Time For Turkey To Support An Independent Iraqi Kurdistan

June 17, 2014 § 12 Comments

For a few years now, Turkey has been engaged in a delicate balance between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Ankara has not wanted to anger Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki by implying support for an independent – rather than autonomous – Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey has never been interested in such an outcome anyway because of the incentives it would create for Turkish Kurds to push harder for their own independent state. Turkey has been happy to deal with the KRG and Massoud Barzani outside of its relationship with Maliki, supporting Erbil’s claims to independent oil revenues, and in fact has supported and promoted Barzani in an effort to marginalize the PKK and its Syrian PYD offshoot by making Barzani and the KRG the most influential Kurds in the region. As Turkey’s relationship with Maliki has deteriorated and as Turkey and Iraq have feuded over Iraq’s treatment of its Sunni minority, this dynamic between Turkey and the KRG has increased, and for the most part Barzani has played his part by not speaking out as a champion of Turkish Kurds. Throughout all of this, however, Turkey has stopped short of overtly supporting a de jure independent Iraqi Kurdistan, realizing that to do so will mean the end of any relationship that still remains with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

The ISIS takeover of Mosul and the possibility that it will eventually overrun the Maliki government alters this equation. F0r decades, Turkey’s biggest security problem has been the PKK. Now, the biggest threat facing Turkey is ISIS, which has demonstrated its ability to take and hold territory and which views the Turkish government with hostility. Turkey already received an unpleasant wakeup call a week ago when ISIS captured the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took the diplomats working there hostage. At this point, Turkey has a hostile and capable fighting force sitting right across its border, and the spillover from northern Iraq has the potential to be far worse than the refugee crisis that Turkey has already been managing as a result of the Syrian civil war, since it will involve armed hostilities rather than just absorbing fleeing refugees.

The best way to neutralize ISIS as a threat is to strengthen the KRG, whose peshmerga already took Kirkuk in response to the ISIS takeover of Mosul, and can keep the conflict with ISIS in Iraq rather than having it cross the border into southeastern Turkey. In the past, even considering supporting the KRG as an independent state was not an option, but the circumstances have changed now that it is clear just how weak and ineffectual the Maliki government is. Ankara should be getting in front of this issue, recognizing that even if the Maliki government survives it will be only through the intervention and support of outside powers such as the U.S. and Iran (which is not a phrase I ever envisioned writing) and that the consequences of angering the Maliki government pales in comparison to the consequences of an actual radical jihadi state bordering Turkey.

Furthermore, if Turkey still subscribes to the theory that strengthening Barzani and the KRG sends the message to Turkish Kurds that Kurdistan already exists without them and thus they need to drop any hopes of separation or independence for themselves, then now is the time to test out whether this theory is actually correct. Things are quiet with the PKK, Erdoğan has been slowly negotiating with Abdullah Ocalan, and ramping up the peace process with the PKK while simultaneously supporting Kurdish independence could potentially be a massive victory for Erdoğan and the AKP. If Turkish Kurds support a deal that gives them language rights and some sort of autonomous citizenship and create pressure on the PKK to accept, Erdoğan will easily sail through to a presidential victory while solidifying his coalition for another decade. Erdoğan could thus create a new status quo for his own Kurdish population that ends any legitimate hopes of an independent Turkish Kurdistan while securing Turkey’s borders from ISIS in creating an ally of Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is without even considering the windfall potential of Turkey becoming an energy hub as a result of transporting Kurdish oil, which will always be in doubt so long as the central government in Baghdad still has a claim on it.

There are certainly downsides to this scenario, chief among them the enmity it will cause between Ankara and Baghdad, not to mention the possibility of fighting in northern Iraq between KRG peshmerga and Iraqi troops that will send even more refugees into Turkey. It is also in some sense playing with fire to actively attempt to rewrite state borders in the Middle East, since there is no way of knowing what it will unleash elsewhere. Despite these problems, Turkey has been dancing around this idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan for awhile, and the time is right to be forward thinking and actually implement a real policy. The ISIS threat is real and it is scary, and Turkey’s best strategy should be to empower the only fighting force in Iraq capable of countering ISIS and making sure that northern Iraq does not turn into a jihadi wasteland.

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Checking In On The Turkish PM Race

June 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

Despite my instincts that Prime Minister Erdoğan was going to decide that it is better to be a super-empowered prime minister than the Turkish president under the current constitutional configuration, it seems pretty clear at this point that he has his sights trained on the Çankaya Palace. The AKP has officially announced that it is not going to change its internal party regulations to allow MPs who have served three terms to run for a fourth, which means that Erdoğan will be term limited out and will thus seek the presidency. There is no doubt that Erdoğan will win and become the first directly elected Turkish president, and there is also little doubt that he will transform the presidency as he sees fit from a traditionally apolitical office with few real powers into something far different. The more interesting question that remains is who will replace Erdoğan as prime minister, and the answer to that is a lot murkier.

Due to the AKP’s three-terms-and-out rule, 73 AKP parliamentarians are unable to stand for election again and the list is a rundown of nearly all of the party heavyweights. Bülent Arınç, Bekir Bozdağ, Ali Babacan, Ömer Çelik, etc. The A team, that founded the party and shepherded it through three consecutive electoral victories, is out, and that leaves precious few suitable candidates to replace Erdoğan. It will have to be someone who has some modicum of name recognition and influence, but also someone whom Erdoğan can control. To the best of my calculations, there are two people who fit the bill and who are not subject to the term limit conundrum.

The first, and most obvious one, is Ahmet Davutoğlu. There is no question that he has a burning ambition to move on to bigger and better things, and his standing as a candidate for election in 2011 – after being appointed foreign minister despite not being a member of the Grand National Assembly – was a signal that he knew he would need to be more involved politically if he hoped to replace his patron. In many ways, Davutoğlu is the ego (in more ways than one) to Erdoğan’s id, tamping down some of the prime minister’s more rash instincts and never failing to parrot what Erdoğan is saying but putting it in a more favorable light. Whatever the level of outrageousness that Erdoğan is spouting, Davutoğlu always has a ready explanation for what the prime minister actually meant, and he has also shown a willingness to play the attack dog and go on the offensive. Like the prime minister, he always has a scolding lecture handy for those who challenge him. Because he is more reserved and far less willing to reveal whatever he happens to be thinking at any given moment though, Davutoğlu is in some ways more predictable that Erdoğan but in other ways less so, and he is similar to Abdullah Gül in that he plays better with foreign audiences. I once sat through a Davutoğlu lecture at Georgetown where he was at his most charming and dissembling best, and by the end the dean of the School of Foreign Service had literally offered him a position as a professor whenever he was ready to leave the Foreign Ministry. The downside to Erdoğan handing the reins to Davutoğlu is that he might be too ambitious; while he has never publicly displayed any willingness to challenge Erdoğan in any way and has been nothing but the loyal servant, he might very well act differently once prime minister and be less willing to defer to Erdoğan on any and all subjects.

The other plausible candidate is Numan Kurtulmuş, who is far less known to those outside of Turkey. Kurtulmuş and Erdoğan rose up together through the ranks of the Fazilet Party, but split after Fazilet was banned by the Constitutional Court and dissolved, with Kurtulmuş joining with the hardliners to found Saadet and Erdoğan going on to found the AKP. After he was ousted from Saadet, Kurtulmuş formed the HSP – known colloquially as HAS, meaning pure – and then merged HAS with the AKP in July 2012. Unlike Davutoğlu, Kurtulmuş has the street cred that comes from having been part of the crowd around Necmettin Erbakan and the old Islamist parties, and he has a devoted following among Turkish religious conservatives. When the AKP absorbed HAS two years ago, I wrote the following:

There is speculation that the reason Erdoğan has now invited HAS into the fold has to do more with Kurtulmuş than with HAS itself. As he announced yesterday,Erdoğan is only going to run as AKP leader one more time, which means that he needs a way to remain as the dominant figure within his party. While everyone anticipates that the new constitution spearheaded by the AKP will transform Turkey into a presidential system and that Erdoğan will run to be Turkey’s first newly powerful president, that does not mean that his path forward is completely clear. Should Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, make a bid to be PM, then Erdoğan will have a serious and credible rival standing opposite him within his own party. Gül is a popular politician, a serious thinker, and less divisive than Erdoğan, and it is unclear that a President Erdoğan would be able to dominate a Prime Minister Gül. Kurtulmuş, on the other hand, is another story. He is exactly the type of PM that a President Erdoğan would want, since he is pliable and less likely to seek to carve out an independent power base from which to challenge Erdoğan. In fact, when the HAS Party was formed, some of its members were concerned that Kurtulmuş was not tough enough and that his lack of an “authoritarian mentality” would be a weakness compared to the leaders of other parties. Should HAS merge with the AKP, and all signs so far point to this happening, look for Kurtulmuş to slowly emerge as Erdoğan’s favored candidate to replace him as PM.

I don’t think that Gül is going to try and become prime minister, but the rest of the analysis still holds true. Kurtulmuş seems like precisely the type of PM that Erdoğan could manipulate as president, and who would not protest once Erdoğan begins to expand the powers of his new office and infringe upon the prerogatives that belong to his old office. The question is whether Erdoğan actually trusts Kurtulmuş after their years apart, and to that I have no answer. With the presidential race not in doubt though, how the prime ministry shapes up is what all of those interested in the inside baseball of Turkish politics will be watching as the summer progresses.

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