Will Turkey Seize Northern Iraq?

News Abroad

Hakan Ozoglu is the Ayasli Senior Lecturer in Turkish Studies at the University of Chicago.

The fate of Northern Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan promises to be one of the most sensitive issues that will affect the stability of the region. The political future of these Kurdish districts is of grave importance for the Turks. The Turks suspect a hidden agenda of the Iraqi Kurds and the Coalition Powers, an agenda that might ultimately culminate in the creation of a Kurdish state. The Turks would consider this ill fated, for such a state would “indisputably” endanger the national security and territorial integrity of Turkey by inspiring its own Kurdish population to secede. On the other side of the border, Kurds consider a Turkish intervention as a direct threat to Kurdish hopes for a self-rule. Any conceivable conflict between the Turks and the Kurds is also a source of anxiety for the US, as the Bush administration hopes to tranquilize the region lest the old rivalries re-surface and destabilize the Middle East even further. The US is in an awkward position, as it needs the assistance of the two groups whose aspirations are diametrically opposed to each other.

To complicate matters, Turks are also suspicious of the US designs for the Kurds and vice versa. Despite repeated assurances by US officials on the continuation of the Iraq’s territorial integrity, many Turks still remain uneasy about the US military support of the Iraqi Kurds. Although the Turkish government has agreed that Turkey will not intervene militarily in Northern Iraq as long as the national security of Turkey is not jeopardized, the current escalation of clashes between the Turkish security forces and the PKK (Kurdish militant organization fighting for independent Kurdistan in Turkey) indicate that there are reasons for Turkey to be worried. Despite the statements of Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq and a Kurd himself, asking Turkey not to engage the PKK guerillas within Northern Iraq, frustrated Turks consider the current situation unacceptable while the PKK operates from northern Iraq to attack Turkish security forces. As the Iraqi Kurds are suspicious of Turkey’s intent in such a cross-border military operation to target PKK bases, the Turks do not trust the political will and military might of the Iraqi Kurds to shut down PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Historic mistrust among these parties involved in Northern Iraq is not without merit. World War I provides plenty examples of unfulfilled promises and secret treaties. And there is no guarantee that history will not repeat itself. Turks whose popular memory is still tormented by the loss of vast territories as a result of post World War I treaties, do not suffer from a lack of conspiracy theories regarding the involvement of the Western Powers in the Middle East. By the same token, the Western Powers--US, Britain and several EU countries in this case--have a justified fear of a possible Turkish military involvement in Northern Iraq.

These fears find their roots in the aftermath of World War I when Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, waged a war against the Allied Powers. During this war, which was referred to as the War of Independence by the Turks, one of the main questions was to determine the boundaries of the new state. In a proclamation, known as the National Pact of 1920, the new Turkish regime declared the desired political boundaries of the new state, which included Northern Iraq. The Treaty of Lausanne drew the boundaries of Turkey with the exception of the Mosul province in 1923. Suspecting the rich oil reserves in this province, Britain did not want to leave Mosul and the other towns around it to the Turkish administration. The issue was referred to the League of Nations and in 1926 Mosul was transferred to Iraq. The fact that Mosul was included in the National Pact of 1920 fanned the ambitions of Turkish ultra-nationalists for generations. However, after 1926, Mosul was dropped from the Turkish Parliament’s agenda.

During this same period Britain and France had promised the Kurds “liberation” from the Turkish “misrule” and autonomy in the new Iraqi state. Yet as the Kurdish tribes use this opportunity to settle the old scores among themselves, Britain did not follow through on the promises it made. Since then, the Kurds became a major destabilizing force in the Middle East to which the Western Powers tapped in times of need. Therefore, blame cannot be justifiably placed on the Kurds when they remain skeptical for the intentions of Turkey, and for the dedication of the West to the Kurds.

Amidst this aura of skepticism, a significant question calls attention: will Turkey send troops to Northern Iraq? The most honest answer to this question can only be “probably”, despite the fact that US warned Turkey in no uncertain term against it. It would be naïve to think that in an era of “preemptive strikes” and “liberation wars” seizure of Northern Iraq has not been pondered by some Turks who resent the 1926 loss of Mosul. Indeed, for a country such as Turkey whose economy seems to be balancing on a tightrope, the oil wealth of the former Ottoman provinces of Mosul and Kirkuk would be most welcomed. However, the Turkish Government does seem very aware of the high cost of such an expansionist policy. There is always a possibility that arrangements for the post-war Iraq will tilt delicate balances in the region at the expense of Turkey. Because of this concern, Turkey seems to be unwilling to commit or entirely divorce itself from the possibility of actively engaging in Northern Iraq.

There is one more unstated reason, however, that readily escapes the eye. That is the post-war negotiations. As it stands now, by not allowing the US troops to enter Iraq from its border, Turkey has severely damaged its chance to reserve a seat at the table where the future of the “new liberated Iraq” will be discussed. Considering this, a Turkish military presence at the border, if not in Northern Iraq, can also be regarded as an attempt by Turkey to insert itself into the post-war negotiations. No doubt, stability of the new Baghdad regime will depend partly upon the cooperation it gets from the surrounding states. Syria and Iran have already signaled their opposition to a pro-US Iraqi government. This reality makes the cooperation of Turkey even more crucial. As the nations of the world position themselves for the new developments in the post “Operation Iraqi Freedom” era, Turkey too positions herself both to deal with the unexpected political developments after the war and to secure its interest in the region. As for the Iraqi Kurds, they seem to be content with the protection they get from the US against the Turks, while enthusiastically hoping that they will be rewarded with autonomy, and silently praying for independence. They also position themselves not only against Turkey, but also against their rival Kurdish factions.

There are plenty of variables, unknowns and suspicion that make the political landscape of Northern Iraq that much harder to forecast. Yet, one can readily predict that the issue of Northern Iraq and the Kurds will capture the headlines of Western media with greater frequency regardless of a Turkish component.

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More Comments:

Glenn Scott Rodden - 11/24/2006

Mr. Keuter:

I am not sure why you think the news from Northern Iraq is all good. Good for who? That region has not seen the intense violence of the other parts of Iraq, but it not a story of liberation, autonomy, and independence. Northern Iraq is not simply "Kurdish Iraq." That region is divided between Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs, and Assyrians. Any attempt to establish a "Kurdish Iraq" will be opposed by the other ethnic groups in the region with assistance from nations outside Iraq.

I have no idea what the Bush administration's policy toward Northern Iraq is. Perhaps someone on this forum could explain it.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/23/2006

Since the new "realism" entails discussions with Iran and Syria, I doubt very much that Turkey would be left out of the picture because it hindered the US. If anything, that makes Turkey fit in with the rest of the regional powers the Iraq commission will most likely urge to "come to the table".

And the idea of bringing in "Iran", "Syria" and "Turkey" to solve the "Iraq" problem does indeed take no heed of the fact that all of these entities are not nation states but states with many oppressed nations within them. The news from Northern Iraq has been good. It is a story of liberation minus post war sectarian continuation of the war by other means.

If the United States does not protect the new found autonomy and independence of Kurdish Iraq out of some kind of naive diplomatic consideration for enemies of the US (Iran, Syria, Sunni Ba'athists, etc), it will commit one of the most shameful acts in its history. Further, it will sabotage American foreign policy. If we choose the path of round table discussions with Iran and Syria, we are casting that as our foreign policy fate. This is a pathetic step backwards and a betrayal of any and all committments to national self-determination. We simply become another Pope or Emperor playing chess with Kurds as pawns.

The best thing we could do is build bases in Kurdish Iraq (as they wanted us to) in order to assure its integrity in the face of its hostile neighbors. We've managed to deal with Turkey and Greece in NATO; we can deal with this.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/21/2006

True. But it must be of some significance that Turkey is not part of the conference itself.

Hakan Ozoglu - 11/21/2006

Iraqi Prime Minister was in Turkey a couple of weeks ago, so were Iranian and Syrian high level officals. Turkey had plenty opportunities to offer its views.

Hala Fattah - 11/20/2006

The Arabic-language press is abuzz with rumors that Syria, Iraq and Iran will be meeting soon to work out an acceptable arrangement for coexistence. In light of the analysis here, why hasn't Turkey been called upon to offer its views on Iraq's future?

Tim R. Furnish - 11/20/2006

Professor Ozoglu, as usual, provides a fine analysis of the interests colliding in Northern Iraq. My only question would be: what are the relative positions of the AK party and the Turkish military? Are then for once running in tandem?