Towards the fulfillment of a dream: Turkey or Kurdistan?


16 May 2012

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As Shiites-inspired politics go through an uncertain phase- amid the mounting pressure on Iran, and Syria’s standoff continues despite a significant investment in diplomacy, through the conflicting stance of  Turkey and Iran – Iraq’s sectarian tension has hit a high point as the steady accumulation of disputes among political partners explodes, unleashing an even bigger risk to the country’s already challenged unity. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite backed by Iran, stands accused of targeting Sunni political partners in Iraq to enhance his power. Given their distressing history with Iraq’s former regimes,Iraq’s Kurds fear the past may return to haunt them, with hard-gained achievements lost instead of more rights being added. Describing Iraq’s current crisis as “very dangerous,” the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani has accused Maliki of dragging the country into dictatorship and stated, in an allusion to the holding of a referendum on independence, that should the crisis remain unresolved by September the Kurds “have to decide if they are willing to live under a dictatorial regime or not.” He added, “They have to make that decision. It is their natural right.”

Iraqi Prime Minister - Nouri al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister - Nouri al-Maliki

Given the highly complex nature of the crisis, the heavy baggage of internal problems and preconditions, plus international and regional interference, such as the involvement of both Shiite and Sunni powerhouse countries, Iraq’s territorial integrity is in jeopardy as any future resolution and agreements, while possible, remain opaque. Besides, Barzani’s strong statements in favor of independence have logic behind them. The status quo of the semi-autonomous region validates his position and supports this preparedness, because while prevailing conditions are not appropriate for such a move, nor will they be in the short term, his words are not inappropriate because the Kurdistan Region, while remaining as part of Iraq has, in practice, been developing and moving towards independence. Its internal political and executive processes are effective, it sits on a large amount of oil, and it enjoys a good network of external relations, such as with European countries.

Established from a territory secured by the military, and demographically diverse, the Turkish state’s official ideology has always been that of hard-line civic nationalism. Turkey’s border with Iraq, which effectively divides ethnic Kurds, with their strong and increasingly nationalist feelings, has always been a challenging and highly vulnerable flashpoint. Formerly pro-Iraq in its foreign policy, rarely and barely able to tolerate statements on disintegration, Turkey perceives Kurdish independence as a source of its own destabilization. Consequently, the state’s immediate response to these events has been striking.

Massoud Barzani - President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region
Massoud Barzani - President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region

Turkey’s great fear is that the reality of Kurdish independence in Iraq will spark a domino effect among Turkish Kurds, and as Turkey’s most valued principle is that of its territorial integrity with its perceived significance to the survival of the Turkish state, the issue is felt to be inextricably interlinked with the unity of Iraq. So, the preservation and defense of Iraq’s territorial integrity and the abortion of developments that pave the way for Kurdish independence have been Turkey’s perennial and prioritized interests and goals in Iraq. It was for this reason Turkey decided to break its longstanding policy of disengagement with Iraqi Kurds before to the creation of de facto Kurdish self-rule in Northern Iraq and openly involved with them in early 1990s.

Turkey was strongly opposed to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and spearheaded opposition to Kurdish independence and, as a consequence, relations with the Kurds were strained. But as new realities have appeared- such as the consolidation of the political leverage of Iraq’s Kurds, Maliki’s policies, the increase of Iran’s influence on Iraq, the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops and the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with its neighbors- Turkey has been implementing a 180 degrees turnaround towards Iraqi Kurdistan and the two sides are currently cooperating on a gamut of issues, including mutual interests and challenges in Iraq and Syria. Far from lashing out at his pro-independence statements Turkey recently received Barzani in a manner similar to that of a national president.  In addition, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused his Iraqi counterpart of “self-centered” practices that fanned sectarian tension among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

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Maliki countered by saying that Turkey was becoming a “hostile state” with a sectarian agenda.

The spat has a wider regional scenario. On one hand, the conventional ongoing rivalry between Iran and Turkey, coupled with Turkey’s ambitious strategy aimed at its emergence as a great regional power, and Iran’s thirst and agitation for influence, means that neither country can remain hostage to the other’s attitudes. On the other hand, ongoing developments- including the international pressure exerted on Iran and the events of Arab Spring, particularly in Syria-have, in effect, tied a rope around the Iranian neck, making it imperative for Iran to find a strategic ally able to function for it in a fashion similar to Syria, should the current regime in Damascus collapse.Turkey believes Iran’s target country is Iraq, where an amalgam of significant Turkish interests is located and within which it competes for influence with Iran. Additionally,Turkey believes Iran is defending itself by generating tension in different regions, including Iraq. Conversely,Iran considers that Turkey is trying to exploit current regional developments to expand its field of influence. Bilateral relations have further worsened as Turkey has campaigned to spread secularism in post-Arab Spring countries, agreed to host the NATO anti-missile system and conducts a fierce policy against the Syrian regime.Iran, meanwhile, has likened Arab Spring to an Islamic awakening, and has threatened to target the anti-missile system in Turkey, and supported Syria’s regime in its plight.Iraq too, moving ever closer to Iran, supports Syria’s regime as it fights the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, marginalizing Iraq’s Turkish-supported Sunnis as well as the Kurds.

On one hand,Iran tries to apply pressure on Turkey, which might be extended to Ankara’s allies, strengthen and defend itself and its position vis à vis its regional and international concerns, and to ease the pressure on Syria. A principle instrument to achieve that end is Iraq. Within this context, Maliki is thought to be paving the way for a stronger Iranian hand over the future of Iraq and is conducting a proxy war in favor of Iran against Turkey. Certainly, the support given by Iran and Iraq in shielding Syria’s embattled regime endangers Turkish interests; Syria’s crisis poses a real danger to Turkey’s domestic situation and the longer it lasts, the more Turkish interests are threatened.

A second dimension relates to Turkey’s foreign ambitions- that is, to it becoming a great regional power. The Shiite camp is passing through a vulnerable and fragile phase. Turkey considers current developments to be more damaging to Iran, whose strategic ally,Syria, serves as a conduit to funnel Iranian support to radical movements, and they constitute a front to work on foreign policy priorities and agendas. This is now in great danger. It is almost impossible to imagine the Syrian regime remaining in power without, at the very least, undertaking reforms that would benefit the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition. Sunni and Islamist power domination in Syria will surely have a domino effect on both Shiite and Sunni worlds. If efforts to weaken or unseat Maliki and somehow protect Iraq from Iran’s influence succeed, then Iraq’s Sunnis would gradually acquire a better position in the political process.

For Iraqi Kurdistan, the dream is larger. The majority of Kurds wants independence and in an unofficial referendum in 2005, more than 95 percent voted for it. Given the internal, regional and international environment, however, a smaller Kurdish dream- that of protecting the region’s status quo, while progressively consolidating and developing it- is more viable. The trio of Barzani, Erdogan and Maliki are all well aware of this logic. However, Baghdad’s actions, in particular those of the prime minister, threaten the current situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, causing the Kurdish president to appear mistrustful with regard to Maliki’s intentions. Alleging that at a meeting to discuss the problems between Baghdad and Erbil, he threatened the use of F16 jets against Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani told reporters: “The F16s must not reach the hand of this man,” referring to Maliki, “…or if he has them, he should not remain in his position.” Even leaving that aside, the Kurds do not intend to stop at merely preemptive measures. Maliki’s concentration of power, with its marginalization of political partners, has already been extended to the Kurds, especially to those from Barzani’s party. In addition to being prime minister, Maliki is Iraq’s “defense minister, interior minister, intelligence chief and commander of the armed forces,” Barzani said. “We will never accept a return to dictatorship in Iraq.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Prime Minister of Turkey since 2003
Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Prime Minister of Turkey since 2003

With respect to Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan considers the ramifications of the crisis as extremely important. To begin with,Syriahas a large Kurdish minority which Iraqi Kurdistan feels a moral responsibility to defend and whose future is seen as being of vital importance to Iraqi Kurds. The secular Iraqi Kurdish leadership is also very concerned about the sectarian and ideological character of any future regime there. Importantly, Arab Spring in Syria might one day open a new gate for landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan to reach the sea.




Idrees Mohammed is is an observer of Turkey’s foreign policy; primarily towards Iraqi Kurdistan. He is also interested in Kurdish experience. 

You can follow him on Twitter  at @IdreesMohammd.

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As Shiites-inspired politics go through an uncertain phase- amid the mounting pressure on Iran, and Syria’s standoff continues despite a significant investment in diplomacy, through the conflicting stance of Turkey and Iran - Iraq’s sectarian tension has hit a high point as the steady accumulation of disputes among political partners explodes, unleashing an even bigger risk to the country’s already challenged unity. " />