No country would volunteer to be in Turkey’s situation vis-a-vis Iraq. Ankara has found itself on the ropes of various fronts.
Ankara’s relations with the Iraqi government have soured due to Turkey’s oil agreements with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) without the consent of Baghdad and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian politics. Recently, however, Maliki stated that Iraq wants a new beginning with Turkey. This opening came in the wake of speculations about Iraq’s fugitive Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Al-Hashemi, who had been issued three death sentences and had taken refuge in Turkey since December 2011, is said to have moved to Qatar. That Baghdad did not permit the Turkish Energy Minister’s plane to land in Arbil recently could potentially generate huge amounts of drama as well, yet it was carefully downplayed by Ankara. However, no matter how hard both parties try to keep the longstanding tension under control, it will remain there for some time.
Turkey’s own Kurdish problem
On the other hand, despite the golden era in Turkey’s economic, political and strategic relations with the KRG, this one remains a complicated relationship. Turkey fears the foundation of an independent Kurdish state. Turkish authorities have not even recognized the northern Iraqi administration by its official name, the “Kurdistan regional government.” The prospect of a quasi-independent Syrian-Kurdish entity in northern Syria exacerbates this longstanding fear. Adding to these concerns is Turkey’s own Kurdish problem. Unless Turkey accommodates the demands of its own Kurds, Turkish Kurds will have more incentive to demand for themselves the autonomy enjoyed by other Kurdish communities. It is already kind of ironic to act as the big brother of northern Iraq while unable to solve the domestic Kurdish question.
Barzani sides with Turkey in its struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and vis-a-vis Syria. He recently reconciled different Kurdish groups in Syria and paved the way for the foundation of a unified Kurdish coalition. He did this by declaring that he wants to unify all Kurds. This is a reminder of how the Kurdish problem cuts across borders and how Barzani presents himself as the leader of all Kurds. He wouldn’t risk losing influence over Kurds at any price.
Put aside all possible complications with Barzani and just imagine that an Arab-Kurd war takes place. This would put Ankara in a tight position since it could not afford to side with the Kurds against the Arabs, including Sunnis in the region.
In one of the Tom and Jerry cartoons, Tom runs off the edge of a cliff and continues to run in the air until he happens to look down. At the very moment he discovers that he is standing in the air, he plummets to earth. Turkey has to come to terms with reality and prepare for possible future scenarios. Using the “K” word for northern Iraq officially and solving its own Kurdish question would be a good start. You cannot run in the air in reality, even if you don’t look down.
(Verda Özer is a Ph.D. candidate at the Defense Academy of the U.K. and an international security expert. She works as a program manager at the Columbia Global Center Turkey and the German Marshall Fund of the United States and writes for the Hurriyet Daily News. She can be found on Twitter: @Verda_Ozer)
*This article was first published in Hurriyet Daily News on Jan. 1, 2013. Link: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/tightrope-walking-in-iraq.aspx?pageID=449&nID=38058&NewsCatID=466