kurdish relations were also important. The AKP and the PDK created a Sunni coalition. The masses that the AKP represents had no significant objection to the relations between Turkey and the KRG. There have been two main reasons for the domestic support or non-objection to the AKP’s foreign policies: the PDK’s assistance (i.e. letting the Turkish air forces and troops use its territory to carry out air strikes and beyond-border ground operations against the PKK) and developing economic relations with the KRG that benefited not only Kurdish business people in east and southeast Turkey, but also those in the western part of the country. Thus, the AKP used its popular support, civic power, shared religious identities and the advantage of alliance with the US to create a peaceful and mutually win-win relation with the PDK.

Things become complex when Rojava is analyzed. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria share some common points in the position of Turkey, the US, and Kurds, however there are slight differences that have resulted in different outcomes. Turkey supported the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a Sunni formation fighting Bashar al-Assad, who is an Arab Alawite. The US also supported the SNC and even cooperated with Turkey to increase the military capacity of the Free Syrian Army (armed forces of the SNC) to fight forces loyal to Assad more effectively. Turkey’s main concern with regards to the Kurds in Syria was that the Kurds must not be an independent actor, but join the SNC to defeat Assad. A considerable majority of the Kurds in Syria are also Sunni and by including them in the SNC, Turkey would be able to create a strong armed force and a united political opposition against Alawite Assad and his allies (Iran and Russia). The AKP’s emphasis on religious identity and open antagonism against the Assad regime was critical in their foreign policy preferences in Syria and in its participation in international coalitions or meetings to resolve the conflict.

Turkey’s military and diplomatic support to the SNC and Sunni groups in Syria also created some international crisis. Turkey downed a Russian jet on November 24, 2015 following the violation of Turkish airspace and since then all the diplomatic relations between Russia and Turkey have come to an end. Turkey-US relations have also become problematic after the US offered assistance to Rojava’s People’s Defence Units (YPG) to fight against the Sunni Salafist Islamic State or ISIS. For the Turkish government, the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK, and by providing military support and ammunition to the YPG, the US indirectly empowers the PKK that is still the number one threat and target of the Turkish state. The religious identity of the AKP and the strategies it followed seemingly have not benefited the AKP as much as they did in Iraq. The US maintains its alliance with Rojava Kurds and recently launched a joint operation against ISIS on May 25, 2016 to take the city of al-Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State, in northern Syria.

Interdependence and the International System

Kurds in Iraq and Syria are attempting to achieve their distinctive purposes through two mainstream Kurdish parties, the PDK and the PYD. Although they have different statuses, ideologies, perceptions, and patterns of mobilization, they are strong enough to influence the foreign policy of the Turkish government.

The US has developed relations with Kurds in Iraq and Syria that have also affected Turkey’s preferences with regards to the conflicts and rise of Kurds as an actor. It is now difficult to speculate what these actors would do if Turkey had not allied with the US in Iraq, but it is clear that the US, as a hegemonic power, has influenced Turkey’s behaviors and foreign policies. As the conflict in Syria continues, it is difficult also to predict what the Turkish government’s next move will be; but it is obvious that Turkey-US relations are not as good as they were until a few years ago. The US needs both Turkey and Kurds to effectively fight ISIS, which is perceived as a ‘global enemy’, but Turkey insists that the US make a choice between Turkey and Kurds. Thus, Kurdish dominance in Syria and in the fight against ISIS and Kurds’ desire to form a federal region is causing policy interdependence for Turkey.

The involvement of Russia and Iran in the Syrian conflict has also affected Turkey’s policies, because Russia directly and Iran indirectly have supported Kurdish forces in northern Syria to advance towards the areas controlled by the SNC and some other Sunni Salafist groups backed by Turkey. Turkey has signed several trade and energy agreements with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan in December 2015 to decrease the impacts of the broken political and financial relations with Russia. Thus, the Syrian and Iraqi cases clearly show how Turkey’s foreign policy preferences and international relations are restricted by some other states, domestic or foreign societies, and interdependent dynamics of regional conflicts.


Kurds are transnational actors and they constantly affect both the Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy, not only because they are a relatively powerful domestic group, but also because the Kurdish Question itself has become an international issue. Economic growth and political stability have been the main concerns of the AKP government in solving the conflict. Kosereisoglu argues that the AKP’s neoliberal approach to economics has become “a part of the AKP’s public identity, with many Turks viewing the party as a proponent of this brand of economic policy. In its relations with the KRG, the role of its interest/identity as a neoliberal actor has been on display”. The AKP government did not encounter strong opposition from society in its relations with the KRG due to this. AKP officials present the fight with the PKK in Turkey, Syria (through the YPG), and Iraq as well as the political suppression of organizations and parties affiliated with the PKK as the basic mechanism to ensure political, hence economic stability in the country. In order to achieve this, the Turkish government has created alliances both in Turkey and neighboring countries. The AKP has received support from the Nationalist Movement Party (the MHP) and the CHP to lift the immunity rights of MPs, especially targeting People’s Democratic Party (HDP) MPs who are accused of being affiliated with or members of the PKK. The AKP, the MHP, and the CHP also agreed on extending the authority of the Turkish army to carry out operations against the PKK beyond Turkish territory. However, for that the AKP needs the support of the KRG and the US in terms of military equipment and intelligence. Therefore we can thaThe AKP seeks this to ensure survival both in the domestic and international system. Therefore we can say that the Kurdish Question, the characteristics of the Kurdish mainstream parties, the interests of Russia and the US in the Middle East, and the AKP’s pro-Sunni policies seem to have jointly influenced Turkey’s foreign policy.


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[1] A Kurdish name meaning west and used by Kurds to refer to western Kurdistan that covers most of the area in northern Syria and borders southern Turkey.

[2] Treaty of Friendly and Neighbourly Relations, No: 580, Iraq and Turkey.

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