Turkey’s Foreign Policy toward Northern Iraq Still Undecided

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 13

Turkey has serious concerns regarding developments in Iraq that occurred after the U.S. invasion of March 2003 [1]. The gravity of these concerns centers around the possibility of the disintegration of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines that could result in the consequent proclamation of independence by Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq—who, at a later stage, could advance their cause by calling for integration with other ethnic Kurds living in neighboring countries, such as Turkey. In order to prevent such a development, Turkey has issued statements emphasizing the unacceptability of creating a Kurdish state across Turkey’s borders, which would pave the way to the dismemberment of Iraq. As part of this problem, Turkey is distressed about the future of Kirkuk and the continued threats from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As a result, Turkey has threatened to invade northern Iraq in order to achieve its objectives. Turkey’s foreign policy toward northern Iraq, however, remains to be decided as the military and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government are each pursuing a separate policy.

The Rift between the AKP and the Military Over Foreign Policy Priorities

One would expect Turkey to follow the principles of power politics and take control of parts of northern Iraq in order to minimize the degree of freedom of movement allowed to the PKK. This, however, is not yet the case. Instead, Turkish civilian and military bureaucrats and decision-makers have been unable to formulate a coherent and effective policy toward the PKK. This is largely due to the divergent views of the AKP and the Turkish General Staff regarding the conduct of Turkish foreign and security policies in general and the Iraq policy in particular.

Since the AKP came to power as a single-party government following the November 2002 general elections, the conduct of Turkish foreign and security policies has undergone significant changes in both substance and style. The AKP government adopted a so-called “functionalist approach” in its foreign policy, based on the principle of promoting economic relations between countries in order to improve bilateral political relations, with hopes that it could eventually lead to solving conflicts through diplomacy. In conjunction with this principle, the AKP government has also fully committed itself to realizing the constitutional, social, political and economic reforms required by the European Union with a view to securing a date for the start of the accession negotiation process for eventual full membership. In this regard, one of the EU requirements was to limit the role of the Turkish Armed Forces in the making of Turkey’s foreign and security policies. Similarly, the role of the National Security Council—where the military had a decisive impact on issued resolutions that were required to be implemented by governments with utmost priority and urgency—had to be diminished. This was relatively easier to accomplish for the AKP government because they changed the relevant articles in the constitution and in the legal codes.

These efforts, however, did not suffice to undermine the role of the Turkish military in domestic politics. The Turkish Armed Forces is a powerful institution, not simply because of its military capabilities but more so due to the role it played in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire under the command of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Since the advent of the Turkish Republic, the military has been the “guardian” of Ataturk’s principles—such as placing secularism at the forefront—upon which the new nation-state was founded. Moreover, the military has long been “the most trusted institution” in the country, as depicted in public opinion polls, and is far ahead of the political parties.

Lack of Confidence in Each Other

The frictions between the AKP government and the armed forces stem not only from disagreements over foreign and security policy matters. Disagreements have traditionally derived from different interpretations of secularism. The AKP suggests a revision that would allow for a growth in the practice of Islam in the public sector, whereas the military adamantly opposes even the slightest change, which they believe could result in abuses and pave the way for the coming of Sharia rule. Deep divergences in these and other significant matters eventually caused a lack of confidence in both sides. As a result, tensions are already fairly high in Turkish domestic politics, especially since April 27 when an “e-memorandum” was issued by the military on the official website of the Turkish General Staff during the process of the presidential elections (https://www.tsk.mil.tr). That decision came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to designate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as the only candidate for the next Turkish president. The decision attracted severe criticism and adamant opposition from large segments of society who were particularly sensitive to the secular characteristics of the regime. To them, Gul was not the person to assume the seat of presidency. Amid this debate, the “e-memorandum” was published on the official website of the Turkish General Staff addressing directly and indirectly many practices and policy implementations of the AKP government and reminding them of the resolve of the Turkish Armed Forces to act, if need be, as the guardian of the efficacy of Ataturk’s secular principles in the administration of the state.

As of early July, the disagreement continues between the AKP government and the Turkish military regarding a strategy for countering the sources of PKK terrorism in northern Iraq. General Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of the Turkish General Staff, has reiterated the need for an explicit political authorization by the government to launch an offensive against the PKK and also possibly against the strongholds of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who has been accused of providing support to PKK terrorists in the north [2]. The AKP government, however, does not seem to be willing to issue such an authorization, a stance that is also strongly endorsed by the United States and the European Union. Prime Minister Erdogan has made his opposition to a cross-border operation clear. Only hours before his meeting with General Buyukanit at the “terror summit” on June 12, he said, “The security forces should deal first with the 5,000 terrorists inside Turkey before dealing with 500 of them in northern Iraq.” Even though he corrected himself the next day by revising the figures to “1,500 PKK terrorists in Turkey and 3,500 in northern Iraq,” Erdogan has seemingly achieved his goal by launching a preemptive strike on the military with the anticipation that he would be pressured during the summit to issue an authorization for an offensive in northern Iraq.

The Role of the Upcoming Elections on Strategic Calculations

A military operation against the PKK and Kurdish northern Iraq would likely encourage Kurdish citizens of Turkey to vote against the AKP. In such a case, Kurds may vote either for Kurdish candidates in other parties or for independent candidates from the ranks of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), which is the successor of the Party of Democracy (DEP) and the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) that were closed down by the Constitutional Court for their explicit support to the PKK and to its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Besides the inter-AKP divide over the military option, Erdogan does not want the domestic political climate to be dominated with a military campaign prior to the elections; this situation would likely generate an unexpected number of losses of Turkish soldiers whose funerals would surely turn into large protest campaigns across the country in opposition to the AKP. If successful, at least in the early phases, however, a military campaign could turn Erdogan into a heroic leader “who finally did what the nation needed,” such as Bulent Ecevit after his military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. Therefore, if Erdogan cannot resist military and public pressures to issue authorization for a military offensive, he may do so only days before the elections in order to go to the ballot boxes with the allure of a commander-in-chief boosting the votes for his party nation-wide.

On the other hand, the timing of the elections is also important for the military in two respects. First, there are rumors that the military’s insistence for a cross-border operation aims at creating a pretext to postpone the elections to an indefinite date. This may initially seem meaningful, considering the possibility that the AKP consolidates its power with more votes than in the previous elections due to its victimization with the “e-memorandum.” Erdogan and the then-presidential candidate Gul cleverly focused on this issue in their election campaign speeches. Such a scenario, however, does not seem logical.

If anything, the elections provide the opportunity to put an end to the AKP’s single party government, which has in many respects been a major source of friction between military and civilian authorities. Even though the AKP appears to be leading in most public opinion polls, the possibility of a coalition government with or without the AKP has been seriously considered as a likely outcome of the July 22 elections. According to one post-election scenario, the AKP and the center-right Democrat Party (DP) of Mehmet Agar may form a coalition, if the latter passes the 10% nationwide threshold required to enter the parliament. Another scenario suggests a three-party coalition of the People’s Republican Party (CHP) of Deniz Baykal, the National Movement Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli and the DP, even if the AKP ranks first in the ballot boxes. For this scenario to materialize, President Ahmet N. Sezer must nominate Deniz Baykal, who is expected to be second after Erdogan, with the anticipation of quickly forming a government in order to minimize the post-elections period, which is usually spent in search of different modalities of government. Such a scenario cannot be ruled out when considering President Sezer’s long-established tough stance toward Prime Minister Erdogan.

The second significance of the elections for the military is its coincidence, more or less, with the high possibility of carrying out a popular census on July 15 in certain districts of northern Iraq, including the city of Kirkuk. Bearing in mind Turkey’s uneasiness with the census—particularly in and around Kirkuk—without the proper implementation of the “normalization” process as envisaged in Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, a Turkish military operation toward northern Iraq by that time may be expected to cause a considerable delay in the plans of the Iraqi Kurds to declare Kirkuk as a Kurdish city (as a result of the referendum scheduled for December 2007 with the votes of those who will be registered during the census in July). The timing of such an operation toward mid-July, however, may also serve the AKP as previously discussed, and could create a major dilemma for the military.


The major bones of contention between the AKP and the military are not likely to be resolved any time soon. Even though the AKP has attempted to renew its political image by inviting popular figures from diverse political and professional backgrounds to join their ranks prior to the elections, those in opposition to the AKP continue to view the party as one that will keep searching for ways to make references to Islam in the administration of the state. The military will certainly monitor the evolution of the AKP after the elections, if it manages to form a government, by making sure that its vital interests, such as secularism, are protected. In addition to this ideological divide, the “functionalist” approach of the AKP government and the “pure realist” approach of the military regarding the conduct of Turkey’s foreign and security policies are also not likely to coincide in the near future. As a result of these divergences, Turkey is struggling to produce a coherent and effective northern Iraq policy. These two important institutions must find ways to mend their differences in order to better serve national interests in these turbulent times.


1. For an elaborate discussion on the subject matter, see Mustafa Kibaroglu, “Turkey’s Concerns About the State-Building Efforts in Iraq” Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), Tehran, Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (Spring 2005), pp. 443-454.

2. General Buyukanit made such a statement during his opening remarks at an international symposium that was organized by the Center for Strategic Research and Study of the Turkish General Staff (SAREM) on May 31 – June 01, 2007, convened in Istanbul.