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?
Turkey has improved relations with Iran and Syria, but those ties are only marginally better than they have been in the past. The Turks have a great deal more cachet in the region than they did before, but this doesn't mean that they can do all that much with these countries. In other words, there is a limit to Turkish influence. Iranians have very strong views about where they want to go, especially on the nuclear issue. They're not going to listen to what the Turks have to say about it.
Turkey can play an interesting role in helping host or start talks between the Israelis and the Syrians, though that's about it. Minor things, like trying to coordinate hostage exchanges-those kinds of things the Turks might be able to do. It is true that they are better positioned now than they have ever been to play a role in the Middle East. In that sense, there is an opportunity, but I would be careful not to exaggerate that possibility.
What can be done to resuscitate the West's-specifically the United States' and the European Union's-flagging reputation in Turkey, perhaps besides a new president in the United States?
Clearly, a resolution of northern Iraq-a diminution of the PKK presence there, and the perception that we are doing something against the PKK will help. Yet we also have to remember that the PKK's leader is in jail today only because we figured out where he was hiding and delivered him to the Turks. The Turks seem to have completely forgotten what we've done for them, an "amnesia" that American policymakers resent. It is also true that today the PKK represents two things: It is both a threat to Turkey and a lingering, currently insoluble domestic Turkish problem.
So, when you look at the PKK from these two perspectives, there is something we can do to diminish the PKK threat. And when I say "threat", I mean it's a nuisance. Yes, the PKK's killing soldiers, but it is not a strategic threat or existential threat for Turkey. However, it is bothering the Turks-and to some extent, they have a point: We are in charge in Iraq, and people who are based in northern Iraq are crossing the border and committing acts of terror in Turkey. Imagine if the Mexicans were allowing somebody to cross the border and bomb U.S. military targets-forget about cities. We would be rather upset. In that sense, the Turks have a legitimate complaint, and it's very difficult for the United States to say, "Well, you know, you have to understand the special circumstances within Iraq."
How should the United States adjust its policy towards northern Iraq?
The United States has to take the grand-bargain idea seriously, and the United States has to encourage initiatives, maybe self-starting initiatives, behind the scenes. The United States has to work at this, and has to do it quickly. Otherwise, we will become hostage to the events, and we won't like what might happen if we aren't more proactive. We say that we have been helping with many things, but we're not doing what the Turks want us to do. If we can't do what the Turks want, which is to fight the PKK, then we need to come up with alternative solutions. And that's what needs to be done, and done quickly. We have a lot of leverage with the Iraqi Kurds, and we need to start using it.