The illegal US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq has, predictably, opened a Pandora's box in the region, bringing about unforeseen turmoil among Iraq's neighbors including Turkey and Iran.
From the ashes of the Ottoman Empire emerged the secular Turkish republic under Kemal Ataturk, and--in spite of historical enmity and rivalry--normal relations with Iran. After World War II, Britain and the US allied with them and Iraq and Pakistan against an expanding Soviet Russia, with Turkey seemingly an unsinkable NATO aircraft carrier armed with a million men. Turkey's relations with Iran after Khomeini's 1979 revolution sank, as Tehran quit all western alliances and old strategic and religious suspicions reemerged. Ankara remained by-and-large neutral in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war.
Now Ankara is returning to the Middle East and Muslim world, a process started by the first ever Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, whose short-lived coalition government was shown the door by the military in 1997. Erbakan had mentored current Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the establishment of a less Islamic and more "acceptable" AKP. Turkish-Iranian cooperation was thereby sealed by the visit of Erdogan to Tehran in July 2004, preceded and followed by high-level visits. Bilateral trade and economic ties always remained strong, with Turkey a major transit route through Europe to Iran.
The Iraqi quagmire, incubating ethnic and sectarian civil war and violent chaos, threatens to overflow beyond the borders of northern Iraq (known as Kurdistan), with the US putting Iran in its crosshairs for uranium enrichment (which was legitimate even under the almost-dead Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty apartheid regime). With different strategic perspectives in the region, the US-Turkish NATO alliance has withered.
While uneasy with Iran's mastering of enrichment technology, Ankara now faces a more imminent threat to its territorial integrity in the Kurdish southeast, which is part of the Kurdish highlands straddling Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which floats on petroleum and has a substantial presence of Turkomans, Turkey's ethnic cousins, was set aside by the British in 1919 after the ceasefire. Like Washington's Operation Iraqi Freedom, the British also promised the Istanbul's Arab subjects independence--only to subjugate them. Eventually, after a long and bloody resistance, Iraq overthrew the British-anointed Hashemite dynasty to become a secular republic.
Throughout history, ever-disunited Kurds could not create a strong kingdom. Whatever their differences, Ottoman, Persian and Arab empires joined hands to keep the Kurds from uniting, with far-off powers--the British, Russians, and now the Americans--exploiting their aspirations. Today, however, the heady scent of autonomy-towards-independence in north Iraq rouses similar hopes among Turkey's Kurds. Harmonization of Turkey's political structure and laws with EU norms has helped to fulfill many of the Kurds' cultural and linguistic demands, the raison d'etre for the PKK rebellion in the southeast that has cost more than 35,000 lives since 1984, including the lives of 5,000 Turkish soldiers, and laid the region to waste. Still, PKK cadres have sheltered in the northern Iraqi mountains since the end of the 1991 war, and have mounted many attacks inside Turkey, killing soldiers and civilians.
With the US unwilling and unable to take action against the PKK, Turkish armed forces, reemerging again as a force in Turkey's politics, have amassed a quarter of a million troops in its southeast. Before the 2003 invasion, Turkish leaders revived their old claims over Kirkuk, but have not repeated them after seeing the fierce Iraqi resistance. Kurds in northern Iraq reportedly trained by Israel and now the US have been sent to do reconnaissance and stir trouble in Iran, which has retaliated with bombings inside northern Iraq. So, indeed, has Turkey.
Another important change in these equations is the fast decline in Turkish-Israeli ties from almost ally-level, with joint military exercises and defense hardware ties, to a situation where Erdogan, incensed by Israel's meddling in north Iraq, referred to Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank as "state terrorism." Ankara also hosted a Hamas delegation after its recent electoral victory in Palestine. Relations between Turkey and Syria, torn by abiding disputes over the sharing of Euphrates water, Syrian claims to Turkey's Antakya province and Damascus' brief tolerance of PKK training camps in Syrian-controlled Lebanese territory, have warmed, despite the subsequent US disapproval. Turkey, while improving its own relations with Moscow, has not objected to Russia's return to Syria, and has revived Russian military cooperation against vehement Israeli and US protests.
Ankara and Tehran need to cooperate to survive. No one can predict the catastrophic consequences if the civil war sucks in Iraq's other neighbors. Whatever blood Washington might spill, US troops must eventually withdraw. Federations are hair-brained schemes for the region, where the Hama "rule or die" philosophy prevails. The Sunni minority in Iraq has been in control for centuries, much as the 12 percent Shi'ite Alawite elite has ruled over the Syrian Sunni majority since the 1960s. Further, the inner unity of the autonomous north Iraqi Kurdish state, already flexing its muscles through a regional government, army and Kurdish Peshmarga militia, is ephemeral and fragile for all its tall talk.
Whether or not Iraq is to split into Sunni and Shi'ite Arab states, with Kurdistan in the north, will depend on the depth of Iraqi nationalism 80 years on. Only a fierce nationalist Iraqi resistance, with even more bloodshed, can keep Iraq united.
After US war fatigue and retreat, Turkey, Iran, and others (including Russia, now back in the region bearing missiles for Damascus and nuclear plants and military arms, as well as UN Security Council support for Tehran) will have a difficult task in stabilizing the region. If the US implements its irrational military option against Iran, then all bets are off on any predictions for the Middle East and beyond. Did the US foresee the outcome of its ill-planned venture to grab Iraqi oil and control the region's resources? Or, for that matter, did those who initiated the two world wars predict the outcome?
At the end of the day, Turkey seeks to be a conduit for the export of Iran's oil and gas to the West, serving the EU's increasing appetite, and as the only alternative to the Russian gas and oil monopoly. The Azeri and Caspian Sea crude transport to the Mediterranean will close this year due to the US-financed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline--built to keep Russia and Iran out. But this would be just one more East-West strategic fault line.- Published 18/5/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org