The Symbiotic Relationship Between Turkey & Kurdistan

Stephen DeAngelis

August 10, 2007

In my last Lessons from the Edge of Globalization post, I noted that leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government face the conundrum that most of their constituents want a free and independent Kurdistan but that they know such a bold move would create trouble for them with Turkey, Iran, and Syria (not to mention the rest of Iraq). The relationship that Kurdistan currently has with Turkey is fascinating and complex. More ethnic Kurds live in Turkey than in Iraq, but they don’t enjoy the same autonomy that Kurds in Iraq enjoy. For decades, there has been an active Kurdish independence movement in Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has waged a violent campaign against Turkey since the late 1970s and more than 30,000 people have been killed.

The Turkish government is just as active in its opposition to the PKK and has threatened to send its troops into northern Iraq to hunt down rebels seeking their own state in southeastern Turkey. The Turkish government understands that the Kurd separatists find great sympathy among the citizens of Kurdistan and are, therefore, wary of the success the KRG is achieving there. On the other hand, Turkey is Kurdistan’s single most important trading partner. This symbiotic relationship was the subject of a Washington Post article by Nicholas Birch [“Kurds rely on Turkey for workers, goods,” 2 July 2007]. Birch reported:

“Growing tensions between Turkey and Kurds in control of northern Iraq belie a deepening cooperation, as Turkish companies, workers and goods flock to a market enriched by 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues. Stocked almost entirely with Turkish brands, upmarket Iraqi Kurdish supermarkets only differ from their counterparts north of the border in their taste for gaudy decoration.”

In my first posts from Kurdistan, I wrote about the border crossings between Turkey and Kurdistan that are virtual parking lots for trucks entering Turkish_border_crossing_01_small_2 Kurdistan filled with Turkish goods and leaving empty to go get more. As you can see in the attached picture (taken from the Kurdish side — click to enlarge), that the line of trucks can stretch for miles. This trading relationship is important for both Turkey and Kurdistan, which is why their political leaders continue their arm’s length relationship with great care. Birch reports that so many Turks live in Kurdistan that the suburbs of Erbil are taking on a distinctly Turkish flavor.

“Once the preserve of two-story family houses, the suburbs of Iraqi Kurdish cities are increasingly home to the high-rise blocks characteristic of Turkey. ‘Turkey is by far and away our most important trading partner,’ says Aziz Ibrahim Abdo, general director at the Ministry of Trade in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil. ‘You can see that by looking around you.’ The statistics back him up, too. In Irbil, 380 out of 500 foreign companies are Turkish. In Dohuk, a city farther west, 65 percent of contracts worth about $350 million so far this year have gone to Turkish companies. Worth another $350 million and $300 million, respectively, brand new airports in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah are Turkish products. Another Turkish company won a $260 million bid to build a new university campus in Sulaimaniyah. ‘The quality of Turkish work is good, and they’re much more trustworthy than the Iranians,’ said Ibrahim Sofy, deputy head of Irbil’s Chamber of Commerce.”

The Turkish government must be of two minds about this trading relationship. They understand that most of the benefits from this trade are going to its Kurdish region, which is impoverished as a result of 30 years of fighting an insurgency. Improving the quality of life for those living in its Kurdish region could either decrease the intensity of the desire for independence or provide increased funding to separatists for carrying on the fight. If Kurdistan can remain part of a federated Iraq, it might provide a model for Turkish Kurds as well, who will see that prosperity and peace can be achieved through autonomy rather than separation. These are very ticklish political problems that will take great wisdom and patience to work through. KRG leaders have brilliantly walked this treacherous path so far.

Turkish workers in Kurdistan may be the catalysts for a future solution. They are eyewitnesses to what is happening in Kurdistan. They can see a future that few dreamed possible a decade ago. Birch reports:

“Turkish trade with Iraq reached $3 billion in 2006 and ‘could top $5 billion this year,’ Turkey’s trade minister, Kursad Tuzmen, told about 500 Turkish and Iraqi businessmen at an Iraqi trade fair last month. Much of that money is flowing to Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, a region impoverished by two decades of war against separatist Kurds. ‘This border is our lifeline,’ says Abdulkadir Sir, a taxi driver who used to make a living as a smuggler. A builder from the Turkish Kurdish town of Bitlis, now in Irbil, Faysal Ozdemir is another one whose bank account has benefited. ‘Back home, I’d be lucky to earn [$460] a month,’ he said. Here, he earns $2,000. Qualified Turkish engineers working in northern Iraq can expect monthly salaries of at least $5,000, more than twice what they would earn in Turkey. ‘It’s hard being away from home, but the money makes it worthwhile,’ says Seyhmus Gurbuz, a waiter at one of the Turkish-run restaurants. He’s one of an estimated 15,000 Turkish citizens — most of them Kurds — working in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

According to Birch, not everyone sees the future as rosy as I’m painting it. He reports that some Turkish companies have left Kurdistan having been scared away by fears of a Turkish invasion. This is where the Kurds believe their strong support of the U.S. will pay off and why they don’t want to see U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq. As long as U.S. forces are nearby, they suspect that Turkey will be hesitant to mount any serious attack against Kurdistan. Open combat between Turkey and Kurdistan would be disastrous for the region. As I noted in the post mentioned at the beginning of this one, the U.S. is counting on Kurdistan being the model of “what can be” if security and investment can be brought to the rest of Iraq. It could also be the model for Kurds in Turkey.

Kurdistan’s current reliance on trade with Turkey is bound to continue, but too great a reliance on any single trading source is not a resilient strategy. Enterra Solutions is trying to show how trading relationships can be expanded so that Kurdistan can be more resilient should tensions rise and, as a result, trading with Turkey is adversely affected. In the long run, trade relationships with the Kurdish region of Turkey will continue and strengthen. Geography and ethnic ties drive this relationship. Turkey’s government must understand that these ties are going to strengthen and that trying to curtail them will result in more problems for them not fewer. Let’s hope cooler heads carry the day and peace and prosperity rather than tension and turmoil define the region’s future.