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.