Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat- Turkey is economically, militarily and strategically a strong state that would never tolerate the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. If that took place, it would pose the most serious threat to Turkey since the war of independence in the 1920s. Consequently, Turkey seeks more rapprochement with the region’s moderate countries as it maintains that all Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, are in defensive positions contrary to Iran and America.
US-Turkish relations have never been worse. Ankara no longer has confidence in America’s plans and intentions. It believes that American policies in the region, especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003, have had dangerous effects on the security of Turkey, while decision makers in Washington do not comprehend the effects of their policies in northern Iraq upon Turkey.
Turkey, with its great interest in joining the European Union, is increasingly realizing that the Middle East region is both its point of weakness and strength because of recent developments. Therefore, Turkey, which has not played a significant role in the regional and Iraqi arenas (of its own accord or under pressure from international and regional powers and Kurdish powers inside Iraq) since the US invasion on Iraq began in 2003 is prepared to intervene to protect its interests. It believes that matters might intensify to the extent that it will be forced, more so than any other country in the Middle East, to pay a heavy price for its stability and security. At the same time, Turkey does not want to divide the countries of the region into two ranks and support one at the expense of the other. Turkey, which uses the term “Basra Gulf” rather than “Arab Gulf” or “Persian Gulf”, believes that the strategic situation and the likelihood of the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would compel all countries of the regions to cooperate with each other.
Turkish research centres, strategists, faculties of politics at various Turkish universities and the institutions of the Turkish state are occupied today with collecting and analyzing information and attempting to predict what could happen over the next three to five years that will be decisive to the region. The Turks are more afraid than anyone else of the possibility of an independent state [being established] for the Kurds in northern Iraq, hence, they are intolerant with respect to the operations carried out by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) against the Turkish military.
Serhat Erkman, a researcher at the Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM), told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is likely that the Americans have the intention to allow for an independent state in northern Iraq [to be established]. I don’t think that the Americans made this decision in 2003 and they didn’t have this idea [in mind] when they occupied Iraq. However, the developments in Iraq, particularly after Washington failed to form a democratic government and stop the violence, pushed the Americans to search for another location within Iraq to be their safe base. When the Americans eventually decide to withdraw their forces from Iraq, they will anticipate another safe place for their forces that want to remain in the region. These American forces will not be stationed in Shia or Sunni areas but will remain where Washington wants, in northern Iraq.”
Serhat Erkmen whose PhD thesis is entitled, “The US Foreign Policy towards Northern Iraq in the Aftermath of the Second Gulf War: 1991-2003” told Asharq Al-Awsat, “In Turkey, we do not use the term Iraqi Kurdistan as the region’s geography is complicated. If we accept the term ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’ in Turkey, then we would have to accept ‘Turkish Kurdistan’. Therefore, we prefer and use the term ‘northern Iraq’. Some Turks also use the term ‘north of Iraq’ but more often the term ‘northern Iraq’ is used especially after 1991.”
If Washington was not planning to dismantle Iraq from the outset, developments over the past few years could push it towards considering this as a possibility. However, the question, which is frequently asked in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq remains: do the Americans now have a clear-cut plan to establish an independent state for the Kurds in northern Iraq?
In this regard, Erkman stated, “Recently, some reports have been published in Turkey on Turkish foreign policy towards northern Iraq and what Turkey should do. In fact, most of these reports have advocated the idea that America is now planning to establish an independent state in northern Iraq. How does Turkey deal with such developments? There must be dialogue with the neighbouring countries, especially Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The neighbouring countries could have a significant effect on the course of matters in Iraq by offering intermediary solutions. For example, if tensions between the Shia and the Sunnis alleviated, we could prevent the partition of Iraq. I believe that it will take at least three years before matters intensify to the extent that northern Iraq would secede [forming] an independent state for the Kurds. Consequently, within the next three years, there are things we can do in order to save the situation. We can take diplomatic and military steps.”
There is suspicion towards Washington’s intentions and distrust of Europe as well from Turkey and as a result, Ankara has turned towards the regional countries that understand the impact of transformations on each country’s security position and interest. There is now talk among Turkish politicians about a “new security complex in Turkey” that is in conformity with the developments that have taken place over the past five years.
In this regard, a Turkish foreign ministry official told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The US has no intention to act to solve the problem with the Kurds. The countries of the region, concerned with the crisis would be able to act faster. These countries are Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Jordan. But there are differences in the viewpoints between the two parties, namely, Iran and Syria on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan on the other. If Turkey wants to help to solve regional issues, especially the situation in northern Iraq, an agreement needs to be reached with the Arab countries. During the Cold War, Turkey had strategic allies in the West against Soviet influence because the Turks believed that the most dangerous threat to their national security came from Russia. It is for that reason that the Turks have sought to strengthen their ties with America since the beginning of the Cold War and later with the European Union with the aim of accession. However, after the Cold War ended, the threat to Turkish national security no longer came from Russia on its western and northern borders; rather, it came from its eastern and southern borders, that is, Iran and Iraq. This requires the Turks to think about a new approach in security for their national security.”
The official continued: “Iran could pose a threat because of its nuclear program. In Turkey we know that we are not the main target of the Iranian nuclear program but for centuries there has been a strategic balance between Iran and Turkey. Prior to this strategic balance, the two countries would be embroiled in long wars despite that each side was ruled by the Safavid Turks. Nevertheless, in view of the lessons of history, the two countries and nations have formed the belief that in case of any confrontation between Iran and Turkey neither side would achieve victory. Hence, there should be cooperation and good relations between the two parties particularly after the Iranian revolution. Today many Turks think highly of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for one simple reason – he is a sharp critic of Bush. Among the results of cooperation between the Iranians and the Turks is that the Iranians, who once supported the PKK in favour of Ankara, are today cooperating with Turkey against it.”
Erkman believes that there is Iranian-Turkish cooperation regarding the PKK. He stated, “We have intelligence cooperation with Tehran but that wasn’t the case in the 1990s because Tehran used to support the PKK against Turkey. At present, there is cooperation with Tehran. However if Iran became the strongest country in the region in the future, relations between Iran and Turkey could easily change. The existence of a very strong neighbour could be a problem. Therefore, for the Turks, a strong Iran means a good neighbour but a very strong Iran could be a problem. With respect to the likelihood of the establishment of an independent state for the Kurds in northern Iraq, what Iran would expect or have to bear is different from Turkey. Iran can deal with an independent state for the Kurds in northern Iraq while Turkey could not. In other words, any state in northern Iraq would cause much harm to Turkey, while Iran has other various options that make it more qualified than Turkey to deal with the reality of a Kurdish state.”
Erkman continued, “Firstly, the ideology of the Iranian state is based on religion rather than nationalism or race. Despite the fact that Turkey is a secular state, it is a national state that is based on an original race (the Turks). Consequently, Iran has more control over Iranian Kurds than Turkey has over its Kurds. Secondly, historically speaking, Iran had had more ties with the Kurds of northern Iraq than Turkey. Since 2004, it has been having an increasing influence in northern Iraq. The Islamic movement in Iraqi Kurdistan is supported by Iran. If Iran wants to interfere in northern Iraq, it can do so in many ways, more so than Turkey. Whenever there have been reports on Turkish operations carried out against the bases of the PKK in northern Iraq, there would be opposition from America, Europe, Russia, China and other powers. However when Iran interferes in northern Iraq, no one says anything. Iran bombarded the forts of Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the Iranian Kurds in northern Iraq, and yet no one said anything. Moreover, Tehran can control the movement of Iranian Kurds that oppose the Iranian regime. But the most important factor that is in the interest of Iran is the Shia of Iraq. Iraq also has the Shia element such as Muqtada al Sadr’s group on which the Iranians can depend more so than the al Hakim group or the Islamic Dawa Party .”
As a result of Americas disregard or unawareness of the complications of the situation in the region and of the effects of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state on the security of Turkey, one can see sharp resentment and criticism within Turkish newspapers. Consequently, relations between the Americans and the Turks have reached a dead end and that is also the case with relations with Iran and freedom of opinion inside Turkey.
Ekram Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish ‘Zaman’ newspaper, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I believe that America does not realize what is taking place in this region. When Ankara talks about the Iraqi issue and separatist groups amongst the Kurds, it thinks about what would happen in ten, 15 or 20 years. This is the way of our thinking. We have been in this region for thousands of years. The ruling institution in Turkey has short-term plans to deal with this crisis but the most important are the long-term plans that we have. The Turks are indifferent to America’s anger.”
Turkey believes that the US is moving to protect its own interests without taking into account the interests of its allies in the region. “America may seek to establish a Kurdish state for the Kurds in northern Iraq because it may provide a security presence in this sensitive border region with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. During the second Gulf War, neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey allowed America to use any military bases on their territories. It is likely that they will not allow their bases to be used in case of any attack against Iran. America needs a military base in this region and Iraq is currently very important to America as it is the launch pad for Washington in order to build the new Middle East. Iraq is also the buffer zone between the Arabs and the Iranians. The Americans need some military bases in order to have control over all of Iraq’s borders. Where could these bases be built? In northern Iraq. Perhaps this is the worst case scenario but if the Americans want to attack Iran, this base will be very important. This would be the safest place for them,” Erkman told Asharq Al-Awsat.
However the Turks may lose two partners rather than one during this crisis; that is Israel as well as the US. In addition to the ambiguity of America’s intentions, there is also uncertainty regarding Israel’s intentions. The Turks frequently state that the Israeli presence in northern Iraq raises concern because it politically and economically increases the possibility of the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Erkman told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I have written about the Israeli presence in northern Iraq since 2005. In 2004, I was in Israel gathering information for my PhD thesis. I met officials who spoke about relations between the Israelis and the Kurds. Firstly, there are over 100,000 Jewish Kurds who now have Israeli nationality, some of whom are living in Israel or Kurdistan and occupy high positions such as the [former] Minister of Defence Yitzhak Mordechai and other politicians. The essence of Israel’s philosophy in dealing with the Arab world, which was laid down by the founder of Israel David Ben-Gurion who studied in Turkey, is that any non-Arab is a friend whether he is Kurdish, Turkish or Persian. Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, there were Israelis in northern Iraq that travelled across Turkey and Jordan, many of whom are Jewish Kurds with Israeli nationality. They are buying land especially in Kirkuk. I mentioned this information because I got it from people in northern Iraq coming to Turkey and talking about the latest developments. If we looked at the diplomatic and academic relations between some European and American universities and institutions and their Kurdish counterparts, we would find that the Jewish factor exists.”
However, the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would have difficult results for the main players in the region. On the one hand, if a Kurdish state was established in northern Iraq, meaning implicitly that Iraq would be dismantled into statelets, the first two countries that would be harmed are Turkey and Jordan; they are two important allies of Israel in the region. Turkey would then face danger regarding the unity of its land while Jordan is home to several millions of Iraqi refugees even though it is a small country with problems, some of which are grave. If Iraq was to separate into statelets and a strong Shia state emerged controlling the majority of Iraq’s land and wealth, this would also not be in the interest of Israel because it would mean that the moderate state would weaken in the region. Moreover, establishing a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would mean an end to the Turkish-Israeli alliance. The Turks know that this state cannot be established without the support of America and Israel. On the other hand, if a Kurdish state is established in northern Iraq, it would be close to Israel, according to Erkman. He continued, “Israel will have a new partner in the region. This new partner, due to its location, could affect developments in Turkey, Iran and Syria. If war broke out between Iran and America, Israel would be in a better strategic position regarding any escalation with Iran because of this Kurdish state in northern Iraq.” Iran, in turn, could lose or benefit from the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Tehran might lose out if Israel exploited the Kurdish state to weaken Iran. This reflects the strategic importance of northern Iraq. Tehran might benefit if it had a part in this new state. Consequently, Turkey and Iran have different perceptions towards a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
“I believe if a Kurdish state was established, Turkey would close its borders with it and would never recognize it. However Iran would recognize a Kurdish state because it knows that unless it recognizes it and is present in northern Iraq, Israel would have the biggest influence and Iran would never allow that. If we consider the idea from the viewpoint of the Kurds, we find that they do need the Israelis. They say that clearly. They say: Why should the Kurds not have relations with Israel? The majority of the Arab countries have excellent relations with Israel such as Egypt, Jordan and Qatar,” explained Erkman.
Today, Turkey’s natural allies are Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt however at the regional meetings Turkish officials have stated that Turkey does not receive adequate support from Arab countries. It is frequently stated that Turkey has no interests in northern Iraq and it does not want to return to the legacy of the Ottoman state and the Arabs know that. Turkey has not interfered in northern Iraq or any other part of the country since 1991. However, Ankara argues that there must be safe borders between Iraq and Turkey. These borders should be protected by Iraqi or American forces because it is the responsibility of the US. Nevertheless, Ankara also sees that the Arab situation is not a simple one whereby the price of opening up Iraq to regional intervention may be very costly.
Erkman continued, “Both Iran and Israel are present in northern Iraq. The Turks are asking: why aren’t we present in northern Iraq? I am not expressing an official point of view. If the Turkish state wants to protect its citizens, it must do all that it can; we are in the Middle East. When America invaded Iraq, was this legitimate or legal? The answer is no. When Iran sends elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to southern Iraq, is this legitimate or legal? No. So why should Turkey act legally and within the framework of international laws. There is a legitimate concern about the activities of the PKK in northern Iraq but this is not the only threat to Turkey’s security. The fundamental issue that threatens Turkey’s security is Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani because they are expansionists and separatists and this threatens Turkey’s security. But Turkey will not remain silent about any problems to be raised. Over the past 25 years, we have spent $100 billion on the counter-terrorism unit to bomb the bases of the PKK and its strongholds. It is easy to stop the progress of others and the progress of another country. The Kurds of northern Iraq should fear Turkey and it is not Turkey that should fear them. Turkey is a great state with a big army and significant national product.” He continued, “We need an alliance with moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf. If moderate Arab countries left Turkey to form an alliance with Iran and Syria against America, they should be aware of what that would mean for them. This is the worst-case scenario for the Arab world. Moderate Arab countries should become closer to Turkey. There should be endeavours for Syrian-Israeli peace and the containment of differences with Iran and Iraq. If this does not take place, America will divide the whole region according to alliances and religions. In this sensitive strategic situation, Turkey has no strategic allies. We would form an alliance with whoever stands by us against the Kurds in northern Iraq. But if America and Israel support us, we will stand by them. On the other hand, if Iran and Syria support us, we will side with them. Today all countries of the region are on the defensive except Iran and Syria; they are on the attack.”
The Kurds of Turkey want a peaceful solution to the crisis rather than conflict and they do not want to separate from Turkey and integrate into a state with the Kurds of Iraq or other Kurds of the region firstly for economic reasons, and secondly, because of cultural differences between the Kurds themselves.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, and there were no supporters of a separate, independent state for the Kurds of Turkey as their demands were related to recognising the cultural rights of the Kurds and improving their economic and social situations.
Serdar Sengwl, foreign affairs adviser at the Diyarbakir mayor’s office told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Our problem is one of identity. This problem of identity can be solved within the framework of the state. Separation is not necessarily the solution.”
Ekram Dumanli told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The Kurds of Turkey are not similar to the Kurds of Iraq, Iran or Syria. In Iraq, Syria and Iran, Kurdish women seldom marry Arab men but in Turkey we are related by blood. For example, I’m Turkish and my parents are Turkish but I have two sisters and each one is married to a Kurd. So I would ask their children whether they are Kurdish like their fathers or Turkish like their mothers. Of course, they are Kurdish Turks. This is happening all the time in Turkey; we can not separate the Kurds from the Turks because we are relatives, neighbours and business partners. The Kurdish issue in Turkey is totally different from the Kurdish issue in Iraq. We did not have a dictator like Saddam Hussein and we did not kill Kurds. When people talk about the Iraqi example, they forget that America will leave someday. The Kurds need to have good ties with the Turks, the Iranians and the Syrians because if they believe that America will remain in the region for ever, they are mistaken.”