Fireside Chat: Getting to a Grand Bargain

The issue of an intervention by Turkey in Iraq is really political football between the government and the military.

Many Turks resent that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has given rise to de facto Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq. Although Ankara is focused on impending Turkish elections, it has threatened cross-border military action to clamp down on Kurdish terrorist activity. Nothing has come of these threats, yet they still deserve U.S. attention.

Distracted by the Iraq debacle, the United States has let U.S.-Turkish relations deteriorate. If Washington does not try to mend these fraying ties, it may become embroiled in a conflict with Ankara. To avoid this fate, the United States must craft a compromise with Turkey-a grand bargain for an autonomous Kurdistan. Marisa Morrison recently spoke to National Interest author Henri Barkey about a grand bargain's chances in the wake of Turkey's tense July 22 elections.

After the mistaken reports of a Turkish military incursion into Iraq, and the subsequent news of a Turkish military build-up across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, it seems like we're at a standstill. How likely are Turkish military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan?

It seems to me that because of the elections in Turkey on July 22, it's unlikely. If the government gives the order to intervene now, people are going to accuse it of doing this for election purposes. The truth is that the government knows that a major military intervention is impossible, and a quick one, or a small one, will not produce the results the government needs. The issue of an intervention is really political football between the government and the military. The military is looking for ways to undermine the government, and the government and military are playing the Iraq card against each other. Barring a major catastrophic attack, I don't think that there will be cross-border military operations.

NI online contributor Camille Pecaistaing observed that Turkey's "prickly and reactionary nationalism" hinders its leaders from recognizing the strategic value of an independent Kurdistan. Can anything be done to quell this nationalism-and make the idea of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan more palatable to the Turks?

I do think that a prosperous, autonomous Kurdistan is in Turkey's best interests. It will protect the Turks from the chaos in the rest of Iraq. The Kurds are the most secular, most pro-Western group in Iraq, and probably the only ones willing to protect the ethnic-minority Turkmen.

It's a question of breaking this fear that the Turks have of Turkish Kurds looking for secession, and I think that it will take a little time. If there's a deal between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, then it will be much easier to deal with the PKK [a Kurdish terrorist organization]. The Turks won't be able to eliminate the group from Turkey, but they might be able to eliminate it from Iraq. That will allow for things to calm down on the Turkish Kurdish scene. Unfortunately, in a pre-election period, convincing the Turks that an autonomous Kurdistan is a good idea is the last thing you're going to do. So, you have to wait for the elections to take place, and for the new government to be formed. Then, new diplomatic moves, probably behind the scenes, will have to be initiated.

What do you think are the chances for a grand bargain over the future of northern Iraq after the July 22 general elections? Do the chances depend on who wins?

If the current government wins-and wins big-it's more likely. It will still have to re-constitute itself legally and worry about the presidential elections. So, I suspect that people will not start working on a deal until the fall. Given the fact that the United States is showing more signs that it will withdraw from Iraq, this might make the protagonists, the Turks and the Kurds, more willing to cooperate in order to avoid chaos. The last thing both want is chaos in Iraq.

On a related note, do you think the election results will influence Turkish policy towards the United States?

At the moment, the things that are driving the public perceptions of the United States in Turkey are the war in Iraq, which people don't like, and the Kurdish question. If this government wins, it will feel much more comfortable and much surer of itself, better able to undertake measures or initiatives that will reduce the friction between the United States and Turkey. Again, this will take time. I think we will have to wait for a new U.S. president to see tangible change in the level of anti-Americanism in Turkey. The chances of improving relations will actually be better after July 22. Once the tension in Turkey diminishes, the Turks and the Americans and the Kurds can start talking and working together.

Do you think that there's a possibility that the elections will create greater chaos as opposed to less, or do you think that things will definitively calm down after the elections?

While the atmosphere in Turkey is tense, it's not as bad as people expected it to be. Provided that the military does not attempt to undermine the election results, tensions will diminish considerably after July 22. If the AKP [the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party] that's currently in power wins big, everyone's going to look to the military to see what the military will do. There is fear that the military, or the judiciary, may decide to kick the party out of office-though I don't see this happening. If the military signals that it will accept the election results, then everything is in the clear.

Do you believe that Turkey's closer ties to Syria and Iran could present a policy opportunity for the United States?