In the Special Report, “Turkey’s New Engagement in Iraq,” author Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, examines the change in relations and what led to the improvements, and argues why sustained attention is needed to prevent events from undermining the progress achieved to date. This essay is drawn from a forthcoming work on Iraq’s regional relations, co-edited by Barkey, USIP’s Scott Lasensky and Phebe Marr.

In this On the Issues, Barkey discusses reasons for the improved relations, and its significance for Iraq’s future and U.S. national security interests.

USIP: In your Special Report, Turkey's “New Engagement in Iraq: Embracing Iraqi Kurdistan,” you argue that relations between Turkey, Iraq and Kurdistan's Regional Government (KRG) have improved dramatically. How did this transformation come about?    

Barkey: Turkey came to the realization that the KRG is here to stay and that, in fact, it is far more amenable to relations -- diplomatic and commercial -- with Turkey than anywhere else in the region.  Improved relations with the KRG enables Ankara to have more say in what happens in Iraq and also helps reduce domestic tensions with its own Kurdish minority.  The Turkish military also has come to understand that it will not vanquish the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey through violent means alone and a new approach was needed.

USIP: What does this suggest about Turkey's own political stability and direction?  

Barkey: If Turkey manages to continue with improved relations with Iraq, Iraqi Kurds and its own domestic Kurdish population, then it will have overcome the single most important obstacle to its stability since the inception of the republic in 1923.  This said this is a tall order. And failure to resolve the domestic Kurdish problem remains Turkey's Achilles' Heel.

USIP: What does a more cooperative Turkish-Iraqi relationship mean for U.S. interests---specifically, will it affect plans to draw down American military forces?

Barkey: Turkey has transformed itself from a problem country to a helpful and critically important one in Iraq as far as Washington is concerned. It would have been far more difficult for the U.S. to start executing its withdrawal if Turkish-KRG relations remained hostile.

USIP: You’ve helped to lead the Institute’s efforts to promote dialogue between Turkish and Iraqi foreign policy figures—and between Iraqis and their neighbors more broadly--what kind of lessons can you draw from those efforts on the ground?

Barkey: It is very difficult and one needs a great deal of patience.  Most importantly one should expect that change may take place when you least expect it and independent of your efforts.  Still, one always wants to hope that one's efforts contributed even if it is in a minor way to a positive outcome.

USIP: What might undermine this new entente between Turkey and Iraq?  

Barkey: The domestic Kurdish situation in Turkey.  If the Kurdish opening in Turkey falters and if the frustrations of the populations--Kurdish and Turkish--continue to build up with no end in sight, Turkish attitudes towards northern Iraq is likely to harden.  In turn, Baghdad will have to make its choice in the event of Turkish-KRG tensions, and it is unlikely that it will side with Ankara against Erbil.

USIP: How could the U.S. - and Iraq and its neighbors - prevent deterioration, and help maintain improved relations in this region?

Barkey: The U.S. has to do four things.  First, open a consulate in Erbil. Psychologically, it matters to the Kurds to know that Washington officially acknowledges them and is here to stay in the North - even if symbolically - for a long time to come.  It signals others that the U.S. takes the KRG seriously. Second, once the Iraqi government is formed, offer assistance to UNAMI and all parties involved to help resolve the issue of the disputed territories peacefully.  Third, help the new Iraqi government finalize the hydrocarbon law. Finally, begin offering assistance to the KRG on good governance; it has been alone for far too long managing on its own.