In August 2009, the Turkish government announced that it would undertake a major opening toward Turkey’s Kurdish minority. This momentous initiative by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could not have been conceived of without recent changes in Iraq, the transformation of the AKP’s own policy toward northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the decision by the Obama administration to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. In addition to being a major development in the long saga of Turkey’s relations with its sizeable Kurdish minority, this initiative, known as the “democratic opening,” is also a testament to the distance the Turkish government has traveled in its policy toward Iraq.
Until recently, Turkey primarily viewed Iraq through the lens of its own Kurdish question. Kurdish autonomy in Iraq’s north represented a particular—some said an existential— challenge to Turkey. Indeed, Turkish Kurds had increasingly begun to articulate nationalist demands and the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents had ensconced themselves in northern Iraq’s uncontrolled areas.1 Ankara had been vociferously opposed to the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, an outcome of the 1991 Gulf War. In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Turkey found itself in the unenviable situation of contending with a transformed Iraq that legitimized the Kurds’ claims in the north through the establishment of a federal Iraqi state. Short of the independence of northern Iraq, this outcome was long thought by Turks to be the worst possible outcome for Turkey.
Seven years after the invasion, Turkey, which had spearheaded opposition to the KRG, is implementing a 180-degree turn in its policy. It is developing close economic and political ties with the KRG, and the two are collaborating on a gamut of issues, including efforts to pacify the PKK. Ankara has done away with its alarming and highly charged discourse on Iraqi Kurds. Remarkably, Ankara has even opened a consulate in Erbil, the KRG capital. In the process, Turkey has also emerged as a far more influential actor in Iraq. Although not as influential as Iran, Ankara is certainly giving Tehran a run for its money.
At the heart of these changes lay a confluence of developments, including the articulation by the AKP of a new regional strategic approach and the Turkish military’s realization that after twenty-five years of fighting, a strategy solely dependent on violence is unlikely to subdue the PKK or resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question. It is not surprising that Iraq’s neighbors would adapt their approach to Iraq over time. Iraq and its problems pose very difficult challenges for neighboring countries, which have to develop policy options toward Iraq and the region under conditions of great uncertainty. Not only must Iraq’s neighbors take Washington’s intentions into account, but they must also worry about future developments in Iraq, a state that has yet to prove that it is stable and robust. Yet, no neighbor has so dramatically transformed its approach to Iraq as Turkey has. This transformation was the product of realpolitik and a hard look at what the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will mean for Turkey in the long run.