Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kurdistan of Iraq: An Autonomous Territory or a Turkish Conglomerate?

Kurdistan of Iraq
A woman dressed in ceremonial clothing stands with a torch before lighting-up a pyre during an Iraqi Kurdish celebration of Nowruz in the northeastern city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, on March 20, 2021. Shwan MOHAMMED/ AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

The United States Invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a new reality in Turkey’s relationship with the Iraqi Kurds and reduced the tension that controlled their previous relationship.

Turkey, which has always been known for its hostility towards everything that is Kurdish, receives the head of their region, who was just a tribal leader in the Turkish view, and extends the red carpet for him whenever he visits Turkey. Also, the Turkish trade movement and the number of visits by individuals for treatment, trade or tourism towards Iraqi Kurdistan is continuously increasing.

This new equation indicates that Turkey is well aware that the Kurds have become a complex and essential figure contributing to the Iraqi political scene.

A Bitter Conflict

Kurds have a terrible dread about Turkey they know, despite the change in previous equations and the transition of the relationship, which was full of tension, anxiety and hostility over the past decades between the two sides, to a new stage based on mutual interests and cooperation.

Perhaps the reason for these fears is the historical experience that the Kurds lived through nearly a century ago, which began with the emergence of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. The latter crushed many Kurdish revolutions and movements, such as the Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925, which erupted in protest against Atatürk’s declaration of abolishing the Islamic caliphate and denying the Kurdish national rights he had promised. After suppressing this rebellion and executing most of its leaders, including Sheikh Said, Atatürk continued marching according to this methodology until the end of his reign.

Additional concerns are associated with the traditional Turkish policy towards the Kurdistan region. Turkey insists on not acknowledging the region to this day and denies the term Kurdistan through its media, correspondence and statements, and prefers to use “Northern Iraq Region”. It is also using the PKK as a pretext for the military incursion into the region, building more military bases, and continuously bombing many civilian areas.

This Marxist-Leninist party has been fighting an armed struggle against the Turkish government since 1984. More than 40,000 people have died since the outbreak of the conflict that reached its climax in the mid-’90s between the two parties

That state remained until Abdullah Öcalan, the party leader imprisoned in Turkey since 1999, announced a ceasefire in 2013, calling on his party to lay down arms and start a new phase based on peaceful movement.

That agreement collapsed in 2015 after Turkey launched a ground offensive on June 17 called “Operation Claw-Tiger”. The Turkish forces advanced 40 kilometres into Iraq and set up more than 30 temporary bases there.

Red Lines Falling

The Turkish nationalists have always viewed the Kurds as “Turks who climbed the mountains and forgot their national identity there,” and that they are just rebellious clans and tribes seeking to establish a Kurdish state in the region and ready to side with Turkey’s enemies also, that the notion of the “Kurdistan” state means the end of Turkey.

When the American forces invaded Iraq, Turkey set many red lines that would never allow anyone to cross, such as not allowing Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) into Kirkuk and Mosul to capture them.

Also, Turkey refused the annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan region under any clause and did not allow the establishment of an independent state in northern Iraq to avoid direct repercussions on the Turkish Kurds situation, whose number is many times greater than the Kurds of Iraq. The Turkish red lines also include defending the rights of the Turkmen minority in the event of any persecution by the Kurds of Iraq.

The list of Turkish red lines goes further, especially if it is related to Turkey’s national security, which makes Ankara always ready to invade northern Iraq in the event of a violation by the Kurds.

However, these red lines have been gradually falling over time. The relationship between the two sides has witnessed a significant breakthrough under mutual commercial and political interests in recent years.

The Customer State

Kurdistan of Iraq
Iraq’s Kurdistan region ex-president Massud Barzani (R) meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) on August 23, 2017 in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. SAFIN HAMED / AFP

“Commerce is the key to politics, and the development of our relations will allow our problems to be resolved.” Perhaps this statement issued by the ex-Turkish minister of state for foreign trade Zafer Çağlayan expresses the new relationship between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.

Despite the decline in trade exchange between the two sides after the Islamic State (IS) took over a third of Iraq in 2014, the latter and the Kurdistan region have returned to be one of the essential Turkish markets.

In this context, the Turkish Ambassador to Baghdad Fatih Yıldız, announced that the volume of trade exchange between Turkey and Iraq had risen to $20.66 billion in 2020, noting that Iraq is ranked fourth among the major importers of Turkish goods after Germany, Britain and the United States.

Most of these exports took place through the Ibrahim al-Khalil border crossing in the Zakho district of the Dohuk Governorate in the Kurdistan Region, which would be described as Turkey’s “customer” state if it obtained independence.

The Turkish commercial presence in the region, especially in areas under Barzani’s control, appears more plainly than in any neighbouring country. Turkish brands are scattered throughout the region, from shopping malls to furniture stores and commercial and consumer goods. The north prefers Turkish goods over other goods from other countries. That coincides with an increase in Turkish companies operating in the region, amounting to more than 1,500 large and small companies, and this number is continuously increasing.

On the other hand, Turkish soil appears to be the only outlet for the region’s oil to the outside world through the oil pipelines that connect the region’s fields, Kirkuk, and the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

The South Sudan Dilemma

It is effortless for the Kurdistan region to secede from Iraq, but the most challenging thing is establishing a stable and prosperous state.

What awaits the Kurdistan region in the event of independence from Iraq is not only the outbreak of wars between its Arab and Kurdish citizens and others but also the loss of current prosperity in the region, especially if Turkey abandons all its deals signed with the region. The region’s independence will mean that Baghdad and Ankara impose a tight siege.

The internal conflicts experienced by the Kurds will resurface, as these conflicts are still ongoing and similar to those that broke out in South Sudan.

It is known that there is a struggle for partisan and tribal influence between Masoud Barzani’s and Jalal Talabani’s parties. There is also a partisan political conflict between the Gorran Movement and the Kurdistan Islamic Movement and the two main parties, namely the Barzani and Talabani parties. These divisions, which are raging now, will further escalate more extensively after the separation.

Most importantly, the Kurdistan region of Iraq depends for most of its resources on oil extracted from its territory and sold through an oil pipeline that passes north through Turkish territory. How can an independent country rely primarily on an oil pipeline that passes in the region of a foe?


Saif Al-Deen, Beyer Mustafa. Turkey and Kurdistan of Iraq: The Confused Neighbours. Dar Al-Zaman. 2009. Arabic Link.

Cagaptay, S., Turkey and Kurdistan government: Undeclared Mutual Economic interest. Washington Institute, 2015. Arabic Link.

Savas, N., Why Did the Turkish Parliament Reject the Deployment of US Forces?, 2004. Arabic Link.

Deutsche Wille Arabic, The Kurdish State: A Historic Dream Approaching, But Reality Has Another Language. 2017. Arabic Link.

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