Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Ankara, Irbil and Baghdad

There is growing criticism in Turkey against the government’s policies towards Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguidin Ankara

Al-Ahram Weekly

War is brewing between the Kurds and Shia in Iraq, and, while it may not break out tomorrow, developments in the ongoing crisis in the Fertile Crescent have sounded the alarm.

The looming danger has offered an opportunity for political forces in Turkey to once again vent their anger against the country’s government, which they charge is playing a non-constructive role in the region and courting danger to Turkey’s national security through its involvement in the conflict in Syria.

They also hold the government responsible for the decline in Turkey’s role elsewhere in the countries affected by the Arab Spring, such as Jordan, which is now in the centre of the change. They say that Turkey has lost its influence in Iraq and that it is unlikely to recover it in the near future.

For several months now, tensions have been mounting between the Kurdish bloc in northern Iraq and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in Baghdad.

Fuelled by various domestic and external factors, the two sides have approached the brink of armed conflict, even though the region scarcely needs yet another civil war and further strife in a country that shares an 800km border with Turkey.

To compound the situation, there have been reports of an air-bridge carrying Iranian arms and munitions to Syria over Iraqi airspace, which the Al-Maliki government has apparently condoned in deference to the country’s Iranian allies.

The mobilisation of troops in northern Iraq also offers a tangible sign of impending hostilities. Military units of the Digla (Tigris) Army under the command of the central government of Iraq and the Peshmergas troops of Iraqi Kurdistan are positioning for a facedown as exchanges of verbal fire between Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil grows increasingly belligerent.

As in other regional hotspots, the mounting tensions in northern Iraq threaten to draw other parties into an ethnic and sectarian conflagration that it may not be possible to extinguish once it erupts.

One of these parties would be neighbouring Turkey, and, as a writer for one of Istanbul’s major dailies warned, the country could become engulfed in a massive frenzy of destruction if the situation is allowed to escalate.

The writer urged Ankara to take all possible steps if not to resolve the tensions then at least to alleviate them to a degree that would avert catastrophic fallout that would strike at the heart of Anatolia.

What particularly concerns many observers and a broad segment of public opinion in Turkey is that Ankara no longer possesses the means to restore calm in northern Iraq.

Ankara has backed losing horses in the country before, in the persons of former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi and then former vice president Tarek Al-Hashemi, the latter being officially unseated and then tried and sentenced to death.

If Ankara’s standing in Iraq declined as a result, its influence dwindled further among a major segment of the Iraqi populace due to the animosity between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iraqi counterpart Al-Maliki.

This segment of the populace has charged that the Turkish government “is supporting the Sunni minority against the Shia majority in Iraq”, an accusation that rings true however strongly Erdogan tries to deny it.

Another important segment of the Turkish public, the Turkish nationalists, have also lashed out against the Erdogan government for sustaining close relations with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, headed by Masoud Al-Barzani, at the expense of Turkey’s interests with the Al-Maliki government in Baghdad.

This error of judgement, as they see it, was aggravated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan over the summer, which they argue was a diplomatic misstep that delivered a slap in the face to the government in Baghdad.

On top of this, Turkey signed a package of oil agreements directly with the Al-Barzani administration without having obtained the approval of, or even notifying, the Al-Maliki government.

Baghdad was not about to let the snub pass lightly, and it responded by hurling spanners into the flow of Turkish goods into Iraq, halting several Turkish business ventures in the country.

More significantly, it also came out in support of the Al-Assad regime in Syria against the Syrian opposition, which receives moral and material support from Erdogan. The “regrettable” outcome of the Turkish prime minister’s policies, critics say, has been that Ankara has forfeited its neutral role not just among the diverse components of the Iraqi people, but also in the affairs of the Middle East as a whole.

Against this charged climate shaped by a range of complex and multifaceted problems, Erdogan has chosen to fall back on his customary formulas.

Two weeks ago, just as he was returning from the D-8 summit in Pakistan, he said that his government was worried by the crisis between the Iraqi government and the administration in Iraqi Kurdistan and that it could not regard the developments in Iraq as a purely domestic problem.

However, what did he plan to do about it? Nothing, complained the Turkish opposition parties, which have been pressing the government to take clear and specific actions to remedy the situation in Iraq and steer Turkish foreign policy back towards constructive neutrality.

Yet, the government seems to be closing its ears to the criticism, which is growing shriller the more it seems that the tensions in Iraq and Syria will spill over into Turkey and ignite various political minefields, the most dangerous of which are located on the checkerboard of the Kurdish separatist movement. 

According to the widely circulated Milliyetnewspaper, a meeting was held in Baghdad recently between Al-Maliki and Jamil Baik, leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.

Citing a person who asked to remain anonymous but who was described as a high official in the National Kurdistan Federation, which is headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the newspaper added that Al-Maliki had entered into close relations with the PKK and that its leaders had been coming to Baghdad to hold talks with Iraqi officials as well as with the Iranian ambassador.

It seems that the PKK leaders are trying to outmanoeuvre Ankara by obtaining various facilities, such as Iraqi travel documents and access to medical facilities for the treatment of Kurdish fighters wounded in fighting with the Turkish army.

As though to confirm that the threat was more than a propaganda tactic, Osman Öcalan, brother of Abdallah Öcalan, the PKK leader who is currently serving a life sentence, announced that the PKK had established strong relations with the anti-Ankara triangle of Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus.

He and his followers would not rest until they had tightened their noose around the Erdogan government, he said.

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