BACKGROUND: With U.S. president Barack Obama’s announcement of the schedule for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, the issue of the future of the country is once again on neighboring countries’ agendas, including Turkey. Security issues are Turkey’s top priority. The presence of the Kurdish terrorist PKK organization and the future of the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq continue to be Turkey’s main concerns.
The Turkish parliament’s March 2003 decision not to allow the United States to use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq had a severe impact on Turkish–American relations, and effectively served to exclude Turkey from having any say on the future of Iraq. The already tense relations between Turkey and the United States were dealt another serious blow when a group of Turkish soldiers, operating in northern Iraq, were arrested by U.S. forces in July 2003. The deep psychological impact of this event on the Turkish public remains poorly understood in the U.S.. After the invasion, northern Iraq became a safe haven for the PKK. The increase of PKK attacks in Turkey after 2003 therefore further damaged the standing of the United States in Turkey. Nationalist groupings, not least within the military, concluded that the U.S. did indeed harbor ill designs on Turkey, seeing the tolerance shown toward the PKK as proof of an American desire to split or at least weaken Turkey.
The fate of the Turkmen minority in Iraq has traditionally been given priority by Turkish politicians. However, the possibility of the emergence of an independent Kurdish state and the increase of PKK attacks eventually forced Ankara to pursue more multifaceted strategies, with weight being accorded to developing relations with Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arab communities as well. When the PKK violence reached its peak in mid-2007, Turkey decided to conduct a cross border operation in Northern Iraq. Following intense consultations with Washington and exchange of intelligence, Turkey was able to successfully complete a series of military operations targeting PKK camps in Iraq.
The renewed cooperation with the U.S. over Iraq was also to trigger a renewal of contacts with both the central government in Bagdad and the Kurdish regional administration in northern Iraq. The decision to postpone the scheduled referendum about the future of Kirkuk – a city claimed by the Kurdish regional administration – contributed to making Turkey less wary over developments in northern Iraq, and opened the way for constructive Turkish diplomatic engagement with all Iraqi groups.
IMPLICATIONS: The results of the Iraqi local elections in January 2009 were welcomed in Turkey, as the parties that supported a strengthening of the power of the central government emerged stronger, although not in Kirkuk itself and in the autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey is obviously strongly in favor of the territorial integrity of Iraq being maintained; bilateral relations will develop very much depending on this factor. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s recent visit to Istanbul, and Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s visit to Baghdad last week both underline the importance accorded by both countries to the development of bilateral relations.
Security issues, in particular the question of the PKK, continues to be Turkey’s main priority. The rights of the Turkmen minority are also a sensitive issue for Ankara. The recent statement of Turkish President Abdullah Gül, promising further, “positive developments” regarding the Kurdish issue, hints at a policy shift that in turn could further enable Turkey to play a more active role in Iraq.
It is believed that there are still around 5,000 PKK militants based in Iraq. Turkey demands that the northern Iraq regional administration and the Iraqi central government expel these PKK militants. At the same time, those who oppose the use of violence are gaining strength within the Kurdish movement in Turkey. A critical issue is the future fate of the militants who are either still at large or in jail. Kurdish and liberal circles in Turkey call for a comprehensive amnesty as part of a PKK surrender.
Acknowledging the progress made by Ankara on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights – the latest example being the start of a Kurdish language channel on state television – Kurds are increasingly prone to regard it as possible to secure the extension of these rights by democratic methods. Significantly, the AKP is the second choice of Kurdish voters in areas where the Kurdish nationalist party DTP normally has the strongest following. An amnesty for PKK militants requires the consent of the Turkish armed forces; however, although the Turkish military continues to have an important say in matters related to the PKK issue, the initiative in Turkish-Iraqi relations (where the matter of PKK is of key importance) has passed to the civilian leadership in Ankara.
A Kurdish Conference, scheduled to be held in Erbil toward the end of April or early in May, is going to host Kurdish representatives from Turkey, Iran and Syria. It is expected to call upon the PKK to lay down its arms. The Iraqi Kurds are mindful that, with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, they risk losing the advantage that they have enjoyed since the American invasion. That is probably the explanation for their decision to abandon their hostile stance towards Turkey. Especially regarding the future of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Kurds do not appear as uncompromising in their demands as they used to. The assertiveness of the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq regarding Kirkuk, which it wants to be incorporated in the Kurdish region, stands in direct proportion to the presence of U.S. troops; it is likely to decrease as the number of U.S. forces decrease. Sheltering the PKK, likewise, will cease to be a feasible option for the Kurdish administration.
In the context of this process, the upcoming visit of U.S. president Barack Obama to Turkey is of great importance. Turkey’s EU membership bid, Cyprus, issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan will presumably be on the agenda during Obama’s visit. President Obama’s policy of dialogue and diplomatic engagement in the region parallels Turkey’s own diplomatic strategy in the region. The convergence of strategy between the two allies is sure to ascertain that Turkey and U.S. will cooperate closely on regional matters – that much seems safe to assume in the short run. In the longer run, much will depend on whether the American expectations concerning Iran are met or not. If the Obama administration’s strategy of engagement with the Islamic republic of Iran does not pay off – that is if the United States ultimately fails to convince Iran that it should relinquish its nuclear ambitions – Americans as well as Turks will face hard choices. Whether or not American and Turkish policies will converge in that event is an entirely different matter.
CONCLUSIONS: Recent developments in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq have been encouraging from a Turkish point of view. Although the Turkmen minority is not incorporated as an element in the new, ethno-political and religious balance being established in Iraq, neither are the Turkmens completely marginalized. Most importantly, the United States as well as the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq can be expected to take further steps aimed at satisfying Turkish interests.
President Gül’s Iraq visit has illustrated Ankara’s new, more relaxed attitude toward northern Iraq. The interests and policies of Ankara and of the Iraqi Kurds are set to increasingly converge as Iraqi Kurds realize the importance of maintaining friendly relations with Turkey on the eve of the American retreat from Iraq. And with the perception of a diminished threat from the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Turkish government will be better placed to take steps aimed at defusing Turkey’s internal Kurdish issue, notably making it easier to envisage an amnesty for the militants of the separatist PKK.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".