This month, a brewing internal conflict between Iraq’s central government and its Kurdish minority burst into the open, threatening to benefit both Iran and ISIS at America’s expense. At the same time, Washington’s ties with Ankara, a longtime partner in the region, hit rock bottom following Turkey’s arrest of local employees of U.S. consulates in the country. As bad as both of these developments are, there is also an opportunity in their convergence. U.S.-Turkish cooperation could help temper the Iraqi crisis and stabilize U.S. ties with both Ankara and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
The United States and Turkey have been drifting apart for at least five years. Disagreements over how to handle the fallout of the Arab Spring, particularly as the Syrian civil war has raged on, have turned into a deep chasm on almost every dimension of foreign and domestic policy. But arresting employees of U.S. consulates proved to be a final straw, leading the United States to suspend visa services for Turkish citizens and Turkey to reciprocate. With this spat showing no signs of abating, another crisis erupted in the Middle East as Iraqi forces, with Iranian support, moved to retake the city of Kirkuk, which had been under Kurdish control for three years, and which Kurds hoped to make part of a new, independent Kurdish state.
Here, unlike almost everything else, Washington and Ankara actually see eye to eye. Over the past decade, both the United States and Turkey cultivated close relations with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. For Washington, Barzani represented an important ally in the fight against ISIS, as well as in the effort to contain Iranian influence in Iraq. For Ankara, Barzani, as a conservative and cooperative Kurdish leader, was an important ally in the fight against the Kurdish separatist movement with which Turkey has been at war for decades. Both countries saw the Kurdistan Regional Government, over which Barzani presided semi-democratically, as an important island of relative stability in the region, and for Ankara in particular it has become an important economic partner.
Despite these relationships, both the United States and Turkey objected when Barzani announced a referendum for Kurdish independence, fearing the results would prove destabilizing. Their opposition failed to stop Barzani from moving ahead with the vote, and the destabilizing results are now apparent for all to see. Since Barzani rushed into the referendum without the support of his two most important foreign backers, when Baghdad chose to challenge his actions militarily, he had no one to fall back on for support. On Oct. 16, when Iraqi tanks rolled into Kirkuk as Kurdish forces withdrew, it represented a humiliating end to Barzani’s dream of Kurdish statehood.
Now, Iraqi forces are threatening to push further into Kurdish-controlled territory, acting with the backing, if not active encouragement, of Tehran. Neither the United States nor Turkey want to see Iraq become any more violent, or Iranian influence extend along Turkey’s borders. Both Washington and Ankara, therefore, have good reason to stop the advance of Iranian-backed militias and much to lose should they fail to support their longtime Kurdish partner.
Close diplomatic and military cooperation between the United States and Turkey would be the best way to support the continued viability of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It would also help keep alive the faltering U.S.-Turkish relationship. The first step would be a joint statement of support for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territorial integrity in its post-2003 borders. Turkey could then announce that it will end the sanctions it imposed against the Kurdistan Regional Government following its referendum, a punitive measure that no longer has any necessity.
As long as Iranian-backed Iraqi troops seek to challenge the status quo in Iraq, the threat of force will inevitably be part of any negotiation over the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkish troops are already stationed in northern Iraq, while many of the air assets that the United States could bring to bear in the region are located at Incirlik airbase in Turkey. If Washington and Ankara are seen to be acting in close coordination diplomatically, the threat of joint military action will, by extension, seem all the more credible for anyone watching in Tehran.
For a longer-term solution to stabilizing the region, a new agreement will have to be negotiated between Baghdad and Irbil, one which takes into account the ever-contentious disposition of oil revenues from northern Iraqi fields. Turkey, which controls the pipeline through which this oil is currently exported, has important trump cards to play in any such negotiations. Cooperating with Turkey to mitigate the damage of the Kurdistan Regional Government referendum would be an opportunity to help check ISIS and Iran while demonstrating the continued relevance of the relationship between Washington and Ankara.