Turkey’s Iraq policy is based on preserving Iraqi territorial unity, minimizing the risks that may emerge out of chaos and instability, collaborating with regional countries to strengthen the forces of unity in Iraq, and avoiding problems with the United States. If Iraq falls apart, this will pose many risks and challenges. Seen through conventional Turkish policy toward Iraq, the situation may seem desperate for Turkey.
The worst scenario for popular-nationalist segments of Turkish state and society is the division of Iraq into three parts: an Arab state, Shi’ites in southern Iraq and Kurds in northern Iraq. While a Kurdish state would politicize Kurds in Turkey, a Shi’ite- dominated state would yield to the increasing power of Iran in the region. Both of these possible developments are very problematic for Turkish security.
There is a concern in nationalist circles that Turkey’s own Kurdish-populated areas might join with the newly emerging Kurdish state. In regional terms, Turkey, Iran and Syria share this concern and have a common attitude toward any development that leads to the emergence of a Kurdish independence tendency that threatens the regional status quo. This common concern also creates an incentive for cooperation, despite a number of problems among these states. The ruling elite in these countries shares a fear that their Kurdish minorities will be politicized and adopt separatist ideas.
Turkey’s nationalist politicians, both on the left and on the right of Turkish politics, pay special attention to the Turcomans and seek to maintain Turcoman rights in northern Iraq, where Turcoman groups have benefited from the Turkish embrace. The idea of Kurds ruling Kirkuk and controlling its oil reserves touches a nerve with Turkish nationalist circles, further increasing suspicion that there are plans for an independent Kurdish state. For this reason, any alternative to a centrally governed and territorially-united Iraq is not acceptable.
Yet Turkey has undergone a serious internal reform process that has changed its domestic landscape and the framework of its foreign policy. This development in turn has created more room for maneuver in Ankara’s Iraq policy. Turkey’s new orientation seems more flexible and adaptive to the challenges in Iraq. It aims to develop initiatives regarding the emergence of an Iraqi state while also planning to provide security for Kurds and Turcomans in northern Iraq.
By modernizing and democratizing at home, Turkey’s politicians have gained self- confidence in their ability to conduct a successful regional policy. Turkey’s new active policy line strives to develop relations with the different segments of Iraqi society regardless of ethnic and sectarian differences. In this perspective this is also a domestic problem, related to Ankara’s choice regarding its international orientation. The meaningful alternative is to diminish potential ethnic problems at home to a minimum degree within the context of European Union membership. This would end any serious consideration of foreign manipulation and provocation.
In accordance with this policy line, Turkey did not join the US-led occupation forces in Iraq, but has put enormous effort into mobilizing regional support for a stable Iraqi state. Indeed, Turkish policymakers have, on a regular basis, brought the countries bordering Iraq together for discussions about the future of the region. The United Nations Security Council has taken these meetings seriously and has requested further regional cooperation on the Iraqi question. In addition, Ankara brought major Sunni opposition figures and US envoys together to ensure Sunni participation in Iraqi national elections. Turkey’s ruling elite has a newly developed self-confidence that it can play a constructive role in the region, including in Iraq.
On the other hand, the popular mood is under the impact of the rise of Turkish nationalism and anti-Americanism. For example a recent movie, Valley of the Wolves, which is based on a real incident involving the arrest of Turkish special forces in Sulaymaniyah in July 2003, has sparked mass hysteria in Turkey. In the movie, a Turcoman Iraqi leader complains that Americans granted the mountains to the Kurds, gave the desert to the Arabs and kept the oil for themselves. The film is full of American torture and abuses in Iraq. There is also a Jewish-American doctor who harvests organs from the bodies of dead Iraqis to send to the US, Israel and Britain.
Turkish nationalist sentiments would be further aggravated by the likelihood of the emergence of a Kurdish state if Iraq falls apart. Any major involvement to prevent such a development–ranging from discouraging Kurds through diplomatic means to military intervention–could draw Turkey into the Iraqi chaos and mean a major retreat from the EU membership process. It could also exacerbate the Kurdish question at home.
If Iraq falls apart, Turkey’s options will be determined by the interaction between these two different attitudes. If Turkey’s new regional profile prevails –depending on further democratization, economic development and progress in the EU process–then we may imagine Turkey employing diplomatic measures for the purpose of conflict resolution and management in Iraq, and a Turkish initiative to mobilize Iraq’s neighbors and other regional countries in this cause. The major concern will be providing security for Kurds and Turcomans in northern Iraq in order to avoid the immediate spillover impact of a civil war in Iraq. Although it will no longer be taboo to have constructive engagement with a Kurdish state in the south, Turkey’s civil and economic involvement will target national reconciliation in Iraq as long as there remains hope.