The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has created an area where Turkish and Kurdish interests overlap: both parties are thoroughly alarmed at ISIL’s expansion. However, delicate and sensitive cooperation against ISIL has to take place in the broader context of the complicated and evolving Kurdish-Turkish relationship. While Turkey develops its response to the ISIL threat and the Syrian crisis, it is also managing Kurdish relations as part of its effort to redefine the Turkish state and Turkish national identity. On their side, the Kurdish leaders — especially the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq — are compelled to deal with a complex and sometimes competing array of Kurdish organizational alliances and interests that cross international borders, while trying to deepen their relations with Ankara. Despite the complicated nature of the situation, there are reasons to be hopeful.

This article contextualizes what some observers refer to as the “Byzantine” nature of changing Turkish-Kurdish relations in the fight against ISIL. For example, the fact that Turkey gave permission to Iraqi peshmerga troops to cross into Syria by way of Turkey, as saviors of Syrian Kurds, and that Turkey is now training Kurdish peshmerga forces against ISIL,[1] came as a surprise even to some seasoned observers. However, decisions such as these are best viewed as contingent outcomes rather than signals of a re-alignment, reflecting short- and medium-term tactical and strategic decisions by Turkish and Kurdish leaders. They can best be seen through the prism of regional networks of elites and rooted political rivalries. This article makes this claim through a brief discussion of Turkish-Kurdish relations before ISIL, how the rise of ISIL affected this relationship, and how the relationship is evolving to meet the ISIL threat.

Dynamics of Turkish-Kurdish Relations Prior to ISIL

Inside Turkey, Kurdish and Turkish relations have improved dramatically in the last decade under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Kurds can finally be Kurdish in Turkey: in the predominantly Kurdish towns, street vendors can sell Iraqi Kurdistan flags and T-shirts adorned with Kurdish flags.[2] Diaspora Kurds can cross the Turkish border without being subjected to the level of scrutiny by Turkish authorities they were in the past.[3] As a result, Turkish Kurds have shown due appreciation at the ballot box in support of AKP.[4]

However, there is no shortage of critics of this current status of Turkish-Kurdish relationships. On one hand, liberal critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration call attention to Turkey’s increasing emphasis on Sunni Islamist precepts at home and its neo-Ottoman muscle-flexing abroad. The expansion of Kurdish rights, however welcome, is aimed not at a liberal-pluralistic society, they claim, but at creating a hierarchy of citizenship with Kurds distinctly as second-class citizens.[5] On the other hand, conservative critics, invoking the founding principles of the secular Turkish state, resist both the Islamist redefinition of Turkish national identity and the expansion of Kurdish rights. They nevertheless support, though grudgingly and with some suspicion, the “intermittent” cease-fires with the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK).

The Syrian Civil War, Rise of ISIL and the Changing Nature of Turkish-Kurdish Relations

The rise of ISIL and the Syrian civil war threatened this growing rapprochement in Kurdish-Turkish relations inside Turkey. In the years prior to the PKK cease-fire and the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, Assad’s Syrian regime supported the secessionist PKK, by way of Iran.[6] Turkey persuaded Syria to end this longstanding relationship in return for Turkish economic assistance.[7] Parts of the PKK’s armed wing then moved into the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, to wage the fight with Turkey from behind the Iraqi Kurdistan border. Other PKK elements moved to the Kurdish areas of Syria, without overt, official Syrian regime support.[8]

The transition of the Syrian protest movement into a fierce civil war in 2011 altered the Syrian regime’s tactical calculations. Many in Ankara claim that the Syrian regime immediately attempted to recruit the remnants of PKK to fight on its behalf.[9] The same suspicion fell on the PKK’s Syrian counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The development of relationships with Kurdish militant groups, it is surmised, was the critical development that convinced the Turkish leadership that Assad must go.[10]

The rise of ISIL complicates matters for Turkey in two ways. First, Ankara believes that if the international community, and especially the United States, had acted at the outset of the uprising in Syria to change the regime, ISIL would not have found a foothold inside Syria. Turkey views ISIL as a spillover of a Sunni-Shia civil war inside Iraq, triggered by the slow collapse of the Syrian state. Because of this, Turkey therefore continues to view the solution to ISIL as lying in Damascus — not in Baghdad, as the United States insists.[11]

Second, ISIL’s deliberate targeting of Kurds as “less than Muslims” has created a sudden coalescing of the Kurdish diaspora and its varied armed groups against a common enemy.[12] PKK affiliates in Syria and Turkey have managed to create a Kurdish safe haven inside Syria, around the Syrian Kurdish town of Qamishli, in a region where the Syrian state has collapsed. These developments, however, make Ankara nervous. If PKK decides to pursue secession once again, they would now have more tactical and strategic depth, with the advantage of a larger base in Syria with close proximity. Leaving no room for doubt, and perhaps allaying the conservative remnants of the Turkish deep-state, Erdogan recently stated (in reference to siege of the town of Kobani) that “the PKK and (ISIL) are the same for Turkey,” and that Turkey will “deal with them jointly.”[13]

Erdogan’s comments, especially in the context of Turkey’s hesitancy to save the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, appeared to damage the fragile rapprochement between Turkey and its Kurds. The PKK leaders (echoed by their jailed leader Ocalan) responded from their encampment in the mountains of Iraq, warning that civil war will erupt in Turkey if Turkey fails to intervene.[14] Behind the scenes, however, rumors abound that those same PKK leaders have sent word on the streets not to push things too far, for fear of empowering hardliners in Turkey who favor war against the Kurds.[15]

In Iraq, officials of the KRG are focusing on the long term — that is, combating the threat of ISIL while encouraging rapprochement between Turkey and the Turkish Kurds — while delicately managing the ongoing demonstrations by Syrian Kurdish refugees and Iraqi Kurds who demand swift action in support of the besieged Kurds in Syria, including the town of Kobani.

KRG officials, though they too wish for stronger military action against ISIL, appreciate the fact that the YPG (supported by other armed Kurdish groups) have effectively created a Kurdish safe haven inside northern Syria, centered on the town of Qamishli and extending all the way to the Iraqi border — and that they have accomplished this with the quiet complicity of the Turkish authorities. Many informed Kurdish officials claim that, despite the bluster, neither Turkey nor PKK will easily break the ceasefire, but will rather continue behind-the-scenes negotiations.[16]

Kurdish Tactical Cooperation with an Eye on the Future

The Kurdish leaders face challenges of their own. Their tactical decisions are shaped by their strategic goals of deepening the existing Kurdish autonomy. The Kurdish struggle is led by several organizations that have overlapping and conflicting elite and patronage networks across national boundaries. The PKK of Turkey is based both in the prison cell of Ocalan and in the Qandil mountains of Iraq; it maintains close links with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraqi Kurdistan and the YPG in Syria, but also with the Iranian state and previously with the Syrian regime. Indeed, during the civil war between PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid-1990s, PKK members fought side-by-side with PUK against the KDP, with Iranian support. On the other side, the Iraqi KDP had Turkish support in combating the PUK, PKK, and Iran; Turkish soldiers even fought alongside the PDK peshmerga inside Iraq.

Although that civil war has ended, around 1,500 Turkish soldiers still remain in Iraq (including an M60T Tank company), camped outside the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk and “protected” by Iraqi peshmerga units affiliated with KDP.[17] This unlikely and little-known alliance came in handy (as Iraqi Kurdish officials note privately) when ISIL arrived, around 30 kilometers outside Erbil. They claim that some of the Turkish soldiers assisted the Iraqi peshmerga in rescuing the Yazidis, with the support of air strikes by Turkish forces, and that the Turkish military delivered much-needed ammunition to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga against ISIL, while Western leaders were still deliberating the question.[18]

KRG officials also emphasize that Turkish and KRG relations today run deeper than tactical military alliances, as a direct result of policy decisions by the KRG. After the US invasion in 2003, the PUK and KDP put aside their differences and concentrated on building the KRG, dividing tasks between them. The PUK, led by Jalal Talabani (then the Iraqi president), took responsibility for maintaining a united front vis-a-vis Baghdad, while the PDK leader Massoud Barzani, assisted by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, actively worked to deepen relations with Turkey, utilizing PDK’s wartime networks with Turkish military and political leaders. KRG officials insist that with the ongoing instability and political dysfunction in Baghdad, they can rely more on Ankara than on Baghdad, and that any chance of maintaining Iraqi Kurdish autonomy (let alone ultimate Kurdish independence) will have to come with Ankara’s blessing.[19]

Today, Turkey remains the largest trading partner of Iraqi Kurdistan, at 75 percent, with Iran a distant second, followed by the European Union at a minuscule level.[20] Almost 85 to 90 percent of the Turkish trade and investments into Iraq flows to Iraqi Kurdistan, not to Baghdad.[21] Iraqi Kurdistan is also slated to furnish some of Turkey’s energy needs, while Turkey will underwrite the revenue transfers necessary to accommodate KRG oil and gas revenues. In return, the KRG goes to great lengths to control PKK activities — just as it has assuaged the Syrian Kurdish leaders of YPG/PYD in the last few weeks.

Thus, the broader, high-level political cleavages do not always look the same on the ground. This is not necessarily a cause for optimism, however, in view of the deep-seated differences between the two sides. As KRG officials point out, Turkey is willing to support the Kurds against ISIL, but only as the dominant regional power and on their own terms; the weaker parties carry the burden of astutely maneuvering the relationships.[22] The sudden public statement by the Turkish authorities that it will allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga soldiers to cross into Kobani exemplifies the tactical alliances that exist between KRG and Turkish authorities. But it is also important to note that, as soon as the announcement was made, YPG mused publicly that they would rather have ammunition and supplies than the support of peshmerga units allied with KRG and KDP.[23]

The KRG in Iraq at this moment appears to be uniquely situated to get and to manage Turkish support, while also playing a mediating role in broader Kurdish affairs. Mazoud Barzani has become the eminence grise of Kurdish politics. It may indeed be a tribute to his skillful management of transnational relations and intra-Kurdish relations that Turkey has decided to allow Iraqi peshmerga to cross into Kobani. Iraqi Kurdish officials are confident that the two sides will somehow navigate a deepening rapprochement without unduly alarming the regional Kurdish diaspora. Nevertheless, they worry about the seemingly conflicting objectives of Turkey and the United States with regard to ISIL: is the proper military focus on Syria or Iraq? And it understands that a strategic conciliation between Washington and Ankara will again alter the dynamics of Kurdish-Turkish relations, for better or for worse.

Buddhika ‘Jay’ Jayamaha is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University and is currently conducting his dissertation research in Iraq, Turkey, and Nepal. He previously served in the U.S. Army, and is a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division.

[1] Humeyra Pamuk, “Turkey Trains Kurdish Peshmerga Forces in Fight against Islamic State,” Reuters, November 22, 2014. Also see “Turkish Military to Train Peshmerga Forces, Kurdish Official Says” Rudaw (Kurdish news channel), November 22, 2014.

[2] Author observations and conversations in Diyarbakir, Turkey, October 16-17, 2014; and parts of eastern Turkey, November 18-19, 2014.

[3] Author interviews in Iraqi Kurdistan region with multiple Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian Kurdish people who have transited through Turkey, both legally and illegally, October 1-15, 2014.

[4] Author interviews in Ankara, Turkey with party activists and members of the former Democratic Society Party, currently the Peace and Democracy Party, the latest incarnation of a Kurdish nationalist party with close links to PKK, October 17-18 and November 13-18, 2014. Also see Kadri Gursel, “Turkey’s Kurds Key to Erdogan’s Presidency Bid,” al-Monitor (and also in the Turkish daily Miliyet) June 10, 2014; Orhan Coskun and Gulsen Solaker, “Turkey’s Kurdish Peace Process Key to Erdogan’s Presidential Hopes,” Reuters, April 3, 2014; Soner Cagaptay and Ege Cansu Sacikara, “Turks in Europe and Kurds in Turkey Could Elect Erdogan,” Policywatch 2291, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 23, 2014.

[5] Arda Gucler, Untimely Representation: Deliberation, Urgency and Democratic Theory, PhD Dissertation, Northwestern University.

[6] Author interviews in Erbil, Iraq, October 2-4 and 11-14 and November 27-28, 2014; in Suleimaniyah, Iraq, October 4-10, 2014; in Diyarbarkir, Turkey, October 16-17, 2014; in Ankara, Turkey, October 17-18 and November 13-18, 2014; and in Istanbul, Turkey, October 18-21 and November 12-13 and 18-25, 2014. Also see Cengiz Candar, “Turkey Claims Iran Providing Logistical Support for PKK,” al-Monitor, December 20, 2012; Soner Cagaptay, “Syria and Turkey, the PKK Dimension,” Policywatch 1919, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 5, 2012.

[7] Author interviews with Turkish officials and Kurdish lawmakers, November 16-18, 2014. For a detailed account of events leading up to the Adana Agreement of 1998 that ended official Syrian support for PKK, see F. Stephen Larrabee and Ian O.Lesser, Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty, (Center for Middle East Policy, Rand Corporation, 2003); and Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Struggle for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[8] The official borders are exceedingly porous. Numerous villages straddle the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, maintaining deep-rooted familial and economic ties. People cross the borders without official papers, with the complicity of local authorities. Countless Kurdish, Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian people continue to travel to and from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran without a single document. Author interviews and observations in Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian border towns, October 14-15, 2014.

[9] Author interviews in Erbil, Iraq with Kurdish officials, October 2-4 and October 11-14, 2014; in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, October 4-10, 2014; in Ankara, Turkey with Kurdish and Turkish officials, October 17-18 and November 13-18, 2014; and in Diyarbarkir, Turkey, October 16-17, 2014.

[10] Author interviews in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey with Turkish and Kurdish officials, October 17-18 and 19-21, 2014, and November 13-18 and 19-25, 2014.

[11] Author interviews in Ankara, Turkey with Turkish government officials, October 17-18 and November 13-18, 2014.

[12] For the most recent public affirmation of this reality, see this YPG spokesman interview with the Kurdish news network: “Spirit of the times, Kurds united,” Rudaw, November 18, 2014.

[13] “Edogan: PKK, ISIS Same for Turkey,”The Daily Sabah, 4 October 2014.

[14] Jonathan Burch, “Turkey Inaction over Kobane Threatens Fragile Peace Deal, Say Kurds,” Rudaw, October 8, 2014; Jonathan Burch, “Kurdish Militants Warn of ‘Violent Conflict’ if Turkish Police Given More Powers,” Rudaw, October 16, 2014.

[15] Author interviews with Kurdish activists in Diyarbarkir, Turkey, October 16-17, 2014; in Ankara, Turkey, October 17-18 and November 13-18, 2014; and in Istanbul, Turkey, October 18-21 and November 12-13, 2014.

[16] Author interviews with Kurdish Regional Government member of Kurdish Regional Government Parliament, and officials from the KRG Directorate of Foreign Relations, October 2014. Also, author interview in Istanbul, Turkey of a Turkish Parliamentary Committee member tasked with assessing the ongoing “Reconciliation Process,” as the peace process between PKK and Turkey is referred to, November 19, 2014. The concept of the “cease-fire” here remains a very peculiar one. On the one hand, despite the ongoing negotiations between PKK and Turkish authorities, both parties keep testing the limits of the cease-fire with deliberate skirmishes. See for example, Jonathan Burch, “Killing of Fourth Turkish Soldier in a Week Threatens Fragile Peace with Kurds,” Rudaw, October 30, 2014. On the other hand, Turkish and Kurdish officials clarify the seemingly fragile nature of the cease-fire, and the repeated threats of both sides taking turns to threaten to return to an all out war, as “part of the game.” Skirmishes are part of the negotiating dynamics where both sides try to be astute managers of political brinkmanship with calculated use of violence, without letting it get out of hand.

[17] Peshmerga soldiers point out that they constitute the perimeter defense of the Turkish enclaves inside Iraq, and that there is a modus vivendi between the parties on the ground, despite their broader differences. Some of the Kurdistan Regional Government Members of Parliament expressed the same sentiment. Author interviews in Erbil, Iraq, October 3 and 12, 2014; and in Dohuk, Iraq, October 14-15, 2014.

[18] This story was initially discussed by peshmerga troops as if it were a conspiracy theory that bordered on the unbelievable, until President Barzani, on October 13, 2014, publicly affirmed the assistance, claiming that they (the Turkish authorities) “asked us not to make it public.” Some KDP members, and peshmerga closer to KDP, are quick to point out that there is also a sizable Iranian presence left over from the civil war in the “green zone,” albeit in civilian clothes (that is, in PUK territory, especially in Suleimaniyah), just as there are Turkish soldiers assisting KDP in the “yellow zone,” (i.e., KDP territory).

[19] Author interviews in Erbil, Iraq with KRG officials, October 11-13, 2014 and November 26, 2014. They also mention the joke in Iraqi Kurdistan, popularized by Talabani, when he referred to “our American friends and Turkish brothers.” Friends can come and go, and they do; however one has no choice in one’s brother, but has to deal with him as he comes.

[20] Author interviews in Erbil, Iraq with KRG member of parliament and an official from the Directorate of Foreign Relations, October 3 and 11, 2014.

[21] Bilateral relations have been almost non-existent between Ankara and Baghdad in the last ten years, as a result of former Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian outlook and his open displeasure with the Turkish involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan, along with the Turkish ruling party’s Islamist outlook. Although under the new administration in both Ankara and Baghdad there is now renewed effort to improve relations.

[22] Author interviews in Erbil, Iraq with KRG member of parliament and an official from the Directorate of Foreign Relations, October 3 and 11, 2014.

[23] Author interviews in Turkey with Kurdish activists, and with multiple Kurdish news sources inside Turkey, October 18-19, 2014. The private musings by Kurdish activists on intra-Kurdish differences became public as many Kurdish and Turkish web-sites started publishing comments by YPG members. The depth of their distrust lies in the fact that the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq retains close ties to the Turkish government, while the same government that allowed for Peshmerga to transit through Turkey views YPG as “terrorists” and a threat to Turkey. See, for example, “Syrian Kobani Official; We Need Weapons not Kurdish Peshmerga forces,”, October 21, 2014.

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