Iran Becomes the Trade-Off for Northern Iraq

ANKARA – Triumphalism, which generally prevails in official communiqués and the Turkish media following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visits abroad, was dimmed Monday night at the end of the meeting between him and US President George W. Bush.

The meeting was called to discuss the crisis in northern Iraq. The expectation of editorialists and the masses in Turkey was that the United States would either commit to an iron-fist crackdown against the militias of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) operating in Iraqi Kurdistan jointly with the Turkish armed forces (TSK), or give their blessing to Ankara to launch a large-scale offensive on Iraqi soil.

But at the end of the 90-minute encounter, all Erdogan appears to have received is George Bush’s assurances of friendship and his declaration of the PKK as an enemy common to both countries. Not much for the PM to write home about, as the presidential pitch was identical to the one delivered last Friday in Ankara by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

President Bush, trying to avert an invasion of Iraq by TSK, announced a new three-way military partnership grouping the United States, Turkey and Iraq to improve the sharing of intelligence, and said Washington was considering additional steps.

"We understand there’s transit issues at airports," Bush said. "We understand that there’s issues with money. We’re taking some steps along those lines."

"Step one is to make sure that our intelligence sharing is good," Bush added. "Faulty intelligence means that we can’t solve the problem. Good, sound intelligence, delivered on a real-time basis, using modern technology, will make it much easier to deal effectively (with the PKK)," he said.

Erdogan, talking to reporters before departing for Washington, had insisted that his objective was to return from the visit with concrete measures committed to by his ally. "The Turkish people are tired and impatient," he had said, alluding to the lukewarm position of the US administration in the face of escalating violence by the PKK.

Bush’s pledges can be interpreted as tangible, but lack the boldness the public had hoped for.

Although no emphasis was given officially to the military alternatives by Turkey, these were certainly discussed during the meeting, as Erdogan had brought with him to the White House defense minister Vecdi Gonul and deputy chief of general staff General Ergin Saygun, in addition to foreign minister Ali Babacan. At the press conference that followed the meeting, he reiterated that an incursion into Iraq remained an option, having been approved by the Turkish parliament in early October.

This crisis is unwelcome by, and potentially risky, for both heads of state. Erdogan is under strong pressure by the population in general, and TSK and the opposition parties in particular, to send troops to northern Iraq and crush the PKK. His preference, however, has throughout his tenure as PM been to find a negotiated solution.

Paradoxically, his followers, including influential members of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which he chairs, favor a show of might, regardless of its possible length and cost.

Bush is also in an unenviable position on this. As occupation of Iraq becomes a long term endeavor, he cannot forego the support of Kurds, who are influential in Iraqi politics – the country’s President, Jalal Talibani is a Kurd – and control about a third of the country’s territory, including rich oil fields. His strategy is, therefore, likely to maintain their loyalty while accommodating Turkish nationalism by letting Erdogan save face with his people.

The first moves in this direction became visible just hours before the Turkish PM’s visit to the Oval Office. During the weekend, Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki solemnly declared that his government will take all necessary steps to stop PKK activities in Turkish border areas.

His intent was shortly thereafter confirmed by the closing of a number of the organization’s offices, and tighter control of the crossing points between the two countries in order to limit guerrilla movements. Then, miraculously, eight Turkish soldiers, abducted in October by PKK, were released.

The suspicion for the sudden change of Iraqi attitude naturally falls on Washington. Erdogan was deprived from arguments which would have given him a stronger negotiating position in his talks with Bush. He had, therefore, to leave the initiative for resolution of the crisis to Washington and its Iraqi friends, letting a threat of incursion float, for the principle.

Carpet selling, however, is not yet over. Each one of the allies, Turkey and the United States, possesses something the other party wants.

Ankara needs to secure stability on its southeastern flank at a time of unprecedented economic growth and growing demand for energy. In addition, it is betting on the Bush administration’s support to scrap the US House of Representatives’ plan to declare as genocide the 1915-1916 massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey.

Washington, on the other hand, wants to keep its supply routes to Iraq open, and also convince Turkey to abstain from developing a close relationship with Iran. So, some bargaining has already started.

The meeting on Sunday probably marked its kick-off. For the moment, however, the most likely US course of action seems to be to tolerate a few rounds to be fired by TSK at the borderline mountains, already vacated by PKK, and persuading Erdogan’s government and Massoud Barzani’s northern Iraqi autonomous authority to put aside bitterness and find a creative compromise.

There are other factors that neither Bush nor Erdogan can overlook. For instance, the Arab states are becoming increasingly suspicious of Turkey’s real motives to attack northern Iraq, whose ownership of oil fields it has claimed in the past.

The Arabs, who endured a 500-year long Ottoman rule until the end of World War I, see the development of Turkey into a regional military and economic power as a bad sign, and even fear a Turkish permanent occupation of other Iraqi provinces. Only the US can convince both camps to abstain from any initiatives that might be detrimental to the regional balance of power.

But right now, Iran is at the center of interest, both for Ankara and Washington. The former has in recent months set the stage for a rapprochement with the Shi’ite state. This looks part of a larger plan by Turkey to become a significant player in the Muslim world and particularly in the Middle East.

As negotiations with the European Union for membership are stalling, common citizens and think-tanks alike are pleading for a change of direction as a suitable alternative to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s doctrine of looking towards the West. Ataturk was the founder of the Turkish republic.

In July, Turkey and Iran signed, against protests by the US, a memorandum of understanding that would pave the way to 3.5 billion dollars of Turkish investment in Iran’s South Pars gas field.

Iran, in return, has given proof of its friendship by clamping down on PKK separatists living in the country, and by offering mediation in the northern Iraqi crisis. This proposal was politely turned down by Ankara on Saturday, after a quick visit there by Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Mottaki has on occasion accused the US and Israel of conspiring to form an independent Kurdistan, uniting around 25 to 30 million ethnic Kurds living in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Although the plans of the United States on this are difficult for the moment to fathom, friendly relations with Iranian Kurds are part of the US State Department’s strategy to keep Tehran in check.

In spite of the Bush administration’s classification of PKK as a terrorist group and its promotion on Monday to "common enemy for the US and Turkey", Washington has stopped short of outlawing the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an extension of the PKK based in Iran. Turkish Kurds fleeing northern Iraq will, in the minds of US strategists, gross up PJAK’s ranks and give a hard time to the Iranian regime.

Read more by Jacques N. Couvas