The Iraq Crisis: What it could mean for US, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan

June 13, 2014
On the flight back to the Borderlands Lodge from Istanbul yesterday, I read with great interest about the recent developments taking place in Iraq. To say the very least, it was very disturbing.  
From the accounts I've seen, fighters from ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also sometimes known as ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) had overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and an important oil-producing center. And now they are apparently advancing on Baghdad. 

One point amid these events that immediately caught my eye was the fact that Iraqi soldiers and police appear to have surrendered to ISIL forces without a fight. Indeed, it seems as if even Saddam Hussein had more success in field at least some forces that were willing to fight with him than has been the case thus far with the current government in Baghdad.

Sez the NYT:

The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings. The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets. 
The events of recent days also highlight the degree to which Turkey has gotten caught up in the political developments taking place within neighboring countries in the region. According to numerous reports, the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been thought to be supporting al-Nusrah, which is a rival of ISIS. Turkish forces, in fact, have seemingly been involved in direct conflict with ISIS at times over the past year.  

Now, however, Turkey’s low-level war with ISIS has burst out into the open with the events of recent days. 80 Turkish citizens have been taken hostage in and around Mosul, alongside numerous members of the support staff and even family members of the Turkish consular officials in the city. Indeed, the Turkish consul general in Mosul, a former advisor to Erdoğan, is himself currently being held hostage by ISIS.
Consul general Öztürk Yılmaz was abducted on June 11 

The American Role
Notably, none of the events we’ve been reading about lately have occurred in the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq, which not only has its own parliament but also its own militia that is independent of Baghdad. The Kurdish-controlled region also has oil, as well as particularly close relations with the US government, under whose protection northern Iraq was allowed to operate as an independent statelet between the end of the Gulf War in 1991 and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.

Since 2003, moreover, northern Iraq has continued to enjoy American support. When the United States was still occupying Iraq, in fact, American troops patrolled between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq along the more southern demarcation line favored by Kurdish officials in their border dispute with Baghdad. In other words, the Kurdish government in northern Iraq had managed to get American soldiers to provide support to the Kurdish north against the wishes of the very regime that the United States had set up in Baghdad in the wake of the 2003 war. 
Map of Iraq, with Kurdish autonomous region in green
With this American record of support for the interests of regional officials in northern Iraq, the American presence in the predominantly Kurdish north appears to have only gotten stronger over the past decade. The American university of Iraq  (a fascinating story in its own right) is located in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimani, and northern Iraq appears to be one of the few places in the Middle East where the United States enjoys genuine popularity among much of the populace. It’s also a favorite spot for neocons and others who supported the Iraq War to point to in marking the ‘success’ of American intervention in the region. Interestingly enough, on the same day that news organizations were reporting on the chaos that has engulfed Mosul and other cities in Iraq, former Iraq War cheerleader Thomas Friedman published an opinion piece bubbling with optimism over the degree to which his experiences in 'Kurdistan' had been an 'eye-opener.'

Something that needs to mind is that the problem here isn't the so-called 'Sunni-Shia split' in and of itself. Sunnis and Shia have managed to live together for centuries without feeling that they needed to kill one another. Nor is the problem simply Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's lack of 'inclusiveness' or Obama's supposed 'weakness.' What we should, in fact, be remembering right now is that the United States, during the administration of George W. Bush, overthrew a secular national government in Iraq and replaced it with a pro-Iranian Shiite regime that has little legitimacy outside of its core group of supporters; destroyed an entire slate of existing institutions that had, in one way or another, constituted a form of 'glue' that helped keep Iraqi society together; and plunged the entire country into an abyss of violence and political uncertainty from which it has still not recovered.

These acts, much more than anything than Obama or al-Maliki have or haven't done over the past few years, played a much larger role in creating the current crisis. 
In the United States, we choose forget who it was that issued the original blows that sent Iraq into chaos. We also forget the fact that a majority of Americans supported the 2003 invasion, and then re-elected the president who launched it. Instead, we prefer to blame the victims—people in Iraq—for having created this mess. 

That being said, I think Obama is right to keep American forces out of this. Given US history in the region, and the direct role that our government played in creating these problems in the first place, I don't see what kind of positive US role that the United States could play in Iraq or Syria at this time.

Ankara and the Kurds 

While the government of Turkey is normally thought of as holding a hostile stance towards Kurdish interests, the reality of the situation is actually much more complicated. First of all, there are disparate forces at work both among Turkish political parties and among the various groups speaking in the name of Kurdish interests in Turkey and Iraq. The current government in Turkey, that of Erdoğan’s AK Party, has adopted a much more liberal (at times) policy towards Kurdish-related interests in Turkey than has been the case with any of its predecessors, even as Alevi Kurds (a minority within a minority in Turkey) consider themselves the target of hostile policymaking by the AK Party and often feel considerable antipathy towards Erdoğan. Also to be kept in mind is the fact that there has been a recent uptick in violence between Turkish security forces and Kurdish protesters in the southeast of Turkey, such as in the case of the shooting deaths of two individuals by Turkish soldiers just last week.
These points notwithstanding, the AKP has generally been successful in obtaining considerable support in the southeast. While Kurdish-oriented parties are the most popular in this region, the AKP does much better here than the country's main opposition parties (the Kemalist CHP and the Turkish nationalist MHP). During the Gezi Park protests last year, and on the Geziversary this year, the government in Ankara apparently felt confident enough of its position in southeastern Turkey to reportedly transfer temporarily thousands of police officers from the southeast to Istanbul—a notion that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago.

Regarding relations between Ankara and the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, meanwhile, the situation is also complicated. Back in the 1990s, successive (pre-AK Party) governments in Ankara were extremely hostile to actions that they considered supportive of Kurdish autonomy or independence from Baghdad, because these governments believed that doing so would similarly encourage Kurdish separatism in southeastern Turkey.

Under AK Party rule, Ankara has taken a more nuanced stand. One reason for this is oil. Even as Baghdad and northern Iraq continue to disagree over how the revenue that is produced by oil sales should be divided, Turkey has angered Baghdad by agreeing to allow the northern Iraqi autonomous region to export oil onto the world market through Turkey. Baghdad insists that it alone has the right to export oil from Iraq, and has recently filed suit against Turkey in an international arbitration court. 
Thus, while some people might see Turkish-Kurdish issues solely through the prism of national conflict, it is worth keeping in mind that there are a lot of other variables—including oil, the peace process in SE Turkey, and the overall geopolitical situation in the Middle East—that have brought about a much more complicated set of developments taking place simultaneously between various entities speaking in the name of Turkish and Kurdish interests.

Now What?
If Iraq falls into all-out civil war again, look for the authorities in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to seek to take advantage of the crisis by asserting more autonomy—or even outright independence—for themselves. Indeed, even if the current crisis is brought to a quick end, it seems pretty clear that this is the long-term objective of officials in northern Iraq. I would not be at all surprised if, within the next decade or so, an independent Kurdish state is created in northern Iraq, and possibly even sooner than that.

With regard to the current crisis in Iraq, it also seems worth mentioning that the Turkish government is now starting to experience the sort of blowback that comes with getting involved in the affairs of other countries. During the Cold War Ankara (mostly) played the role of loyal frontline NATO ally, while in the 1990s a series of weak coalition governments in Turkey prevented Ankara from playing much of a proactive role in the international arena.

Today, however, Turkey under the AK Party has become much more of a regional geopolitical player. But assuming such a role also brings an enhanced level of risk, as people in Turkey are now starting to see. By getting involved to the degree that it has in Syria’s civil war, Ankara has made itself much more of a target among the participants in that conflict who are unhappy with the direction of Ankara’s policymaking.
While so far the response of the Turkish government to this week's events in Iraq has been muted, with the main attacks taking place in the form of political jousting over whether or not the AK Party is to blame for the events. This is especially the case regarding the apparent decision by Ankara to order Turkish special forces in Mosul to avoid getting into a firefight with ISIS.

The really interesting question is whether or not Turkey is going to get drawn into a bigger conflict with ISIS. As loyal Borderland readers know, Turkish PM Erdoğan is not someone who backs away easily from a fight. In recent years he's not only taken on his opponents inside Turkey through means such as the Ergenekon trials and his crushing of the Gezi Park protests, but has also played war with his erstwhile political allies within the Gulen movement.
Will Erdoğan hit back at ISIS with his usual fury?

While the events of this week might well end up convincing Erdoğan that there's no real upside for Turkey to carrying on this fight with ISIS, I could also see the Turkish PM deciding to hit back hard, when the time is right, which would bring his country even deeper into the conflicts unfolding in Syria and Iraq than is already the case.  
All in all, there are a few points regarding all of this that are worth keeping in mind:

a) There is a strong likelihood that a further weakened central government will lead to an even more autonomous or even independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq--one that could end up becoming an important US partner in the region.

b) If the above happens, there is also a strong chance that the rest of Iraq could come under even greater Iranian influence than is already the case.

c) In the short to intermediate term, there is also a chance that Turkey could get drawn in deeper into its conflict with ISIS and the affairs of its two southern neighbors.

Also see:
Turkey-Syria Conflict

Turkey Shelled by Syria, Retaliates

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