Turkey: Between Iraq and some hard choices

Dr. Norman Bailey

Recent events make rapprochement with Israel start to look desirable.

Recent events in the Middle East have placed Turkey in a most uncomfortable situation, with hard choices and few options.

After supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an ultra-violent jihadist group which split with its al-Qaida sponsor after its leader was killed in Iraq and moved operations to Syria to fight the Assad regime, Turkey is now faced with dealing with an ISIL at least temporarily triumphant in northern and western Iraq as the result of a lightning offensive earlier in June which saw US-trained Iraqi forces melt away before its advance.

ISIL, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Bagjdadi has just announced the formation of a new Muslim Caliphate with himself as the "Caliph Abdullah", is in turn faced not only with resurgent Shiite Iraqi forces staging a counter-offensive with the help of Iran, Russia and the United States, but also flanked in the north by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the Kurdish area of northeastern Syria; both regions now practically independent.

Traditionally, cooperating with Kurds anywhere would be absolutely unthinkable for Turkey, which has been fighting a local Kurdish insurgency for decades. Erdogan has tried to square that circle by offering a deal to the jailed leader of the Turkish Kurds, Abdlullah Ocalan, under which Ocalan would suspend all separatist activities in the Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey in return for being released and Turkish recognition of wide-ranging Kurdish autonomy.

In the meantime, Turkey has signed a deal with the KRG to permit the export of Iraqi-Kurdish oil in a pipeline which ends at the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The initial shipment was made and ended up being sold to Israel. The Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are so far the only force that has been able to confront ISIL, and the KRG took advantage of the ISIL advance to occupy Kirkuk and its oil production facilities, further increasing Kurdish control of Iraqi oil reserves.

Turkish-Iranian relations are also highly fragile, given Iran's support for Assad in Syria against a backdrop of centuries of Turkish-Iranian hostilities, as the two state leaders of Sunni and Sh'ia Islam battled each other. Despite Turkish fears of a nuclear-armed Iran, the two countries have signed an agreement providing for about $30 billion in trade and investment expansion.

Erdogan has chosen this moment to enter into frontal conflict with the Alevi sect of Sunni Islam (related to the Alawaite sect of Sh'ia Islam in Syria), which constitutes about 20% of the Turkish population, including many Kurds. Thus he has added millions of Alevis to the two million or so followers of the Sunni spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen to his enemies.

Israeli foreign and security policies are greatly influenced by what happens in the two non-Arab giants of the region, Iran and Turkey. Right now, Iran is an implacable enemy, so that rapprochement with Turkey would seem to be indicated and is apparently a possibility, as negotiations over reparations for the "Mavi Marmara" incident progress, and Turkish-Israeli commercial relations continue strong. The multiple Turkish dilemmas, however, could erupt at any time into a repeat of last year's widespread unrest, the ultimate effects of which are unpredictable. Winston Churchill's dictum should always be the guide of the policymaker: "Countries have no permanent friends, only permanent interests".

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and teaches at the Center for National Security Studies and Geostrategy, University of Haifa.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 2, 2014

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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