On February 16, U.S. President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to affirm the new U.S. administration’s support for Turkey’s “leading role” in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus. Iraq and Afghanistan will be the two major areas where Turkey could help the Western alliance, as in the past during the Korean crisis in the 1950s and the conflict in former Yugoslavia in 1990s.
As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan, Turkey could play a welcome role in contributing to Iraq’s further stabilization.
After a relatively long period of hesitation, over the past few months Ankara has started to improve relations with the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which is headed by Masoud Barzani. Turkey’s biggest concern has been that the emergence of a Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, just across the Turkish border, would encourage the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has found a safe haven in northern Iraq from which to launch terrorist attacks inside Turkey.
Tens of thousands of civilians, Turkish troops, and PKK rebels have been killed in the last three decades in what Ankara calls a terrorist campaign by the PKK that aims to dismember Turkey and declare an independent Kurdistan. Successive Turkish governments have maintained that the Barzani-led Kurdish government in northern Iraq has failed to make good on its commitment to crack down on the PKK. Barzani for his part believes that Turkey should seek a political solution to its ethnic Kurdish problem through reforms, instead of relying on military force.
Many experts believe that if the ongoing gradual improvement in political stability in Iraq is reversed and regional and ethnic conflicts flare up anew, the Kurds in the north might declare independence. That would have serious implications for not only Iraq itself, but also for neighboring Turkey and the whole Middle East. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has warned of turmoil in Iraq if U.S. troops are withdrawn before all problems between Baghdad and Arbil, the KRG’s capital, are resolved.
This is the last thing the Obama administration needs. By seeking improved relations with the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq and becoming increasingly involved in Irarq’s economic development, Turkey could help Washington to ensure that the situation in Iraq continues to normalize and stabilize as the U.S. troop withdrawal proceeds. Turkish leaders have said repeatedly that they are ready to do so, provided both the Iraqi Kurdish administration and the U.S. demonstrate a clearer commitment to cracking down on the PKK presence on Iraqi soil.
Furthermore, Turkey could play a major role in removing thousands of tons of U.S. equipment and supplies from Iraq in the next year or two. Ankara has provided the U.S. access to the Habur Gate in southeastern Turkey for transporting construction materials, food, fuel, and other nonmilitary items into Iraq. The U.S. would need Turkey’s help in using the same route to withdraw its troops smoothly.
In 2002, Turkey was among the first countries to participate in a multinational peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. Seven years later, the new administration in Washington is intensifying its efforts to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a first step, on February 17 President Obama ordered the dispatch of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The U.S. is also pressuring other NATO members to share the burden of the Afghan mission. In this context, Turkey is best placed to provide both training and equipment for the Afghan army and police force, as well as to participate in the economic development that is essential to neutralizing terrorist and insurgent groups’ efforts to destabilize the country.
Following Kyrgyzstan’s announcement in early February of the closure of the U.S. Manas airbase, the base at Incirlik in Turkey could become a major hub for the U.S. as it sets about building up its presence and efforts in Afghanistan.
Last year, Turkey mediated indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has shifted Turkey’s foreign policy away from its previous primarily Western and NATO orientation to a more centrist one focussed on improving relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East, as well as the Caucasus and Russia. While this has led to some disappointment in the West, it is appreciated in Arab countries, and in Moscow and Tehran. It has also strengthened Ankara’s potential for playing a major role in the region.
Erdogan’s fiery exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres on January 29 at the World Economic Forum in Davos about the Israeli offensive in Gaza won him votes in Turkey and sympathy on the “Arab Street,” but strained the traditionally good relations between Turkey and Israel. It also led many Israelis to question how unbiased Turkey is as a possible mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Since the recent parliamentary elections in Israel that are expected to produce a new, rightist coalition, hopes for an Israeli-Syrian peace deal have diminished. Both Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right “Israel Beytenu” party rule out meaningful talks with the Palestinians in which Turkey might be of assistance.
President Obama has reportedly told Prime Minister Erdogan that Washington also supports Turkey’s efforts to improve relations with neighboring Armenia. Turkish press reports add that, asked about Ankara’s concerns relating to possible U.S. recognition of the Armenian killings in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as “genocide,” Obama said that he “understands Turkey’s sensitivities.” To be sure, this is not likely to become a serious obstacle to improved U.S.-Turkish relations as long as more pressing issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan need to be dealt with.