Kurdistan’s Economic Boom and Relations with Turkey

Stephen DeAngelis

November 07, 2007

Because of Enterra Solutions’ business pursuits in Iraq (especially in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq), I have written a number of posts about developing tensions there [Despite Advances, Kurdistan Sits in Shaky Neighborhood, The Kurdish Situation Intensifies, and Internecine Challenges in Kurdistan]. Writing for the New York Times, Richard A. Oppel, Jr., provides a unique perspective on complicated relationship between Turkey and Kurdistan [“Turkish-Bred Prosperity Makes War Less Likely in Iraqi Kurdistan,” 6 November 2007].

“Viewed from the outside, Iraqi Kurdistan looks close to war. Tens of thousands of Turkish troops are amassed on the border. And thousands of Iraqi Kurdish pesh merga fighters have taken up positions in the Mateen Mountains, ready for a counterattack, their local commanders say, should any Turkish operation hit civilians. But wander the markets and byways here and a different reality comes into view, helping to explain why, despite bellicose Turkish threats, an all-out armed conflict may be less likely than is widely understood: the growing prosperity of this region is largely Turkish in origin.”

I’ve described how trucks stream across the Kurdish border filled with Turkish goods and, when returning to Turkey, sit in line empty waiting to be cleared back into Turkey. At the moment, it’s really a one-way deal with Turkey on the winning end. Oppel believes that Turkey will think long and hard before destroying that trade relationship.

“While Turkey has been traditionally wary of the Kurds of Iraq, it is heavily invested here, an offshoot of its own rising wealth. Iraqi Kurdistan is also a robust export market for Turkish farmers and factory owners, who would suffer if that trade were curtailed. Moreover, the Kurds’ longstanding fear of dominance by other powers now seems to be colliding with modest yet growing material comfort for some urban Kurds that was unthinkable not long ago, and has come on the back of Turkish investment, consumer goods and engineering expertise.”

As I noted in an earlier post on Kurdistan, even many of the workers being used in the building boom are Turkish (even though they are mostly ethnic Kurds). Iraqi Kurds have found Turkish workers both honest and hard-working. Oppel goes on to note just how extensive Turkish investment in Kurdistan has become.

“About 80 percent of foreign investment in Kurdistan now comes from Turkey. In Dohuk, the largest city in northwestern Kurdistan, the seven largest infrastructure and investment projects are being built by Turkish construction companies, said Naji Saeed, a Kurdish government engineer who is overseeing one project, a 187-room luxury hotel with a $25 million price. Some of the projects, including overpasses, a museum and the hotel, are financed or owned by the Kurdistan Regional Government, Mr. Saeed said, underscoring the direct financial partnership. Turkish investors are also building three large housing projects, including a $400 million venture that will feature 1,800 apartments as well as a health clinic, school, gas station and shopping center. At the construction site for a 15-story office building in central Dohuk, all of the engineers and managers are Turkish, as are dozens of laborers. ‘There are not any Kurdish engineers for a big project like this,’ Ahmed Shahin, the Turkish engineering manager, said.”

Walk into most stores and they are filled with Turkish goods. Because Kurdistan is landlocked, it must be resupplied primarily by land and the Turkish border is the most reliable — not to mention that the Kurds prefer Turkish products.

“At the upscale Mazi Supermarket, rows and rows of Turkish-made glassware, shoes, cleaning supplies, beauty products and frozen chickens are for sale. Sixty percent of Mazi’s products are from Turkey, Sherwan Jamil. a store manager, said. Many other products are imported through the Turkish border crossing at Zakho. ‘Turkish things are the best, better than Syria and Iran,’ said Shamiran Eshkery, 34, as she shopped for shoes. ‘We don’t have any problem with Turkish food and clothing, but we are upset because we don’t want to fight.'”

The official position of the Kurdistan Regional Government is that is doesn’t want to fight either. They have continued to insist that the solution to the PKK rebel problem is political not military. As Oppel noted, the Pesh Merga are poised to protect Iraqi Kurds rather than positioned to rebel a Turkish incursion aimed at routing the PKK. For its part, Turkish leaders feel compelled to act against the PKK.

“Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested in Washington this week that military operations in Iraq would be narrowly concentrated on guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., who use the jagged mountain border frontier as a haven after attacks in Turkey. ‘We have taken the decision to pursue an operation,’ Mr. Erdogan said Monday through an interpreter at the National Press Club. ‘We are not seeking war,’ he added, but offered no specifics or timing. His battle is largely one of perception, trying to convince the Turkish public that he is acting against the Kurdish guerrillas and that he has United States support to do so. But most analysts in Turkey expect any attack to be limited. Whatever the case, Mr. Erdogan’s visit seemed to satisfy the Turkish public. Daily newspapers on Tuesday shouted headlines like, ‘Green Light to the Operation.’ Hard-line nationalists expressed disappointment, but on talk shows, most seemed to welcome the result.”

KRG leaders should be able to remain apart from the fight as long as Iraqi Kurds do not become victims of Turkish operations. Even though the PKK enjoys broad support in Kurd, the KRG will insist that any attacks carried out against the PKK are a result of ill-conceived operations against Turkey by the PKK. Just like the Turks can’t tolerate PKK attacks against their citizens and soldiers, the KRG has an obligation to protect its citizens.

“If a large attack were to occur, Turkish soldiers would encounter thousands of Kurdish pesh merga fighters who have formed a loose sort of Maginot defensive line that parallels the Turkish border along the ridges of the Mateen Mountains. Kurdish leaders speak only generally about repelling an invasion, but political and military commanders here have specific instructions: Attacks on civilian villages will draw a fierce counterattack.”

It appears that cooler heads are prevailing for the moment. It doesn’t look like the Turks have any desire to cross the line, but an uneasy tension nevertheless remains in the region. The hope is that economics will trump politics for the time being.