More Uncertainty on Turkey’s Eastern Flank in 2013
By: Semih Idiz for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse Posted on January 3.
The year 2012 did not go well for Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in terms of his once highly touted policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” If anything “zero problems” has turned into a catch phrase for lampooning his political ambitions.
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Far from zero problems, Turkey’s relations with Iraq and Syria deteriorated further in 2012. Expectations for 2013 are not much better, given that events in those countries will most likely get worse before getting better.
Meanwhile, ties with Tehran will continue to be strained due to diverging views on the situation in Syria, as well as Ankara’s reinvigorated ties with NATO. Those ties have resulted in the deployment of anti-missile capabilities in Turkey against possible ballistic threats from the East.
Tehran understands this to mean itself, and is leveling harsh criticism at Turkey, arguing that Ankara is complicit in a US plot to protect Israel against Iran. But what is really worrying Davutoglu, judging by his various statements to reporters over the past few weeks, are developments in Iraq, rather than developments in Syria or Iran.
The notion of a divided Iraq has in fact been one of Turkey’s traditional nightmares since the first Gulf War in 1990-91. The fear in the past was that Iraq’s division would result in an independent Kurdistan, which would fuel Kurdish separatism in Turkey.
That fear appears to have receded with the economic and political ties that have developed between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Arbil and Ankara.
Today, the threat is seen to be coming less from the Iraqi Kurds, and more from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his overtly sectarian policies which favor Iraq’s majority Shiites against the minority Sunnis.
This has resulted in Ankara’s providing unconditional support and refuge to Iraq’s Sunni Deputy President Tariq al Hashimi, who faces a death sentence in Baghdad for allegedly setting murderous squads on Shiites in the past. Prime Minister Erdogan’s strong criticism of Maliki, and Ankara’s open support of Iraqi Sunnis, in turn, reflect Turkey’s sectarian sympathies, a fact that is also seen in Ankara’s approach to the Syrian civil war.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s increasing cooperation with Iraqi Kurds in the strategic energy sector, which is developing over Baghdad’s head, has also fueled Maliki’s anger towards Turkey. As the world was readying to welcome the New Year, Maliki blasted the Erdogan government again, this time on Iraqi Someria TV.
Media reports had him claiming that Turkey has been trying to run a wedge between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, but had been thwarted thus far.
“According to what some Turkmen brothers are saying, Turkey has been instructing the Turkmen not to oppose the claim that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. If one looks at Turkey’s historic record on Kirkuk, this is a very interesting stance,” Maliki was quoted saying on Someria TV.
Kurds claim that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is part of their territory, a contention rejected by Baghdad which has already resulted in a military standoff between the sides. It is not clear if Ankara is exhorting the Turkmen in this way, of course.
It would, however, be ironic — as Maliki appeared to be suggesting — if it was. Turkey was, after all, adamant until a few years ago that Kirkuk is a historic Turkmen city which must not fall to the Kurds.
Given Turkey’s deepening relations with the KRG, its continued support for Iraqi Sunni’s, and differences over Syria, tensions between Ankara and Baghdad will undoubtedly continue to fester in 2013.
Meanwhile, with Iraqi Sunnis taking to the street now to protest Maliki, and overall sectarian and ethnic tensions rising in Iraq, uncertainty over that country’s future will continue to dog the Erdogan government in the coming months.
On the other hand, it is clear that the Syrian crisis will continue to be the source of major headaches for the Erdogan government in 2013. This assumption is compounded by the fact that both Erdogan and Davutoglu have been consistently wrong in their predictions about developments in Syria.
Meanwhile Turkey is facing a growing number of refugees from Syria, while uncertainty continues about the intentions of Syrian Kurds, a large number of who bear allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who is serving a life sentence in Turkey for heading a terrorist organization.
Neither is it clear what will follow after the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, even if his desired is much desired by Erdogan who appears to have turned this into a personal matter. Addressing a crowd near the Syrian border over the weekend, with Moaz al-Khatib, the “President of the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution” by his side, Erdogan clearly reflected this once again.
“My brothers at the moment over 100 countries recognize the leadership of this brother of ours and his team” Erdogan said pointing to al-Khatib. “Hey, Assad, this means we don’t recognize you anymore, so get lost!” he added openly reflecting his personal animosity towards the Syrian President.
The point however is than neither Erdogan, nor Davutoglu — or anyone else for that matter — can say when Assad will go. This increases the chances of an international arrangement brokered by the US and Russia that might have Assad as some kind of actor, at least for some brief period.
While Assad’s remaining in power in any way is a non-starter for Turkey, the Erdogan government has come around to accepting that elements of the current Baathist regime will have to be incorporated into a transitional government in order to maintain that country’s unity. This unity has become vital for Ankara given that a division of Syria will have divisive consequences for Iraq as well.
What is certain is that there is no certainty for Turkey in 2013 as to what will transpire in Syria. What is also certain is that the longer this crisis lasts the more it will strain ties between Ankara and Tehran. The two countries are already locked in a cold war of sorts, competing for political influence in the Middle East on the basis of their divergent sectarian sympathies.
Put together all these factors will ensure continued instability on Turkey’s Eastern flank in 2013, forcing Ankara, regardless of what may lie ultimately in Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s hearts, to take measures it never planned on taking when aiming for zero problems with neighbors.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, the Times, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine, and he is a frequent contributor to BBC World, VOA, NPR, Deutche Welle, various Israeli media organizations and Al Jazeera.
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