GEOPOLITICAL DIARY: TURKEY’S DESIGNS ON NORTHERN IRAQ
Oct 11 2007
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan might ask parliament to
authorize a move by Turkey’s military into northern Iraq. Erdogan said
on Wednesday that, "A request for approval of a cross-border operation
could be sent to parliament tomorrow. After the holiday, we plan to
gain authorization for one year." Erdogan should have no difficulty
gaining parliament’s approval after attacks by Kurdish rebels belonging
to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party killed 15 Turkish soldiers.
How far the Turks plan to move in Iraq is the important question.
During the 1990s, the Turks moved into Iraq to create buffer zones
against Kurdish attack, so there is a precedent for a move of that
nature. The Turkish government is under public pressure to do something
about these attacks, and the re-creation of a buffer zone is one
thing it could do that would be effective and satisfy public opinion.
A Turkish incursion into northern Iraq at this time would be opposed by
the European Union and the United States. However, the European Union
has lost a great deal of leverage with the Turks by not admitting
them to the union and making it fairly clear that they will never
be admitted. As for the United States, the Turkish view is that they
opposed the invasion of Iraq and refused to participate in it.
Their expectation is that the United States, having created the
situation, should take steps to stop attacks inside Turkey. Since
the United States clearly can’t do that, the Turks will act by
themselves. Put simply, the United States and the European Union do not
have leverage with Turkey, and Turkey will pursue its own interests.
The resolution does not mean that the Turks will immediately move into
northern Iraq, but we are not as sure as others are that the Turks
aren’t quite serious. First, there is the security issue. It is not a
trivial matter for the Turks. It is difficult for the government not to
take some steps, and the fact that the United States and the European
Union oppose such a move will simply make it that much more popular.
There also is a more important geopolitical issue: The Turks oppose
the creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq because they feel
it will encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey. The future of Iraq
is up in the air, to say the least, and the most important issue for
the country is whether an independent or highly autonomous Kurdish
region will emerge. This uncertainty is something the United States
can live with; it is not something the Turks will live with.
Therefore, the Turks view American policy in Iraq with extreme
concern on this issue. Moving into Iraqi Kurdistan, however limited
the incursion, would serve as a signal to both Kurds and Americans
that there are limits beyond which Turkey is not prepared to go. It
also would put Turkish troops into position to exercise control in
the region in the event that the situation in Iraq gets completely
out of hand.
There is another factor. As we have said previously, there is
increasing activity by Western oil companies in the Kurdish region.
That oil revenue is an attractive prize. Whatever Turkish intentions
are now, the process of preventing the emergence of an independent
Kurdistan would put Ankara in the position of being able to at least
participate in — if not control — the development of this oil. The
Turks are not talking about this, and they might not be thinking
about it, but the solution to the security problem could lead there.
The United States must be very careful. Turkey is an ally, but at
this moment the Americans need the Turks more than the Turks need the
Americans. Apart from logistical support in Iraq, the United States
sees Turkey as a counterweight to Iran in the region. However, Turkish
and Iranian interests converge on the question of an independent
Kurdistan. Turkey has little in common with Iran ideologically, but
should the United States adamantly oppose Turkey on this, it would
bring Ankara and Tehran closer, and this is the last thing Washington
wants right now.
U.S.-Turkish tensions are exacerbated by Congress’ consideration
of a resolution accusing Turkey of carrying out genocide in Armenia
early in the 20th century. This is an incredibly sore point with the
Turks right now, increasing domestic political pressure on Turkey
to refuse to bend to the United States. Therefore, we take Turkey’s
resolution seriously and think that a move into Iraqi Kurdistan,
at least to create a buffer zone, is a very real possibility —
and one that could lead to more far-reaching consequences.