Turkey Adjusts Its Foreign Policy to the Planned U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 223

U.S. and Iraqi officials finally agreed on a withdrawal plan requiring Washington to withdraw its forces within three years. The withdrawal will have a direct impact on Turkish-Iraqi relations. Ankara’s immediate concern is related to the control of Iraqi airspace, which will fall under the authority of Baghdad on January 1, 2009. This could affect Turkish air raids on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camps in northern Iraq. With a green light from the United States, Turkish jets have been launching attacks on the camps since 2007. Moreover, since November 5, 2007, the United States has been sharing satellite intelligence from its Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV). Ankara is concerned about whether Iraqi officials will allow Turkey to continue its air raids (Milliyet, November 19).

Although U.S. President-elect Barack Obama told the Turkish president that his country had the right to protect itself from PKK terrorism (Milliyet, November 19), Turkey wants to ensure that the raids will not be interrupted by the transition of control over Iraqi airspace. Turkish diplomats are working hard to adjust the Turkish position to fit the new situation. Turkey’s Interior Minister Besir Atalay paid a visit to Baghdad, during which the Iraqi government announced the establishment of a joint committee of senior Iraqi, Turkish, and U.S. officials to fight the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Today’s Zaman, November 20). While Turkish delegates were visiting Iraq, an Iraqi delegation was in Ankara; and there are plans for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to meet with Iraqi Minister of State for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim and Iraq’s Counter Terrorism special envoy Sirvan Elvai (Zaman, November 19).

Turkey’s second concern is whether Iraq will be able to maintain its unity and, more precisely, how the Kurds will respond to the changing circumstances. How will the Kirkuk question be addressed? The relationship between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad is becoming increasingly tense. KRG President Massoud Barzani used an appearance on local television to condemn Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for attempting “to place power in the hands of one person and one party” (Al-Bayyna al-Jadidah, November 18).

During security operations in March, Maliki created "Support Councils" that were made up of members of important tribes. They are funded and directed by Maliki’s office, and their ostensible aim is to give the tribes a role in maintaining local security and providing services (www.npr.org, October 22). The editor of the Kurdish Globe said that “Al-Maliki’s plan to establish Support Councils, including a tribal force in Kirkuk, is not only a direct threat to the Kurdish national interests but at the same time an issue that has the potential to destroy the already feeble relations between Kurds and Iraq” (Kurdish Globe, November 20).

Barzani strongly reacted to the plan, stating that "the prime minister was one of the contributors of drafting the constitution, but any retreat from the constitution means retreating to dictatorship” (Kurdish Globe, November 20). He warned that Kurds who joined these Support Councils would be dealt with as “traitors” and Arabs who enrolled in them as “enemies” (Cihan Haber Ajansi, November 18).

The Financial Times reported that the Kirkuk issue “will become a pressing foreign policy concern for the next U.S. administration, not just because the Kirkuk dispute has the potential to pit Arab against Kurd and provoke intervention from neighboring states. It could also harm Washington’s relations with its closest allies in Iraq—the Kurdish authorities” (Financial Times, November 11, Zaman, November 13).

It seems that the tension between Kurds and Arabs will continue for the near future. For this reason, the KRG wants to improve its relations with Turkey. The International Crisis Group maintains that when the U.S forces start drawing down significantly in the next two years, the Kurds will increasingly be dependent on the federal government and neighboring states such as Turkey and Iran. “Under this scenario, Turkey would be a more useful partner to the Kurds than either Baghdad or Tehran, because of the prospect it offers of access to the European Union, its availability as a transit country for Kurdish oil and gas; its ability to invest in major infrastructure projects; and the better quality of the goods it sells to Iraq’s Kurdistan Federal Region” (www.crisisgroup.org, November 13).

Yet Turkish and Arab demands on the Kirkuk issue are similar. It will therefore be very difficult for the Kurds to convince Turkey to support its Kirkuk claim. Under the circumstances the KRG has two cards to play: first, the KRG could use PKK terrorism as a means of balancing the KRG and Turkish demands (Hurriyet, November 18); and second, after January 1 the KRG will have some authority to stop Turkey’s air operations against the PKK in Iraqi territory. Thus, allowing Turkey to continue its air operations will be a bargaining chip for the KRG. For Turkish side, it is expected that the United States will use the Incirlik airbase and the port of Mersin for a quick withdrawal. In this case, Turkey could use Incirlik and Mersin as a bargaining chip for convincing the United States to persuade the KRG to cooperate with Turkey against the PKK (www.ntvmsnbc.com, November 18).

No matter how and when the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq, it will create many complications that would unsettle the region for a while. The key issue during the withdrawal period is the Kirkuk question. If the United States uses its influence on the Kurds to recognize Kirkuk as outside of Kurdish Regional Government jurisdiction, the Kurds will have the benefit of easily establishing good relations with Turkey. Ankara will be happy to see the Kurdish region as a buffer zone between itself and Iraq in case a civil war erupts in Iraq. Otherwise, Kirkuk could potentially be the center of a civil war between the Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens.