Turkey’s Iraq Incursion: It Takes Three to Tango

Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias speculate about what the Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan means for the central government in Baghdad. Matthew argues that American approval of the incursion demonstrates once again Baghdad’s de facto powerlessness, thereby reinforcing its dependence on American military support. Kevin wonders if the central government in Baghdad actually has a dog in this fight:

As near as I can tell, the central government in Iraq doesn’t actually care all that much about the Turkish incursion. They object in a pro forma way, of course, but that’s about it. Iraqi Kurdistan has been de facto independent since 1991, and in a practical sense the central government has neither the power nor the authority to do anything there. This would be true whether or not the U.S. withdrew from Iraq.

I’d speculate that it’s not so clear cut as either suggest. As recently as last month there was a major realignment among the other factional and sectarian interests that we refer to as the “Iraqi government.” That realignment represented, among other things, a gathering alarm towards Kurdish autonomy, with particular emphasis on the Kurds’ determination to negotiate oil rights agreements independently of the national government. So while I agree with Kevin that there’s an obligatory pro forma opposition to the incursion, I suspect that the damage done to Kurdish autonomy by Turkey’s invasion is not the cause of much hand wringing in Baghdad.

I also wonder if the incursion doesn’t represent the vindication of Jalal Talabani’s “Baghdad strategy” to settle his longstanding score with Massoud Barzani. According to this Guardian piece that Kevin cited in another post, the government in Baghdad — and Talabani in particular — reportedly signed off on the incursion (Baghdad denies the report), and The New Anatolian (Turkey) reports that a Turkish delegation met with Talabani yesterday and invited him to Ankara. Talabani reportedly accepted the invitation, saying he would visit at a more appropriate time.

The big risk, and it’s a real one, is if Barzani decides he won’t go down quietly. I read past this yesterday, since it’s buried in an otherwise boilerplate article, but woke up with it buzzing around in my head:

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani initiated a telephone conversation with Bush and reminded him of “his responsibilities concerning the region.”

Now, you don’t just decide to initiate a telephone conversation with the President of the United States, pick up the phone, and get through, especially if it’s to lecture him about his job description. Which suggests that there’s some back channel jockeying going on in Washington over where our best bet lies.

But my hunch is that if the U.S. can manage to contain the fallout (an admittedly big if), the incursion works in Washington’s longterm interests. While he has dedicated his life to the cause of Kurdish autonomy, Talabani much more than Barzani represents a federal solution to the longterm stabilization of Iraq. He is also a far more regionally engaged player, capable of integrating Iraq into the U.S.’s broader regional strategy.

Hence Robert Gates in Ankara talking about a Turkish withdrawal in days or weeks, not months. What “withdrawal” eventually looks like will probably be as murky as what’s actually going on in the Qandil Mountains as we speak. (There have been some suggestions that Turkey intends to leave FOB’s to maintain a security buffer.) But that’s next month’s Iraq crisis.