Turkey’s Iraq Incursion: Bad News for Barzani

Once you get past all the speculation about how far into Iraqi territory Turkish forces intend to go (all the way to Qandil, 65 miles in?) and how long they’ll stay (permanent FOB’s to create a buffer zone?), this piece in Today’s Zaman is revealing for what it says about how Turkish analysts are interpreting the significance of the incursion. In a nutshell, they claim that it signals the isolation of Massoud Barzani and the end, for the time being, of Kurdish aspirations for a nation-state. The tell here is the advance American approval of the incursion, which amounts to the Kurds being thrown under the bus in favor of a broader regional strategy designed to isolate Iran and stabilize Afghanistan:

[Sedat Laçiner, the head of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization] says about the consequence of the Turkish ground operation: “As Turkey and the U.S. get closer, [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani wants to get involved in this change while Barzani is taking the opposite direction. He has alienated himself from the US as well as from Talabani. The PKK’s isolation has also turned into an isolation of Barzani.”

Laçiner argues that this new era in Turkish-U.S. relations has led to a postponement of Kurdish dreams for an independent state to an unknown date. “Fewer and fewer people now believe that an independent Kurdish state will emerge in the near future. U.S. consent for the Turkish ground operation shows Kurds do not represent a player that is powerful enough to be independent. The region will be shaped depending on the relations between Turkey, the US and Baghdad, and local powers have no outlet through which they can meddle in this process,” he says.

Remember that Talabani and Barzani set aside their factional differences in the interests of Kurdish autonomy. But while Talabani moved down to Baghdad to assume the role of Iraqi statesman, Barzani stayed in Irbil where he has mainly demonstrated a talent for making provocative remarks at inopportune moments.

It’s also important to remember that, setting aside the PKK and Kurdish separatism (admittedly two enormous issues), Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan enjoy a thriving economic relationship. Turkey is by far the largest investor in the province, and most of Iraqi Kurdistan’s commercial traffic enters through the Habur border crossing with Turkey. In other words, there is the basis for a mutually beneficial arrangement should both sides decide that they prefer one to the kind of conflict Barzani seems to be itching for.

The role of Iran here is significant as well, both in the wider strategic calculation, but also I suspect in the timing of the incursion. As Laçiner also pointed out,

“Iran is watching the rapprochement in Turkey-US ties with concern. . . For Iran, the PKK is a threat. But the rapprochement between Turkey and the United States is also against its interests.”

Turkey’s incursion followed almost immediately the announcement that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would meet with Barzani in Irbil during his state visit to Iraq next week, a meeting that adds credibility to the international status of the Kurdish Regional Government and now becomes even more interesting to keep an eye on.

Two variables will now determine how this plays out. The extent to which Turkey is willing to sign on for a broader role in America’s regional strategic posture (which I suspect will effect how much leeway Washington is willing to grant Ankara for the incursion), and the extent to which Massoud Barzani is willing to stand by and do nothing while his power base is eroded from under him. Contrary to what Laçiner claims, if all Barzani sees is downside to standing around and doing nothing, there’s still plenty of ways he can toss a wrench into the gears.