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Turkey's Problematic Middle East Role

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
April 17, 2008


With all the attention in Iraq over the last five years focused on the fate of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite, the role of Iran, the security of Anbar province, the “surge” and, most recently, the further deterioration of Basra, the situation in northern Iraq has only received sporadic attention. The conventional view has been that the predominantly Kurdish north has been the one relatively stable part of Iraq since the beginning of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and thus was a good story. Unlike other parts of the country, the invasion left the north relatively unscathed and what became known as the Kurdish Regional Government enjoyed a 12-year head start in building government institutions. In the immediate post-Saddam period, the KRG was able to deliver services and, importantly, security to the area.

Yet, northern Iraq is a flashpoint that has the potential to trip Iraq into another round of civil war. It is also the one area of the country that, if engulfed in violence, could result in the intervention of some of Iraq’s neighbors. The issues bound up in the Kurdish region, from the status of Kirkuk and the related issues of Kurdish nationalism to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) struggle with Turkey and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan’s (PJAK) confrontation with Iran to the long-awaited oil law are fraught with risk for Turkey, Iraq, the Kurds of both countries and the United States.

The often contradictory policies of Turks, Kurds and Iraqis reflect the fragility of northern Iraq and how the region could unravel. For example, despite Turkish complaints to the contrary, there is no real evidence that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership has provided material support to the PKK. The policy was essentially to turn a blind eye to PKK activities in the hope that the issue would not interfere with the broad goals of Iraq’s Kurdish population—independence or something close to it. While the downside of heeding Turkish demands that the PKK be brought to heel was abundantly clear—Kurds have a rich history of fighting each other—the KRG’s inaction ultimately led to Turkey’s recent military incursions, which, if they continue, have the potential to undermine the stability of the north.

Similarly, Ankara’s northern Iraq policies reflect a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. While the Turks never believed that Baghdad had any control over developments in the north, they were consistent in their refusal to deal directly with representatives of the KRG. This was a primary reason why the Turkish-Iraqi-American dialogue that was launched in July 2006 as well as General (ret.) Joe Ralston’s mission, which was supposed to coordinate the anti-PKK activities of all three countries, failed. Although Turkey has worked with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, its resistance to engage in dialogue combined with cross-border operations has fueled Iraqi Kurdish support for the PKK and given additional impetus to Kurdish nationalism—developments detrimental to Turkey’s interests.

The regional implications of both the changes that the United States has wrought through its invasion as well as the complex relations among Turks, Kurds and the Iraqi central government are clear. Not since the Ottoman Empire have the Turks played as prominent and potentially problematic a role in the Middle East. Given the November 2007 shift in US policy green lighting Turkish pursuit of the PKK into Iraq, the risks for Turkey of continuing cross-border incursions are manageable, but serious enough to warrant extreme caution. There is some sympathy for the plight of Kurds in the Arab world, but only so far as it does not undermine Iraqi unity.

Alternatively, if Turkish military operations result in similar large-scale Iranian actions against PJAK and the fighting (on either border) draws in Iraq’s Arab population, the Turks will lose their newfound status and prestige in the Middle East—a region that Turkey’s current leaders deem strategically and commercially important. For its part, Washington would not look favorably on any Turkish actions in the north that would precipitate further Iranian meddling in Iraq.

Kurds are also undeniably a new player in regional politics whether as part of a unified Iraq or an independent state. This new status could have far-reaching effects beyond the immediate concentration of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. The very fact that a Kurd serves as the president of a major Arab country as well as its foreign minister, deputy prime minister and other important posts shatters myths and long held beliefs about the Arab world. The Iraqi Kurdish precedent, whether it is independence or the accumulation of political power within a unified Iraq, will encourage other sizable minority groups in the region to seek ways to alter their own status. As is the case with Iraq’s Kurds, these types of changes will not likely be met with acquiescence

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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