Commentary

Turkish FM's Visit to Kirkuk Raises Eyebrows

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Last week’s visit to the autonomous Kurdish Region in Iraq by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has drawn strong condemnation from Baghdad. The swift reaction from Iraq’s central government came after Davutoglu made an unannounced stop in the city of Kirkuk, home to a sizeable Turkish population. The visit and the subsequent diplomatic fall-out have drawn attention to a number of questions surrounding Turkey’s growing role in the region and the likelihood of a regional conflict.

The news of Davutoglu’s visit to Kirkuk was received generally well in the Turkish press. The centrist leaning Sabah celebrated the fact that “Ahmet Davutoglu has officially become the first Foreign Affairs Minister to visit the Turkmen city of Kirkuk in 75 years….Yesterday, Davutoglu realized the long awaited dream and had the opportunity to meet with Kirkuk Governor Necmettin Kerim, State Assembly Spokesman Hasan Turan and Iraqi Turkmen Front Chairman Ersat Salihi to which he relayed the message that Turkey will always be at their service. Later in the day, Davutoglu returned to Erbil where he met with Syrian Kurdish group representatives.”

Following the backlash from Baghdad, however, news agencies reported that “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday defended his foreign minister’s visit to the disputed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk last week….  It is only normal for ‘a minister bearing a red passport to visit the regional administration (in northern Iraq) and then travel to Kirkuk, 40km from (Arbil) to meet with his kinsmen,’ Erdogan told the ATV television station.... Adding to the controversy, Turkey has for months hosted Iraq’s Sunni Arab vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, who is wanted on charges of running a death squad and is being tried in absentia.”

The visit comes at a particularly sensitive time, when many observers have cautioned that, given the instability in Syria and Iraq, the chances of an armed regional conflict are quite high. Ankara seems to have recognized this and has resisted the urge to take sides in Iraq. But according to one report, that no longer seems to be an option: “Turkey is trying to stay neutral in the oil row between Baghdad and Arbil, but the fast-moving oil business in northern Iraq may force it to take a clearer side....When it comes to exports, a fully independent KRG could in theory avoid Iraq territory altogether by sending its crude through Turkey. In May, the KRG announced plans to build a pipeline from the Taq Taq oilfield to hook up with an existing one that runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.”

In two separate articles published over the week, the Iraq Kurdish paper Azzaman summed up the situation, noting: “Iraq and Turkey [are] on [a] collision course…. Turkey only belatedly has come to the Iraqi scene but with great force. Emboldened by the events in Syria and the possible collapse of the government of President Bashar Assad, Turkey is keen to have a strong foothold in Iraq, particularly in its north. And to demonstrate its power, Ankara dispatched its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk without even bothering to ask Baghdad’s permission....The visit has raised strong criticism and condemnation from Baghdad, which saw it as a violation of its sovereignty....As Syria seems to be destined to fall apart, the events there will have repercussions over the region, but Iraq is certain to be the most affected.

In another article on the topic, Azzaman’s Fatih Abdulsalam asks: “Is there a mediating power capable of solving the current crisis between Baghdad and the Kurdish region before it transforms into full-scale war? Constitutionally, the sides can get no recourse. The constitution has been embalmed and rendered powerless after years of violations that have turned it into a corpse....Reports speak of deployment of forces from both sides along disputed areas namely in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and the cities of Mosul and Diyala. A situation like this needs just a spark to explode and take Iraq back to square number one....Conditions as they are right now move, albeit not at a dizzy pace, towards destroying the remaining bridges between the center in Baghdad and the Kurdish region.”

The possible involvement of Turkey in a conflict could also come about as a result of the current instability in Syria. According to Can Kasapoglu, that concern more than anything else was the motivation behind last week’s visit: “The Turkish Foreign Minister visited Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq, to ask for help to limit the PKK’s presence in Syria and the Syrian Kurds’ autonomy demands. However, it might be impossible to put the genie back into the bottle....If the PKK successfully takes advantage of the power vacuum upon the collapse of the Baathist regime [in Syria], it may gain a significant upper hand in its separatist campaign....Kurdish autonomy with a border with Iraqi Kurdistan would inevitably create momentum and may trigger a spillover effect towards Turkey.”

Meanwhile, a Sabah report noted that the promise of a “joint action in the fight against terrorism” was one of the main agreements reached last week: “Turkey and the Northern Iraq Administration reached a consensus on ensuring that terrorism does not transpire in northern Syria…. After a three and a half hour meeting with Barzani, which Davutoglu expressed went positively, Turkey's Foreign Affairs Minister extended his trip in Erbil in order to attend a fast-breaking meal and prayer ceremony for Ramadan with the Kurdish Autonomous Regional Leader.”

Given the importance of the region for Turkey, especially in the context of the Kurdish question, it comes as no surprise that, according to an article by Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin, “Turkey and the United States had agreed in principle that Turkish troops would enter Iraq and establish a security belt along the border against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2003, but the agreement was annulled when the Turkish Parliament rejected a government motion to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil for the invasion of Iraq, former Chief of General Staff Hilmi Özkök has told the Hürriyet Daily News....Özkök’s words are important if they are considered within the context of current developments such as the ongoing clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK...as well as the possibility of a Kurdish autonomous area extending from Iraq into Syria due to the civil war there – all of which is a matter of concern for Ankara.”


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