Turkey’s Policy towards Iraq in the post-Saddam era – Tarık Oğuzlu

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Turkey’s Policy towards Iraq in the post-Saddam era – Tarık Oğuzlu

Turkey’s Policy towards Iraq in the post-Saddam era


Tarık Oğuzlu[1]


US Policy in Iraq during 2003-2006

US Policy during 2003-2006 period can be described a pro-Kurdish, as Kurdish groups received strong US support. This period provided 3 important gains for Kurdish groups. The first one is the article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution which states that Kirkuk’s final status is to be decided through a referendum. Secondly, Kurdish Region became a federal area and the Iraqi Constitution defines Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) region as a federal unit in Iraq. And lastly, Kurds gained influential positions in state administration such as the presidency of Mr. Talabani.


Another aspect of US policy in this period was about the containment of both Shiite and Sunni forces. After US take over, Sunnis were excluded from the Iraqi body politics. The goal was to consolidate de-Baathification. At the same time US aimed at eradicating the roots of the Al Qaeda in Iraq through the cooperation of Shiite militias as there was no possibility of an alliance with Sunni groups against Al-Qaeda or resistance groups. In 2003-2006, US tried to exclude Iran from the game as a legitimate player. After the end of military campaign against Saddam Hussein, Iraqi army was disbanded and new Iraqi forces were to be established. The US military plan was just to do the clearing the ground from any unwanted group and activity. Holding the ground and rebuilding it, would be undertaken by Iraqi forces. This strategy, however, proved to be wrong.

US policy in Iraq since early 2007

When we came to 2007, US understood that Peace with the Sunni Arabs was necessary to fight the Al-Qaeda and Baathist resistance. Therefore US increased its support to Sunni groups such as the Sunni Awakening group and the Sons of Iraq. Understandably the US support increased the strength of the Sunnis and The Awakening has now at least 100000 men under arm, for instance. Through its support to Sunnis, US goal was to see that the Sunni forces are reintegrated into the Iraqi army and the new political elections, local and general, ease the way for Sunni representation in state administration. Since the early 2007, the beginning of the surge strategy, more troops are needed to provide stability and security in Iraq. Now Sunni Arabs are in the payrolls of US administration, too. De-Baathification strategy which was aimed at during 2003-2006 period needed to be reversed. In addition to that previous US strategy to clear and leave to Iraqi forces was redefined as clear-hold-build. This time the US soldiers do the fighting and stay in the war zone to consolidate the gains. They do not turn over the field over to the local Iraqi forces after the war came to an end. The US goal was redefined as to win hearths and minds of the Sunni Iraqis.

Another change was seen in the attitude towards Iran as well as Syria. It is now the case that the Washington administration has now been in the process of altering its exclusionary approach towards Iran and Syria, as the voices of traditional realists are now being heard more often than the neo-con demagogues. The need to talk to Tehran and Damascus in order to contribute to the emergence of long-term stability in Iraq and the region has now become more pronounced in Washington than ever. Reconciliation with Iran was seen necessary to have lasting stability in Iraq. Therefore Iran’s support is needed to have control over Iraq’s anti-American Shia groups. This resulted in such a deal like; the US would not support the Iranian regime’s opponents in Iraq. In return Iran would help the US secure Sadr’s agreement to a ceasefire. Sadr group declared ceasefire in the summer of 2007 and cease fire was extended in April 2008. This fact constitutes a main factor for the positive results yielded by the surge strategy. As the surge strategy proved functioning and level of violence decreased in Iraq, the issue of pulling back American soldiers from Iraq has been debated more vociferously then ever. The best way to succeed in Iraq before withdrawing is to tie the decision of withdrawal to clear benchmarks, success of the Iraqis to settle their problems at home. It is important to keep in mind that the satisfaction of Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, is more important than the satisfaction of Kurds for long-term stability in Iraq. A strategy that primarily relies on Kurdish support, at the expense of Arabs, particularly Sunnis, would never work. The Kurds do now have to fight at two fronts, Baghdad front and Ankara front. Kurds are in fight with Arabs over Kirkuk, the share of the oil resource, the limits of regional government, the budget, and Turkey over Kirkuk and PKK. The Americans would likely side with the Arabs over Kirkuk, for they have increasingly become dependent on their cooperation.

Indications of new strategy to tilt towards Arabs

For the United States to leave Iraq as soon as possible as claimed by the majority of Iraqis and foreseen by the presidential candidates, Iraq should turn to a stable and secure place. For this to happen, the satisfaction of Arab demands, particularly the Sunnis, is important. The change in the US policy from relying on Kurdish support to provision of Shia and Sunni satisfaction for long-term stability in Iraq inevitably have had positive implications for Arabian side of Iraqi. First of all, the referendum on Kirkuk is postponed for six months till June 2008. Sunnis and Shias form a common block in Iraqi parliament to resist the Kurdish claims on Kirkuk. They have even made it clear that they could resort to force to overcome any Kurdish fait-accompli on the status of the city. Even though the local elections in Iraq will be held in 2009, the Kurdish region will be excluded from this process. Elections in Kirkuk will not be held unless the parties to the conflict came to an agreement as to how to share power in Kirkuk. The Kurds agreed to this term. This is a sign of victory on the part of Arabs and Turks. In addition to that the Americans are now supporting the Arabs’ policy on the sharing of Iraq’s oil resources. The final decision on the production, use and distribution of oil rests with the Central authority in Baghdad, not regional governments. Last but not least the Kurds could get only 17% of Iraqi budget. They asked more than this but Sunni and Shia Arabs resisted. The proportion of Kurdish share will be discussed every consecutive year. On the Turkish side, The US administration does now offer Turkey military help against PKK. PKK is declared as the common enemy of Turkey and the US. Collective action of the US and Turkey against PKK increases the pressure on the Kurds to cooperative with Ankara. Improvement of bilateral relations is a must for stability in the Middle East and Iraq. The US does now need Turkey to contain Iran. Such developments led the Kurds to feel that the United States might once again leave them out in the cold, as it did during first Gulf War in 1991.

Prospects for Future

On the on hand, Shiites are not happy to see that the Sunnis are reintegrated to the Iraqi body politics and army. They are still afraid of the possibility of Sunni domination of Iraqi politics. They are reluctant to incorporate the Sunni soldiers into the Iraqi army. At the same time Iran is against the possibility of Iraq transforming into a centralized state with Sunnis playing the role of power brokering. In this regard, Turkish and Iranian policies are in conflict. The more centralized Iraq become, the happier Turkey becomes. For Iran, a more decentralized Iraq is much welcome. On the other hand, US lenience on Sunni Arabs is also motivated by the US concern to counterbalance the rising Iranian influence inside Iraq and the whole Middle East. The Sunni regimes of the region support this American policy within the framework of their goal to limit Iran’s influence. On the Kurdish side, there is a dissatisfaction to see that the Arab influence in Iraqi politics is increasing and supported by the United States.

The most important concern for the future is what might happen after the US leaves without the roots of any everlasting peace were built in Iraq. The strengthening of Sunni tribes might be perceived by the Shiites and Kurds as the most important challenge against their communal gains in the post war era. The US strategy resting on Sunni tribes might in the end result in the deepening of communal conflicts. The United States is now advised to ask the Iraqi groups to settle their differences before the withdrawal of American troops. Withdrawal should be tied to meeting of certain preconditions on the part of the Iraqi groups. Each actor appears to have been trying to gain time and consolidate their own gains before the US leaves. None of the conflicting parties in Iraq seems to be working hard for the unification of the country and establishment of a truly democratic state. In one way or the other the forecasting of Joseph Biden and Peter Galbraith are coming true, the soft portioning of Iraq along sectarian lines. For US to be able to start a healthy withdrawal and leave a stable Iraq behind in which no one power is dominating the main body politics or threatening the security of the country, the Status for Forces Agreement needs to be signed as soon as possible.

Why Iraq is Important for Turkey?

Turkey has historical responsibility for the maintenance of Iraq’s borders and any change of this structure will undoubtedly influence Turkey’s interests. However, the significance of Iraq does not only stem from the historical aspects, its relevance to Turkey does also emanate from Iraq’s geopolitical location. Whether Iraq is going to remain as a unitary state or morph into three new states, whether Iraq is going to operate as a strong centralized state or transform into a weak federal structure, whether Iraq is going to become a pro-Western secular country or turns into a theocratic state in the image of Iran are of significant questions with respect to Turkey’s regional interests in the Middle East.

In addition to historical and geopolitical factors, demographic issues make Iraq a crucial region for Turkey. Iraq’s population includes substantial number of Kurds and Turkmen, who have kinship relationship with Turkey’s own people. Such kinship relationship between the two populations denies Turkey the luxury of keeping itself immune from Iraq’s internal developments. Iraq is also a factor in Turkish bid for EU membership. Iraq’s future and Turkey’s responses to that will undoubtedly impact Turkey’s relations with the European Union and the US. And finally, the future of northern Iraq and the power vacuum there impacts Turkey’s fight against PKK.

Turkey’s Iraq policy during the 1990s

Iraq’s territorial integrity was considered as vitally important for the preservation of Turkey’s own security. Despite the repressive and authoritarian character of Saddam’s regime, the writ of Baghdad’s rule over the whole country was seen as the most important break on the separatist and secessionist claims of Kurds and Shiite groups. In the post-Saddam era Turkey became tremendously concerned with the political status of the Iraqi Kurdish groups. Turkey was also concerned with the possibility of the PKK benefiting from the lack of authority in northern Iraq in its efforts to organize terrorist attacks inside Turkey. While Kurdish groups increased their power and influence thanks to US support, Turkey gradually saw Iraq’s Turkmen community as a possible source that might potentially counterbalance the rising Kurdish influence. The existence of the Turkmen community in Iraq was also a concern in Turkey’s relations with Iraq. However, Turkey’s approach towards this particular issue was that Iraqi Turkmen were Iraq’s citizens and the improvement of their well-being depended on the nature of the relationship between Baghdad and this community.

Turkey’s Iraq Policy after the regime change

First of all, Iraq increasingly transformed into a weak/failed state during the 1990s. Iraq has now transformed into a place where different kinds of wars are waged simultaneously. On the one hand, Sunni insurgents fight the American occupiers; on the other Al-Qaeda terrorists fight both the US-led international coalition and Iraq’s mainly Shiite groups. Another struggle has been between the Shiite and Sunni groups. Another one is between the Kurds and Shiite on the one hand and Sunni groups on the other. Another war is currently waged between the US and pro-American Sunni regimes on the one hand and Iran on the other. While the main concern during the 1990s was Iraq’s explosion, it is now Iraq’s further implosion.

Secondly, the political future of Iraqi Kurds has increasingly become one of the key factors in Turkey’s own Kurdish problem than ever. The fear on the part of Ankara has been that if Iraq’s future were to reflect ethnic differences, the ethnicization of Kurdish question in Turkey might gain ground. Whether Turkey’s Kurds would be growingly attracted to the emerging political authority in northern Iraq has become a question that Turkey’s security policy makers do now take into account while defining Turkey’s national security interests. Political developments in northern Iraq have led the international community to pay more attention to the situation of Kurds of Turkey more than ever. At the same time the success of Turkey’s efforts to eliminate the PKK terrorism at home has been negatively impacted by the PKK’s increasing ability to use northern Iraq as a logistic area.

Thirdly, given that Turkey’s transformation in line with the premises of liberal-democracy is now considered to be the number one factor affecting Turkey’s chance of being admitted to the European Union, the more negatively Turkey’s security were impacted by the developments in northern Iraq, the less able Turkey has become to complete its democratization/Europeanization process. The continuation of the PKK terrorism appears to have slowed down Turkey’s democratization process, for in a securitized domestic environment the steps that need to be taken in the name of liberal democracy have increasingly been seen as threatening. Besides, Turkey’s exposition to growing security threats emanating from northern Iraq seems to have contributed to the EU’s reluctance to admit Turkey as a member. The EU public opinion does not want to see that the EU borders Iran, Syria and Iraq.

On the US- Turkish front, inevitably, the US occupation of Iraq has negatively affected Turkey’s relations with the United States. Despite all American attempts otherwise, Ankara has gradually come to the point that the current US government, under the influence of the neo-conservative ideology, has been punishing Turkey for its non-cooperation on the eve of the war in March 2003. The United States has been seen by increasing number of Turkey as a potential threat to Turkey’s security. Furthermore, the occupation of Iraq has also impacted the dynamics of balance of power politics in the Middle East mainly by contributing to the rise of Iran’s relative influence at the expense of Turkey. Even though Turkey would not like to see that she needs to increase her defense expenditure in order to counterbalance the rising Iranian power, Iran’s growing nuclear aspirations on the one hand and the declining of NATO’s security commitment on the other might lead eventually Turkey to reconsider its decades-long non-nuclearization policies.

As for the final status of the City of Kirkuk, Ankara has long argued that the referendum in Kirkuk needs to be postponed sometime in future. From Ankara’s perspective Kirkuk is a miniature of Iraq where people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living for centuries and its final status should be decided by all Iraqis. Otherwise, the incorporation of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city, into the Iraqi Kurdistan region would likely increase the prospects of a civil war, for the majority of Iraqis strongly oppose any Kurdish control of the city. As for the shape of Iraq’s administrative structure, Ankara supports the idea of a federal Iraq that is based on geographical criteria, rather than ethnic and religious differences.

Alternative Turkish discourses towards he Kurds of northern Iraq

When we look at the attitudes towards Kurds of Northern Iraq we witness two alternative competing discourses; realist-exclusionist vs liberal integrationist

To the adherents of the first position, realist-exclusionist and Kemalists, which mainly consists of the members of establishment in politics and bureaucracy, Turkey’s number one priority, should be to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. In this regard, Turkey should never accord legitimacy to Iraqi Kurds by talking directly to them. Gradual integration with northern Iraq is dangerous, for this might accelerate the process of reawakening of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, particularly in Kurdish populated areas. To this view the United States and Israel actively support the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the hope that such a state would not only provide Israel and the US with the capability to install anti-ballistic missiles against Iran, but also act a US protégée in the region.

To the other position, liberal-integrationists and neo-Ottomanists, whose adherents consist of liberal intellectuals and pro-European circles, there is now a new status quo in Iraq and the only thing Turkey can do is to adjust its position to these new realities and to adopt a liberal integrationist approach towards the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq are Turkey’s true allies, particularly right after the influence of Shia Iran has increased in the region. The Kurds and Turks do share many common points, of which their western orientation and secular characteristics come first. While the Iraqi Constitution itself recognizes the political legitimacy of the Kurds, they ask what Turkey would gain from turning a blind eye to the Kurds of Iraq? The more Turkey eradicates the structural causes of the Kurdish problem at home through liberal-democratic reforms, the healthier relations with Iraqi Kurds would turn out to be. Turkey should not overstate the potential danger of rising Kurdish influence in Iraq, for the Kurds need Turkey more than Turkey needs the Kurds. Turkey is the only outlet for the transmission of Kirkuk oil to western markets. Turkey does now own 80 percent of the construction sector in the region. Without trade with Turkey, the life in northern Iraq would be extremely costly. Trying to make northern Iraq economically dependent on Turkey would not only benefit Turkey’s economy but also provide her with better capabilities to affect Kurdish political decisions. Just as the EU influenced the nature of economics and politics in Central and Eastern European countries through the enlargement strategy, Turkey might play a similar role vis-à-vis northern Iraq. The region provides Turkey with the chance to prove its growing European identity in the realm of foreign and security policy. It remains to be seen which position holds sway over Turkey’s approach towards Iraq and Iraqi Kurds.

The liberal integrationists are gaining the upper hand in this debate. The ongoing Turkish military involvement attests to this: Goal is limited to the eradication of PKK, great effort has been spent to convince the international community to the legitimacy of a military action against the PKK, the EU and US do now lend legitimacy to Turkey’s actions, political relations with Iraqi Kurdish leadership is improving, Talabani visit to Turkey, the volume of bilateral trade is increasing.

Latest Developments on the ground in Turkey-US-Kurds-Iraq Relations

Several positive and promising developments have been noted in Turkish-US relations as well as the relations between Turkey and Iraq. The American and Turkish governments mended their relations and began to cooperate. The US does now provide Turkey with intelligence with respect to PKK presence in northern Iraq. The new Turkish Chief of Staff underlined that Turkish-American intelligence cooperation is now perfect. On the Turkey- Iraq front, we have seen the official visits of the statesmen on both sides such as visit of The Iraqi President Talabani in Turkey in spring 2008 and visit of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Iraq in July 2008. Also, Turkish President will soon visit Baghdad in official capacity. This diplomatic traffic yielded positive results. The parties signed a document whereby they agreed to establish the Higher Strategic Council. Both parties underlined the need for close cooperation against PKK. On the other hand, the local election in Turkey in 2009 and the increasing PKK-led terror violence in this context might negatively impact the improving security environment between Ankara and Baghdad-Erbil.

[1] Assoc. Prof. Bilkent University

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