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political or economic? new turkish-kurdish border crossings send message to baghdad

Abdul-Khaleq Dosky
Turkey and the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan announced plans for new border crossings this week. Ostensibly these are to accommodate the growing trade between the two. But many suspect there’s a…
20.03.2014  |  Dohuk
Trucks crossing the Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish border.
Trucks crossing the Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish border.

Turkey and the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan have agreed to open five new border crossings to expedite trade between the two. The agreement comes on the back of meetings held between the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, and Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, during Barzani’s recent visit to Turkey.

At a press conference this week, Davutoglu said there would be new crossings at Aktepe, Ovakoy, Gulyazi, Uzumlu and Derecik on the Turkish side.

“The issue of expanding border crossing points between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey is an old one,” Khurshid Brifkani, the deputy chair of the previous Iraqi Kurdish parliament’s finance and economics committee, told NIQASH. “There’s been a lot of growth in trade between the two sides so there’s been much discussion about this too. We have heard a lot of statements and promises about these border crossings but so far, nothing has really happened.”

In 2009, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan actually agreed to open several more border crossings but the idea was vetoed by Baghdad at the time. This time, Baghdad is apparently also on board.

Al-Brifkani says that if the border crossings are established that it will lead to even more trade and better employment prospects for locals. He also thinks cooperation like this is strengthening the potential for peace between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Workers\' Party, or PKK, which has been defined as a terrorist organization by some countries mainly due to its long and violent conflict with the government of Turkey.

“That means that areas that were previously zones of conflict are opening up,” Brifkani explains.

Not everyone agrees with this upbeat vision of the new border crossings though. Mohammed Shaban, an expert in international trade at the University of Dohuk, thinks the plan for more border crossings is simply the Iraqi Kurdish government’s attempt to break the “financial blockade” being imposed upon it by Baghdad.

“Iraqi Kurdistan is trying to show the central government that it does have other options,” Shaban explains. “The Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing is very important – in comparison with other Iraqi border points, it’s one of the safest and it connects Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan with Europe. There’s a lot of traffic coming through here and it is growing – so it also makes sense to open some new border points.”

The Ibrahim al-Khalil border crossing in Zakho is really the only official border crossing point between Iraq and Turkey.

There are certainly political dimensions to this announcement, agrees Qassim Hassan, from the University of Dohuk’s law faculty. “Iraqi Kurdistan is sending a message to Baghdad saying, ‘we are here and you should treat us as partners in this political process, not rivals’. It is using the crossings with Turkey, and thereby Europe, as a way to pressure the central government to change the way Baghdad deals with them.”

Additionally, the announcement is useful to Turkish politicians too. The Turkish government is trying to woo Turkish Kurds into voting for it in the next elections.

“Bilateral trade was worth US$12 billion last year,” says Ayed Abdel Halim, who heads Dohuk’s Chamber of Commerce. “When those new crossings open, that is going to double.”

“The Ibrahim al-Khalil border crossing is also under huge pressure,” Halim explains. “It’s old and it’s not up to the task of the increasing trade between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The businessmen going back and forth often have to wait in long queues on either side of the border in order to get customs clearance.”