Was Turkey seriously considering annexing Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s?

Analysis - Illustration - Turkey/Iraqi Kurdistan
5 min read
01 September, 2022
In-depth: In his memoir, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani shared for the first time that Turkey's former President Turgut Ozal had proposed annexing Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf War. But how serious was the idea?

In the latest edition of his memoirs released this month, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani disclosed for the first time that the late former Turkish President Turgut Ozal "frankly" proposed that Turkey annex Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

But how serious was this proposal? 

"It is a well-known fact that Ozal thought outside the box regarding the Kurdish question after he became President in 1989," Gunes Murat Tezcur, a professor at the University of Central Florida where he holds the Jalal Talabani Endowed Chair, told The New Arab.

"He perceived the US-led military operation to remove Saddam's forces from Kuwait as a unique historical opportunity to remake the region and initiated direct contacts with Iraqi Kurdish leaders - Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani." 

"Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani disclosed for the first time that the late former Turkish President Turgut Ozal 'frankly' proposed that Turkey annex Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War"

Those two leaders visited Ankara in 1991 and 1992. At that time, Iraqi Kurdistan had just gained its autonomy in the aftermath of the Gulf War, which was protected by a no-fly zone against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's air force enforced by US-led coalition fighter jets operating from Turkish airbases.

"At the same time, Ozal faced stiff resistance from Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel (1991-1993) and Turkish military bureaucracy while pursuing an alternative approach to the Kurdish question," Tezcur said. "They preferred to have Saddam remain in power."

"In this regard, Ozal was a lonely political figure lacking widespread support for his flirtations with Iraqi Kurdish leaders," he added. "His untimely death in April 1993 brought an end to this approach and resulted in the ascendancy of security hawks."

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Cengiz Candar, a respected Turkish analyst who was President Ozal's special advisor on foreign policy at that time, said that the proposal had "the strong mark" of Ozal's "iconoclastic style". 

"He liked to float ideas in order to see the various options and to test whether any of them were achievable," Candar told The New Arab

He clarified that there was no question of annexing Iraqi Kurdistan at the time and that this wasn't on Ozal's mind. 

"What was in his mind was to project Turkey as a major power centre in determining the future of post-Saddam Iraq as a staunch ally of the United States that had emerged as the sole superpower in the new unipolar international system that had replaced the bipolar one with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War," Candar said. 

Barzani Kurdish flag - Anadolu
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani recalled the proposal in the latest edition of his memoir. [Getty]

"What he had in mind was in the case of a breakup of Iraq not to let anybody other than Turkey fill the void in the north of the country," he added.

"He thought in such a case he could extend Turkey's influence only through cooperation with the Kurds and to achieve that goal, autonomy under Turkey's suzerainty would be acceptable for Ankara." 

Candar also emphasised the importance of recollecting that during that period, "the words Kurds and Kurdistan were not in Turkey's lexicon”.

"Denialism was Turkey's state ideology," he said. "Therefore, what Ozal suggested to Barzani, in fact, was a revolutionary step for Turkey itself."

According to Candar, Ozal also believed a rapprochement between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds would be "conducive for the resolution of the Kurdish question of Turkey" and "a paradigm shift for Turkey with an effect on the PKK-led insurgency" in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast.

"What he [former Turkish President Turgut Ozal] had in mind was in the case of a breakup of Iraq not to let anybody other than Turkey fill the void in the north of the country"

"Making the borders less relevant was in his mind as well," he said. "He was aware of the fraternity of the Kurds across the borders and he strongly believed in the free circulation of people and goods and ideas. He was a man advocating the free market with all its multitudes."

Both Candar and Tezcur seriously doubt the Americans would have been supportive of any annexation by Turkey of Iraqi Kurdistan. In his memoirs, Barzani recalls that he and Talabani asked the Americans about their stance on the proposal. The Americans said they would respond on a later date but never did, and the Kurdish leaders never asked again.

"I don't think that Americans were interested in redrawing regional borders," Candar said. "American Arab allies in that period were extremely allergic to that possibility, moreover it would mean redrawing the borders to the detriment of Israel. The Palestine question was still the most burning issue in the region."

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Tezcur similarly noted that it would be "unrealistic to think that the United States or any other state would support the dismemberment of Iraq and the annexation of its Kurdish territories to Turkey".

"That would have been the most monumental geopolitical change in the Middle East since World War I," he said. 

"At the same time, both Kurdish leaders perceived Turkey as a balancing force vis-a-vis Saddam, especially in the earlier 1990s," he added.

"So, they were rather content with the Turkish military presence and incursions against the PKK in Behdinan, the mountainous region just south of the international border."

"The idea of having Mosul as part of Turkey has been a constant theme in Turkish politics for the last 30 years"

Furthermore, other Turkish officials have suggested that Turkey annex Mosul and Kirkuk since 1991. 

"The idea of having Mosul as part of Turkey has been a constant theme in Turkish politics for the last 30 years," Tezcür said. "Turkey had claims over the Mosul province until the Treaty of Ankara of 1926 when the Brussels Line, established in 1924, became the permanent border."

The sizable Turkmen minority in Erbil and Kirkuk have also led some Turkish politicians to advocate annexing these cities into Turkey. 

Tezcür, however, described such advocacy as mere "bluff and bluster" on the part of those politicians.

"Until something fundamentally changes in global politics, Turkey has neither the intention nor the capacity to take over Iraqi Kurdistan," he said.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon