TFF logo TFF logo
Middle East 2007
MIDDLE EAST Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art


About TFF

Support our work

Search & services

Contact us


Another "unthinkable" war in Iraq?


Hisae Nakanishi, TFF Associate

Professor of the Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University

July 11, 2007

The civil war-like situation in Iraq usually draws our attention to the increasing number of casualties among Iraqis and American soldiers. This has been the case these days as the war has intensified in the central and southern parts of Iraq. It is now obvious to virtually everyone that it was really a great mistake for the US to start the war on Iraq and that instability is likely to continue for decades whether the US increases its military presence there or the US troops will withdraw from Iraq. 

The above-mentioned intensification of the war in the central and southern parts of Iraq is certainly a significant development.  But, one should not overlook what has been happening in Northern Iraq in the last few months.  This is where I believe that another “unthinkable” war in Iraq may break out and where the US may have misjudged its capacity to maintain stability.  Since the early stage of Iraq war, the US has made an alliance with Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and now President of Iraqi Kurdistan, and his groups. Washington calculated that the alliance was necessary and convenient in order for the US to overthrow Saddam Hussein and to monopolize the profit of the Kirkuk oil field.  Yet, the KDP and its supporters (the Kurds) have now claimed their exclusive right to generate income from there, and have created a tension with other ethnic groups in a battle for determining Iraq’s constitutional status of profit that is generated from Kirkuk. 

Quite recently however, the US seems to have begun having second thoughts about strengthening its alliance with the Barzani groups. The US now faces a deteriorating relationship with Turkey whose troops have rapidly increased along the border with Iraq in the last few weeks.  It reported on July 10, 2007 that Turkey has now deployed 140 000 troops there.  There has been a continuous build-up of tension and it could very well boost Turkey’s major cross-border operations in the near future; Turkey wants to decisively combat the incursions and infiltration of members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, a militant separatist group) coming from Northern Iraq into southeastern Turkey which has the largest Kurdish population in Turkey.  Turkey insists that Barzani supports this insurgency and maintains that the it has the backing of the US.

There have been a few turning points in the Turkey-US relationship since an Islamist party, the AKP, came to power as a ruling party in Turkey in 2002.  As the US has considered the AKP as a model for other Middle Eastern countries because of its moderate Islamic nature, the US has generally supported the AKP and thus presumed that the AKP government would cooperate with the US policy in the Middle East.  But, contrary to US expectations, Turkey’s parliament in March 1, 2003 rejected a bill which would have allowed the US military to use Turkish territory for its attack on Iraq.  This is how the US realized that it could not rely on Turkey for its military plans and, thus, also not count on its political support.

Yet, the US-Turkey relationship was more or less restored when Turkey offered its support for the US military’s procurement of non-military goods later in 2003.  Furthermore, Turkey gave a partial permission to the US to subsequently use Turkish territory for its military operations in Iraq. 

It is also significant that the AKP’s decision to participate in the US “Broader Middle East Initiative” in June 2004 meant that Turkey shared quite some economic interest with the US in Iraq as Turkey subsequently strengthened trade with Northern Iraq. 

Since the war on Iraq intensified and PKK’s insurgency in the southeast of Turkey increased, anti-American sentiment has increased among people in Turkey. According to a poll taken in June, 2006, no less than 80 per cent of the citizens showed almost hatred for the US. During 2005 to 2006 people seriously started criticizing the AKP for not being able to bring enough pressure to bear on the US to stop the KDP’s assisting the infiltration of the PKK militants into Turkey’s territory. 

Over the last eight or so years, the EU has repeatedly demanded that Turkey declare amnesty for the PKK with reference to its so-called human rights diplomacy.  Moreover, it is only a few years ago the EU officially categorised PKK as a terrorist organization. Thus, AKP’s EU accession talks and AKP’s close relationship with the US resulted in Turkey not being able to take any decisive measures against the PKK terror attacks while its insurgency caused thousands of civilian casualties in the southeastern part of the country over the last five years. 

This period coincided with the so-called “democratization” process in Turkey where the AKP government provided more human rights to the Kurds in Turkey, weakened the military’s power in politics and thus reformed the Constitution in 2003. The Constitutional change aimed at reducing the power of the National Security Council through which the military exercised much of its decision- making power in the country’s security affairs. 

The EU’s extra-conditionality policy has seriously hurt the national pride of the Turkish people. Even after Turkey fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria that was required for the entry into the EU, the EU continued to impose other conditions such as demanding Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian massacre of 1915, requiring that Turkey open it sea and airports to the Republic of Cyprus as an expansion of the implementation of the Custom Union Agreement.  

The decisive moment came in the mid-December 2006 when Turkey-EU negotiation talks were interrupted as no agreement was made between the two regarding the Cyprus issue. Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership had already declined in spring 2006. So some kind of break or pause in the negotiation process with the EU had become decisive in people’s disillusionment with the EU. As I see it, these facts explain the manifestation of the growing nationalism in Turkey today. 

One of the most important principles and priorities in Turkey’s national security policy is to maintain the country’s territorial integrity since Turkey shares a large number of Kurds with Northern Iraq. As instability in Iraq so markedly increased, the possibility of a total disintegration of Iraq became high since 2003. This is clearly and understandably a great concern to everyone in Turkey and, thus, Turkey’s anti-American sentiment has increased among people and policy-makers.
As a response to the above-mentioned trend in Turkey, a report entitled “Is the US losing Turkey?” was published in March 23, 2007 by the Hudson Institute in the US. It recommends first of all that the US “make Turkey a central partner in fashioning a political settlement in Iraq and engage in regular consultations and joint planning to this end.”  Moreover, the report suggests that the US should consult with Turkey as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq to avoid “the dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq (contested by the Kurds and by the Turkmen, who are supported by Turkey) and to prevent Turkey from “precipitating open warfare and possible Turkish intervention, which could further dent America’s alliance with Turkey.” 

A series of events in April (when the AKP chose Abudallah Gul, Foreign Minister, as the only candidate for President) and May 2007 has also marked a significant change in the course of Turkey’s politics. More than two million people demonstrated in support of Turkey’s secularism when Turkey’s first Islamist President was about to be elected in the Parliament. As a result, the parliament’s voting was declared null and void and the AKP lost an opportunity to elect Gul as an AKP-based Islamist President. 

It is well-known that Turkey’s military has considered itself a staunch supporter of Turkey’s secularism and thus of Turkey’s democracy. Therefore, the mass demonstrations are, from the military’s point of view, very indicative of people’s support for military.  For this reason, it is not a coincidence - in my interpretation - that Turkey’s military decided to considerably enlarge the deployment of troops in the Iraqi border region toward the end of May.  In other words, this movement happened after the breakdown of the Presidential elections in the wake of the mass demonstration and the simultaneous boycott of the parliamentary vote by oppositional parties.

It is also true that the stronger insurgency of the PKK in the southeast in May and early June 2007 served as an important cause behind the military’s decision to send more troops. But I believe it is fair to say that the Turkish military’s active preparedness toward a possible cross-border operation into northern Iraq got most of its energy and perceived legitimacy because of the earlier-mentioned mass demonstrations. (I observed an at least implicit criticism by Turkey’s Joint Chief Staff of US policies during the conference “New Dimensions of Security and International Organization,” which was held May 31-June 1, 2007 in Istanbul. 

For Turkey’s military to start military operations in neighboring Iraq, it must have the parliament’s approval. In theory, therefore, a unilateral military decision to do so would not bring about such operations on the ground.  Given the fact that the relationship between the AKP government and military turned sour since 2003 till recently, their agreement on Turkey’s cross-border operations was difficult to imagine till early May, 2007.  Yet, there is a new development these days.  Prime Minister Erdogan has occasionally expressed the view since early June that Turkey does not completely exclude such a possibility should a situation develop in which Turkey’s national integrity were clearly endangered.  On the other hand, the US maintains that it prefers Turkey’s non-intervention in Northern Iraq.

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?

Then please make an honour payment to TFF

It is extremely complex to explain what made Turkey look for such options; after all it’s the more nationalistic and the more supportive of secularism.  A lot of changes in Turkey’s geopolitical, economic, and security positions in the post-Cold War period are reflective: among them are Turkey’s attempt to become an energy transit (hub) state between Central Asia, Middle East and Europe, and Turkey’s contribution to NATO’s peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Middle East (particularly in Lebanon).

The interruption of the EU negotiation talks in December 2006 has made Turkey think that its accession to the EU is a very long and winding road. It feels that Turkey does not deserve such an unfair policy of the EU toward Turkey’s membership, given Turkey’s contribution to European security both in energy and in the stability of European neighbors.

If the US does not urgently and successfully reduce the insurgency of the PKK in Northern Iraq and does not engage in negotiations with Turkey for the political and economic status of the Kirkuk oilfield, another conflict would emerge in the Northern Iraq between the US-Iraq Kurdistan alliance and Turkey.  Such a conflict used to be unthinkable during the Cold War era when Turkey was the most reliable NATO member for the US in the Middle East.

Isn’t it ironic that Turkey is now at odds with Washington and has a solid justification for combating PKK under the banner of fighting the “war against terrorism”? After all, that slogan was the single most fateful invention in US foreign policy in the post-Cold War period… 


Copyright © TFF & the author 1997 till today. All rights reserved.


Tell a friend about this TFF article

Send to:


Message and your name

Get free TFF articles & updates

MIDDLE EAST Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art
Publications About TFF Support our work Search & services Contact us

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997 till today. All righs reserved.