Turkey’s Top Foreign Policy Aide Worries about False Optimism in Iraq

Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy aide to Turkey’s prime minister, says he fears recent optimism on Iraq in the United States overlooks significant, dangerous problems which remain unresolved.

September 22, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy aide to Turkey’s prime minister, says he fears recent optimism on Iraq in the United States overlooks significant, dangerous problems which remain unresolved. In a meeting in Ankara with CFR.org and other visiting American journalists, Davutoglu said that ethnic and religious differences among Iraq’s leadership are bound to flare again. He also said Turkey, due to the importance of trade with Russia, cannot afford to adopt a policy of isolating Moscow or its other neighbors. The following are excerpts of the conversation:

The foreign policy agenda that you’ve laid out may be reaching a fork in the road, in terms of economic relations with Russia. Might Turkey have to choose one over the other, either the East or West?

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No, we have already chosen our place. We don’t have such a question of identity. Turkey’s a member of NATO. Turkey’s a candidate for EU. Therefore, in our foreign policy orientation, our place is clear. But, the difference is how to deal with these questions. For example, Turkish-Russian relations: Turkey is a member of NATO. Turkey is a candidate for EU [membership]-part of Western bloc, there is no doubt about it. But you can’t say that Turkish-Russian relations can be like Danish-Russian relations, or Norwegian-Russian relations, or Canada-Russian relations. ... Any other European country can follow certain isolationist policies against Russia. Can Turkey do this? I ask you to understand the geographical conditions of Turkey. In principle, we are against isolation. We were against the isolation of Syria. We were against the isolation of Iraq, because isolation creates economic stagnation. Isolation creates a barrier.

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Once, there were certain requests to isolate Syria and Iran at the same time. If we, Turkey, isolate Syria and Iran at the same time, it means we will be closing our borders. With Syria, we have 800 kilometers, then we have Iraq-where there’s a war-then if we are soon isolating Iran, then we were having problems with Armenia. The only opening border would be Georgia. ... If you isolate Russia, economically, can Turkey afford this? ... Unfortunately, we have to admit this fact. Turkey is almost 75-80 percent dependent on Russia [for energy].* We don’t want to see a Russian-American or Russian-NATO confrontation. ... We don’t want to pay the bill of strategic mistakes or miscalculation by Russia, or by Georgia.

What do you see for Iraq in the future?

I cannot give a very optimistic picture. There are many problems. We have very close relations with all ethnic and sectarian groups. Turkey’s special relations with Sunni groups made it possible for them to participate in the elections in 2005. [Sunni political leader] Tariq al-Hashimi and [U.S. Ambassador] Zalmay Khalilzad met in Istanbul after our mediation and now al-Hashimi is vice president of Iraq, representing Sunnis in Iraq. So, we worked very hard to bring them together. But, there are certain, very critical issues. First, for example, is the formation of national identity. In order to have security in the country and stability, you have to have a national identity. An army and police force, security forces, cannot have a sectarian identity. ...

Today in Iraq, there is an army and Sunnis are not confident because this army is basically Shiite. There is the Kurdish peshmerga, they are getting guns as well. There is the Sakhfa [militias], Sunni to defend Anbar or other regions against al-Qaeda. There is the Badr Brigades, Shiite militias, and they are all legal. Can you imagine? And of course, there are American soldiers there. How will you manage the security? And if you cannot manage security, how will you establish order? ... When Americans leave the country, without ordering the national army, then there will be costs. But if they continue to stay without having legitimate mandate, it will be another headache for the Americans, for the Iraqi people. So there should be a new security arrangement in Iraq. That’s very important.

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Secondly, the economy. How you will use Iraqi economic resources, especially oil and gas? The hydrocarbon bill is still pending in the national assembly. Why do we have so many problems in Iraq but not in Syria, or in Yemen or Jordan, or not even in Egypt. Because Iraq is rich in oil and energy and everybody wants to get some shares from this. And today, there is no regulation how these resources are being shared. This is another big risk.

Third, the Iraqi constitution itself, political structure.... Why? The Iraqi constitution has been drafted not in Iraq and has been drafted like an academic text written by some experts. Turks, we governed Iraq for more than 400 years [during the Ottoman Empire]. We know Iraqi society well and the main problem in the Iraqi constitution is that is defines different ethnicities, different sects. There is no Iraqi schism in the Iraqi constitution. There is Shiite, there is Sunni, there is Kurd, there is Turkoman. ... Iraq’s constitution again and again refers to Shiites, refers to Sunnis, to Arabs, Kurds, and it creates its own dilemma. Having rights, I mean cultural rights, ethnic rights, but trying to establish an order based on these ethnicities, based on these identities and other differences. So, Yugoslavia has collapsed, but without getting any lesson from Yugoslavia we are trying to create another Yugoslavia in the Middle East. The Lebanese, because of this political structure, had a twenty-year civil war. But Iraq became another Lebanon because of ethnic and sectarian definitions.

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Where is, for example, the most alarming indication of this is in Kirkuk. Iraq is a small [microcosm of the] Middle East. You have all the ethnicities of the Middle East in Iraq. And Kirkuk is a small Iraq. In Kirkuk in a small town, not very big, not like Baghdad or Mosul, but all ethnicities of Iraq are living side by side: Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, basically Sunni but there are some Shiites. So they are all living together. And in the constitution-again, another mistake-in 2005 when Sunnis protested politics at that time, Shiites and Kurds made an agreement. They said that until the end of 2007, it would be decided in which federal structure Kirkuk would be. It was like a bomb. It was like creating a bomb and giving it to the people. And even the deadline of the bomb is there: 31 December of 2007.

Fortunately, because of American forces and joint allies, we were able to postpone this, but last week there was another meeting in Iraqi parliament on Kirkuk question. Why is it important? Because Kirkuk is multi-ethnic state and also Kirkuk is the oil-rich city. So everybody wants to get Kirkuk. And Kurdish groups want to make a referendum in order to make Kirkuk a part of Kurdistan. But their population in Kirkuk region is around 45 to 55 percent. But in last election, all those Sunni and Turkomen groups protested the election and they got 52 percent vote in 2005. So, referendum in politics is the most dangerous instrument because you can say yes or no. There is no gray area. If you assume that such a decision was taken, and Kirkuk is given to Kurdistan, half of the population would be against the situation and it would create a cause. Kirkuk is just a symptom of these ethnic and sectarian characteristics of the system in Iraq.

So how do I see the future? There are many problems. The only thing we were able to do, as Turkey, in Middle Eastern questions as well as in Iraqi questions we have four principles: security for all, political dialogue to resolve the conflicts, economic interdependency, and cultural co-existence - in Kirkuk and Iraq. Therefore, we work very hard to bring together all these ethnic groups inside Iraq and we try to contain the crisis through neighboring countries. There should be an international commitment for the unity and stability of Iraq. There should be a commitment from neighboring countries. And there should be a commitment of internal Iraqi groups for the citizenship, for the future of political order in Iraq. Without these three commitments, it will be very difficult to stabilize Iraq. It will be headache not only for Americans there but for Turkey, for all of us. Therefore, we are always in favor of broader consultation between Turkey and the United States. On Iraqi questions, that consultation is going very well.

* The original version of this article misquoted Davutoglu on Turkish dependence on Russia. Turkey is 75 percent dependent on Russia for energy, not overall economic activity.

Editor’s Note: Greg Bruno is in Turkey on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP) at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington D.C. This interview was part of a press briefing given to IRP Gatekeeper Editors. An earlier edition of this transcript contained two transcription errors.


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