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Northern Iraq and Turkey

Northern Iraq and Turkey

September 30, 2017

The referendum held by Masoud Barzani’s administration in the region of Northern Iraq has triggered a crisis that will threaten the integrity not only of the region, but also of the Islamic world at large.

While Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are among the countries in the region fiercely opposing the referendum, Western countries took a position that was not against the referendum itself, but against its timing. The most noteworthy factor of all was Israel’s support from the very beginning.

As a result of the Islamic world’s inefficiency in dealing with problems of its own, the misfortunes suffered by the Kurds of Northern Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s administration led them to have continuous expectations from Western countries and to act as their ally. For this reason, it is necessary to understand that what is happening today is a consequence and that the only way to put an end to it is to eliminate the underlying conditions.

It may well be remembered that the developments in Northern Iraq were initiated by a series of setups following the imposition of a “no-fly zone” after 1991. For ten years, thousands of young Kurds were brought to the West to be educated, and a new class of intellectuals and bureaucratic personnel was formed. The local administration was then strengthened by the American occupation in 2003, the new federal constitution, and the formation of a Kurdish autonomous region.

The project for a Greater Middle East, which became part of the global agenda around the same time, and the maps published right after, revealed a clear picture of the Middle East that Western countries wanted to form while seeming to be concerned with the problems of the Kurdish people. The issue was not about founding a state for the Kurds, it was about increasing the number of countries in the Middle East which would be driven by ethnic and sectarian policies. Coming to the realization that it would not be easy to shatter the powerful and oppressive regimes of Middle Eastern countries and following discussions about the necessity of strategies to destabilize them from within, Western experts agreed that sparking three types of conflict in the region was imperative for the said plan:

-Escalating the Sunni-Shia conflict

-Triggering ethnic tension

-Encouraging inter-civilization conflict by means of a moderate-radical distinction


Thus, the regional policy adopted by Western powers from the beginning of the Arab Spring was one of taking advantage of social discontent and street protests for their own regional schemes. In this process, the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, partly out of sight but under the strict supervision of the West, made efforts to build the infrastructure necessary for a new political and military era.

With his last step, Barzani, in fact, proceeded onto another phase of this new structure that had long been taking shape under Western patronage. It is clear that he is not concerned with the new chaos that may become part of the region’s future. However, being the most likely of all countries to feel the impact of this new crisis, Turkey is faced with the responsibility of planning wise multidimensional strategic steps. If, instead of following an order that ranges from the mildest to the severest, the last step is taken first, this will give Barzani occasion to present himself as the victim and cause Western countries to take a stance against Turkey.

As in the case of the PYD, because the separatist movements in the region do not base their strength on popular support or on other justifiable means, they act as strategic pawns for the West to try and gain ground.

Turkey’s relationship with Barzani has hitherto been determined by and large by tactics to put an end to the PKK. Through his promises regarding the PKK, Barzani tried to gain the support of Turkey, while Ankara saw the Barzani administration as a buffer zone against the separatist terrorist organization and Iran’s expansionism. Striving to keep Barzani under its control by maintaining a close relationship with him, Turkey gained more of a say in Northern Iraq and on the oil resources of the region.

However, the present situation has made it clear that this is not the way to keep Barzani under control, and Turkey has opted for a change in its strategy. Besides this, since certain steps may pose greater risks than the referendum itself if taken at this stage, it is of vital importance that care is taken while acting. One of the greatest concerns here is the possibility of Turkey’s rapid involvement in direct conflict after years of trying to protect itself from the wars in the region. It becomes increasingly difficult to raise different voices in such a period when war cries are being heard and national sentiments are being pumped up in the country.

Instead of direct involvement in a large-scale and demanding war, Turkey should find a way to make finding a solution to the problem within Iraq possible and create a third option distinct to the Baghdad government and Barzani’s administration. What has been done until now must have given Barzani enough of a message about what consequences await him if he goes any further. Despite the referendum, it does not seem possible that the region will get its independence in the near future.

Now is the time to better analyze the games played by the powers intent on triggering new divisions to cause new conflicts and new enmities. It is necessary to see and develop countermeasures against the Western strategy of dividing the region into ever smaller units and making each divided unit fight one another. Despite the image propagated by certain groups, Turkey has not reached a life-and-death situation yet. Therefore it is possible to even hold secret or open meetings with Barzani to discuss the necessity of not taking further steps.

The authorities in Northern Iraq must be warned not just through political messages from Turkey but by other means, so that they act more responsibly about taking Turkey’s worries seriously. As part of this process, scholars, opinion leaders and religious leaders from Turkey can work with their counterparts in the region to look for ways of creating social pressure. Turkey’s worries regarding the region should not be seen only as a concern for the government, but the peoples in question should be encouraged to make an effort to change things for the better and take action against this project aimed at dividing them. It must be assured that the region of Northern Iraq follows a path of agreement with its surrounding countries, and with Turkey especially, while taking certain steps.

It must not be forgotten that the Turks, Kurds and Arabs, when united, conquered Jerusalem. Saladin’s army consisted of Turks, Kurds and Arabs all working together. It is necessary that each party keeps this in mind. Barzani’s ad hoc political calculations and his domestic problems with Baghdad must not be allowed to trigger fragmentation in the whole region. To this end, Turkey can wait to see the outcomes of the measures it has taken so far, and start organizing an initiative that incorporates various dynamics within Iraq, including the Sunni tribes. If, in solving this problem, Turkey encourages the civil power of the Arabs within Iraq as a counterbalance in administrative negotiations, keeping Barzani under control will become easier.

At this stage, it is of vital importance that the opposition against Barzani does not turn into hostility toward the Kurds. Keeping in mind the presence of our Kurdish, Turkic and Arab cousins in Iraq, playing the role of an older brother looking out for the best interests of all would be better suited to Turkey’s interests.

In planning interventions to stop the process, Turkey should adopt a method that takes into consideration all international and regional conjunctures. Every step’s contribution to Turkey’s interests, as well as the undesirable profits a third party may derive thereby, must be taken into careful consideration. Making efforts to avoid pushing the Kurds of Iraq into a closer relationship with Israel by consolidating the existing relationship of warmth seems to be one of the most important matters to be considered by the countries of the region.

On the other hand, the possibility must not be disregarded that, despite its appearance of opposition toward Barzani, Iran could abandon its current strategy at any time and decide once again to play the security card against Turkey, including the PKK. Care must be taken in order not to allow a collaboration with the Iranian-led Baghdad administration to result in the creation of an area of influence for illegal militant groups, such as Hashd al-Shaabi, which reaches Turkey’s borders.

While making Barzani take steps backwards, Turkey needs to be able to analyze the underhand Western schemes. It is not an unlikely possibility that the United States and its allies who are currently giving an appearance of solidarity with Turkey may one day use the pretext of Turkey “oppressing the Kurds” to make a move against Turkey. Turkey has good chances of attaining the desired ends by addressing the issue within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to force a solution on a wider spectrum stretching over time.

Another difficulty for Turkey is that a violent reaction toward a development outside its borders carries with it the risk of alienating the Kurdish population within its borders. This risk may mean the corrosion of the inclusive, all-embracing attitude that has been built over a long time, especially during the period of the AK Party’s administration. Such an alienation could push people in certain parts of Turkey completely into the hands of separatist groups.

While the referendum remains a hot topic, the rumors in the West about discussions between the Baghdad administration and the Barzani administration regarding an extended federation, present Turkey with all the more reason to be alert. It must not be forgotten that Turkey’s efforts may come to nothing if such an agreement is reached between the Baghdad administration and Barzani, who has gained important leverage, and that solutions must be sought through diplomatic constraint.