Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Playing with history

Sayed Abdel-Meguid speculates that Turkey may be playing the Kurdish card in Iraq to advance its regional position, despite its own weak hand at home

Al-Ahram Weekly

Several weeks ago, Turkish Prime Minister and Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan deplored and lamented the determination on the part of some quarters in the media to denigrate the glory of Turkey’s ancient forefathers. He was referring to the popular television series Muhtegem Yÿzyõl (Magnificent Century), which is based on the life of Sÿleyman I, or Suleiman the Law Giver, the 10th and longest reigning Ottoman sultan (1520-1566). Erdogan feels that the series grossly distorts 16th century Ottoman history and makes a mockery of the victories and accomplishments of the famous sultan.

Last week, his foreign minister also harked back to that illustrious epoch. Henceforward, Turkey would have a greater impact on the course of history as was the case in the past, said Ahmet Davutoglu in an address to the fifth conference of Turkish ambassadors abroad which was just held in Ankara. Turkey’s foreign policy architect went on to explain that his country’s foreign policies were informed not only by current events but also by its centuries-long historical roots.

But then Tehran picked up on the roots theme and flipped it on its head. While Erdogan was making a tour of Syrian refugee camps in the border town of Ganlõurfa, an Iranian official hurled the barbed remark that the Turkish prime minister was trying to win Arab support and sympathy by playing the role of an Ottoman padishah.

In return, the Turkish media unleashed a broadside against the Iranian Islamic Republic, describing Tehran as “the government that wants to turn back the clock and resuscitate the Safavid Empire.”

The foregoing was among the political and verbal volleys of the two rivals concerning not just Syria, but Iraq, where the current political deterioration seems to suit the powers-that-be in Ankara. The situation in Baghdad now vies with that in Syria as a source of chronic tension in the relations between the heirs to Ayatollah Khomeini and the heirs to Ataturk. Not that the former’s suspicion and mistrust of their Anatolian neighbours has kept them from hungrily importing Turkish gold, which has skyrocketed 800 per cent above its price in 2011.

Still, barely a day goes by without a taunt from here or a jibe from there, especially since that day that Erdogan said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki had to go. In a lengthy interview with Haberturk TV on Friday, Davutoglu explained that it was almost inevitable that Turkey would be affected by the instability in Iraq. “[Our countries] are like wooden houses lined up next to each other. If fire breaks out in one, it’s bound to spread to the rest. Our country has exerted exceptional efforts to halt the advance of the flames; however, the threat persists.”

He made the Shia nature of those flames understood, without mentioning it explicitly, before adding that Iraq was “a vital neighbouring country in the Middle East. If there were a good administration in Iraq, it would have won the support of all Iraqi people of all factions and it could have become one of the most important power centres in the world. But this did not occur and the reason ultimately boils down to Prime Minister Al-Maliki who has lost not only the Kurds [meaning Iraqi Kurdistan] but also his Sunni citizens. If the situation continues in this fashion, it will have dire consequences. It will erupt into an ethnic and sectarian war which will inevitably have destructive effects on all neighbouring countries without exception.”

As the situation stands, there appears little hope that Turkish-Iraqi relations will resume as before. Indeed, the likelihood is further deterioration between the two countries which have been on a relentless collision course since Ankara declared its support for Iraqi Minister of Finance Rafi Al-Issawi and offered him refuge in Turkey as it had former vice president Tarek Al-Hashimi. The offer was unsolicited and, according to some observers, the only conceivable purpose was to pour more fuel on the flames in Baghdad.

If so, it worked because the supporters of Al-Maliki flew into a rage and accused Ankara of instigating sectarian violence in Iraqi. The Turks took this as a cue to draw closer to northern Iraq as a means to counterbalance the close alliance between Baghdad and Tehran. But the Syrian question, which is alternately in the foreground or the near background, adds a complicating factor to what is clearly a feverish contest to reshape the map of regional forces in an extremely complex and volatile region in which each of the main players sees itself as the unrivalled and incontestable centre of an axis.

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey had been one of the staunchest opponents to any scenario for the partition or fragmentation of Iraq into three statelets, and to ward off such a spectre it was a firm supporter of the central government in Baghdad. However, with the Syrian uprising and the deterioration in the relations between Ankara and Baghdad, Turkey began to focus all its energies on northern Iraq which abuts the southeastern borders of Anatolia. Simultaneously, it began to show greater flexibility towards the Kurdish question, even to the extent of making direct contacts with the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Although Baghdad had often played on the Kurdish card, it proved unsuccessful in preventing a rapprochement between Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Ankara. Ankara’s shift of focus to northern Iraq was accepted, if not encouraged, at least temporarily, by Western powers which see their Turkish ally playing an instrumental role in the future of the region.

 Many observers and analysts believe that Turkey is serious in its current drive to forge a partnership with Sunni Arabs and Kurds, not just in the field of energy but in other fields, with the aim of creating an axis to deter Shia encroachment in the fertile crescent. Towards this end, which has the support of other powers in the region and abroad, it is capitalising on the current tensions between the Kurds and Baghdad. The storm clouds that have been gathering against Al-Maliki in Al-Anbar, Kirkuk and Mosul are regarded as favourable winds in Ankara which can no longer bear the presence of the sectarian prime minister in Baghdad. In the event that fighting erupts between the Shia and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, Turkey’s AKP government will make its position clear, at which point an axis may coalesce between the Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq and the Turks in Anatolia.

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