Justin Vela in Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq -
Nothing encapsulates the foreign policy of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) better than the presence of more than 1,000 Turkish companies in Kurdish northern Iraq, which are reconstructing the region at a breakneck pace and planning to stay on to reap further rewards as the region develops.
Yet there is a dual cause to the approximately $7bn in trade that has grown up between Turkey and northern Iraq. On one side there is business and investment; on the other there is the desire to be able to put pressure on Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to help fight Kurdish rebels, largely directed from a leadership based in northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains, who in June ended their latest ceasefire in the 26-year conflict and resumed attacks inside Turkey.
Today, Turkish firms provide about 80% of northern Iraq's food and materials. Trade continues to rise and the region views itself as a gateway to the rest of Iraq and, also, Iran. In the city of Sulaymaniyah, Turkish businesses are easy to spot. Names such as Dogan and the Ozboy furniture shop and Istikbal are easily picked out on the main street. Two new overpasses were recently completed by Turkish firms, as well as the airport and repairs to Sulaymaniyah University. "The KRG government gives [Turkish business] a secure place," says one Kurdish Iraqi businessman. "We need them like they need us. They are near to us in culture, it is easy to cooperate. In politics there is a big problem, but in one way we want to explain by letting them come here that we are not enemies."
Though tensions in Iraq are far from settled, Iraqi Kurds essentially control their own territory in the north of the country through their own parliament and administration. Though they have a large degree of sympathy for Turkish Kurds, they do not currently suffer the same kind of repression and welcome the Turkish companies whose presence outranks all other foreign companies. "They are not a small country, they have a lot of experience," the Kurdish businessman notes.
If there is any hesitance from Kurds about the Turkish companies, it is that they by and large bring in their own workers from Turkey instead of hiring locals. The difference in the cost of labour is not much, while the difference in experience, with Iraq sequestered under an embargo for years, is great. Wanting Kurdish businesses and workers to gain experience, local businessmen are pressuring the KRG to make the Turkish companies form more joint ventures similar to those mandated in the Gulf states.
No conflict of interests
The Turkish government has no qualms about the connection between fostering business in northern Iraq - an AKP official recently led a delegation of 200 Turkish businessmen to the region - and trying to gain influence so they can eradicate the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), who without their bases in the Qandil Mountains would find survival far more difficult. "Trade is the key of politics... Improving business ties will eradicate the problems between us," Zafer Caglayan, Turkey's minister for foreign trade, recently told a local newspaper.
Though the PKK insists that all Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran must form what it calls a "national democratic union," the group also insists that internal divisions between Kurds must be left to Kurds to fix on their own. Interviewed in the Qandil Mountains, top PKK commander Murat Karayilan said: "I cannot evaluate the KRG in the sense of good or bad. We know the aim of the Turkish state is not only to weaken us, but also to weaken Kurds everywhere. It is a strategic approach."
In June, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani visited Ankara at the invitation of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Barzani's trip was widely viewed as a success for both sides and only a month after Barzani's visit to Ankara, the Turkish government demanded the KRG arrest 248 PKK commanders who are known to operate in the Qandil Mountains, even apparently offering the option of a joint operation. Turkey's frequent bombing and cross-border incursions into northern Iraq, which have killed and injured Iraqi Kurdish citizens, are all but ignored by the KRG.
Though he has condemned the PKK carrying out attacks from northern Iraq, Barzani doesn't appear ready to give in to Turkey and push the PKK further into the mountains. A long-time advocate of a Kurdish state, Barzani demands that the oil rich city of Kirkuk be included in Iraqi Kurdistan and has disagreements with both Turkey and the central government in Baghdad on how to solve the ethnic tension between Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs there, as well as disagreement over future control of oil resources. When Turkish officials raised the issue over Kirkuk, Barzani replied that if Turkey interfered, "we'll interfere in [the Kurdish Turkish city] Diyarbakir."
Yet as Iraq forms a new government and oil and gas begins flowing, much of it up through Turkey, the KRG may find the Kurdish guerrillas are getting in the way. Blood may be thicker than water, but perhaps not oil.
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