By M K Bhadrakumar
There was something very odd when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Friday that Turkey was becoming a "hostile state" in the region. After all, Baghdad is supposed to be the "soul" of the Arab world and Turkey is supposed to be the role model for democratized Arab nations like Iraq.
"The latest statements of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip] Erdogan are another return to the process of interfering in Iraqi internal affairs and it confirms that Erdogan is still living the illusion of regional hegemony," Maliki said, adding: "It is clear that his statements have a sectarian dimension, which he used to deny before, but have now become clear, and all Iraqis reject them ... His insistence on continuing with these domestic and regional policies will damage Turkey's interests and make it a hostile state for all."
Erdogan is unused to hearing such tongue-lashing, although the immediate provocation was a remark by Erdogan himself, accusing Maliki of being "egocentric". After a close-door meeting with the visiting Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in Istanbul last week, Erdogan lashed out, "The current prime minister's treatment of his coalition partners, his egocentric approach in Iraqi politics ... seriously concerns Shi'ite groups, Mr Barzani and the [Sunni-backed] Iraqiya group."
On the face of it, Erdogan was merely being his usual self when he dictated to Maliki how he should rule Iraq. But The Turkish Foreign Ministry has since weighed in with a statement on Saturday confirming Erdogan spoke with deliberateness and that Ankara has definite opinions on how democracy should function in Iraq.
The statement said, "The basis of the political crisis in which Iraq finds itself is that Iraqi politicians seek to consolidate power and exclude others, rather than [follow] politics based on democratic and universal principles. It is a fact that behind the misperceptions that led to the accusations against Turkey by Prime Minister Maliki, who instigated the crisis in Iraq, this wrong understanding of politics can be found."
Axis at work
The tensions between Turkey and Iraq have been steadily building up, and of late they have sharply escalated. The "crisis in Iraq" referred to in the Turkish statement is Maliki's ongoing political battle with Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, which has taken a sectarian Shi'ite-Sunni dimension. In sum, Turkey has waded into Iraq's sectarian politics and is positioning itself on the side of the Sunnis and the Kurds.
Hashemi is currently in Istanbul and met Erdogan before the latter fired the verbal fusillade at Baghdad. But this is only one template of the plot. The fact that Hashemi arrived in Turkey on the final leg of a tour, which took him to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, gives a regional backdrop to what is unfolding. (By the way, Erdogan also just concluded a round of consultations in Riyadh and Doha.)
Indeed, Maliki has been in the Saudi and Qatari crosshairs as well. Riyadh and Doha see him as an Iranian surrogate and make no bones about their desire to have him replaced. They boycotted the recent Arab Summit in Baghdad where Maliki acted as the host.
Thus, the very same regional axis of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that is working for "regime change" in Syria is also on a confrontation path with Maliki - and the leitmotif is once again isolating Iran in its region.
In immediate terms, Erdogan is also smarting under the perceived slight by Tehran, which frustrated his hopes of Turkey acting as the facilitator of the talks between Iran and the "Iran Six" (also known as the P5+1, the US, Great Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany.) Tehran administered the snub in the full glare of world publicity when it proposed Baghdad as the venue of the next round of talks with P5+1 on May 23. Erdogan's standing as the sultan of the Muslim Middle East took a lethal blow.
Interestingly, following the sharp exchange of words with Erdogan, Maliki left for Tehran on Sunday on a two-day visit. What annoys Maliki most that Erdogan has embarked upon a course of robustly strengthening ties with Kurdish leader Barzani. Ankara promotes an alliance between Barzani and Iraqi Sunni leadership with a view to challenging Maliki's leadership in Baghdad. (Turks ensured that Barzani met Hashemi in Istanbul last week.) Ankara is playing on Barzani's political ambitions as the supremo of Kurdistan, the autonomous Kurdish entity with Arbil as its capital in northern Iraq. At a press conference in Istanbul after meeting Hashemi, Barzani accused Maliki of harboring dictatorial ambitions.
The convergence of interests between Ankara and Arbil is nothing new. It dates back to the imposition of the "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq by the US, Britain and France in the early 1990s. Turkey played a key role in the emergence of Kurdistan as an autonomous region within Iraq.
Today's matrix has a strong economic dimension too: Barzani needs an outlet to the outside world for trade, especially Kurdistan's oil exports; Turkey provides it and, in turn, immensely profits out of it. The business links between the two sides are flourishing and today accounts for more than half of Turkey's US$12 billion trade with Iraq.
On another plane, Turkey is prepared to go the whole hog in promoting Barzani if only he gives a helping hand to muzzle the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey, led by the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which operates out of sanctuaries in northern Iraq.
Barzani was given a red carpet welcome by the Turkish leadership, befitting a head of state. He met Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davitoglu, apart from intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. Barzani has kindled fresh hopes in the Turkish mind that he would do something tangible in preventing the PKK from bleeding Turkey anymore in guerilla war waged from the territory under his control in northern Iraq.
He told the Turkish media, "You won't get anywhere with weapons. The PKK should lay down its arms. I will not let the PKK prevail in northern Iraq ... If the PKK goes ahead with weapons, it will bear the consequences." These words will come as music to the Turkish ears.
Ankara's dilemma, however, is that Barzani has said such fine words in the past also about cracking down on the PKK, but changed tack once he returned home to Arbil. The hard reality is that the sympathy toward PKK's cause is widespread among the Kurdish peshmerga (fighters) in northern Iraq.
But then, there could be a qualitative difference this time. For one thing, Barzani, who has keen bazaari instincts, knows that Turkey could help him and his family make an incredible amount of money through oil exports via Turkish pipelines, and second, behind Turkey stand the Saudis and Qataris, who will also be prepared to bankroll him.
From the perspective of the Saudis and Qataris, the fact that Barzani can prove to be a thorn in the flesh of Maliki makes him an object of interest. They want Maliki to be weakened to a point that he can be of no meaningful help to the beleaguered Syrian regime. (Maliki has been helping Syria critically with oil supplies and to generally break out of the western sanctions.)
Erdogan made it a point to highlight that he discussed the Syrian situation with Barzani last week. Indeed, there is a major Kurdish dimension to Turkey's Syria policy. For one thing, the specter of the revival of the old alliance between the Syrian regime and the PKK haunts Turkey. In retaliation to the heavy Turkish interference in Syrian affairs, Damascus has begun showing renewed interest in the PKK.
These are low-key moves at present but are ominous enough about what could happen if push came to a shove and Damascus finally made up its mind to pay Ankara back in the same coin. It is relatively easy for Damascus to hit back at Turkey if it takes a strategic decision to do so, because the PKK's leadership comprises Kurds of Syrian extraction and one one-third of the PKK cadres are of Syrian origin.
Conversely, in order for Turkey to step up its interference in Syria in the coming period, it needs to first minimize the scope of retaliation by Damascus. Turkey hopes that Barzani can lend a hand in reaching out to the Syrian Kurdish groups.
Another complicating factor is that Syria's Kurds, who constitute about 10% of the country's population, have been reluctant to align with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Syrian opposition groups unless their demand for an autonomous Kurdish region in eastern Syria (where Syria's oil fields lie) is conceded.
Most of Syria's Kurdish population lives in the arid region of Ayn al-Arab and in the Ifrin agricultural area bordering Turkey. Kurds also dominate large neighborhoods of Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, which lies less than 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Unsurprisingly, Kurdish autonomy within Syria will ever remain a sensitive issue for Ankara, as it could have a domino effect within Turkey itself.
But the Kurdish groups within Syria are a divided lot and it is here that Barzani comes in. The largest Kurdish umbrella group in Syria, known as the Kurdish National Congress (KNC), enjoys Barzani's backing. If KNC could be persuaded to link up with the Syrian opposition, Turkey would feel far more comfortable.
Ankara knows well enough that Barzani is a slippery customer. But what encourages the Turkish leadership is that the United States has also stepped in to ensure that Barzani delivers. The US extended an invitation to Barzani to visit Washington in early April, where President Barack Obama received him.
Taking the cue from Turkey, Washington is also catering to Barzani's bazaar instincts. A US-Kurdistan Business Council has been formed in Washington to promote US "investments" in the territories of northern Iraq under Barzani's control. ExxonMobil's chief executive officer Rex Tillerson met Barzani in Washington. (In November, Barzani awarded lucrative contracts to ExxonMobil to explore six oil fields in Kurdistan, ignoring the loud protests by Maliki's federal government that Baghdad reserves such powers to grant concessions to foreign oil companies.)
While in Washington, Barzani also met Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns (during which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped by to greet him) and interacted with influential think tankers. Vice President Joe Biden hosted a "working lunch" for Barzani.
Interestingly, Barzani's tirades against Maliki took a noticeably sharp turn after his visit to Washington. He told al-Hayat, "Iraq is moving toward a catastrophe, a return to dictatorship", and that on his return to Arbil he would call a meeting of Iraqi leaders to "save" the country from Maliki and to seek "radical solutions" (read Kurdistan's secession). Barzani also declared that he wouldn't hand over Hashemi to Baghdad. (Again, at the root of Maliki's discord with Hashemi is the issue of the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth.)
Maliki's spokesman in Baghdad Ali Mussawi called Barzani's heightened rhetoric after the Washington visit as "an incomprehensible escalation." Significantly, Maliki's government has since "blacklisted" ExxonMobil. The company doesn't figure on the finalized list of 47 pre-qualified bidders for the next round of Ira's energy exploration rights in 12 new blocks in western and central Iraq, which would add a whopping 29 trillion cubic feet of gas and 10 billion barrels of oil to Iraqi reserves. The bidding is due to be held on May 30-31.
A card to play
Be that as it may, Barzani felt encouraged after his Washington visit to take to a path of strategic defiance of the federal government in Baghdad. The US extended a warm greeting to him on a scale befitting a head of state and it was heavily tinged with references to Kurdistan's independence.
Conceivably, Washington and Ankara are acting in tandem and there is close coordination of the US and Turkish policies toward Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. For both, the ultimate objective is to weaken Iran's regional influence. The Obama administration hopes that Turkey's efforts against the PKK are successful and is providing intelligence support for the military operations.
Washington also expects that under concerted pressure from multiple quarters, Maliki would finally realize what is good for him and loosen his ties with Iran and Syria. Least of all, Washington would desire that the Syrian Kurds cross over to join the opposition groups based in Turkey so that the agenda of forcing a "regime change" in Damascus gets more cutting edge.
However, there are several imponderables in the emergent scenario. Pushed against the wall, Damascus may let the Kurdish genie out of the bottle and the result could well be a Syrian version of Iraq's Kurdistan - a second autonomous Kurdish area along Turkey's borders. That could in turn induce Turkish Kurds also to seek similar autonomy. The best course for Erdogan would have been to make progress toward a political solution to Turkey's Kurdish problem as he had been doing. But the pre-requisite for that would be a return of "normalcy" in Turkey's ties with Syria and a more stable Iraq.
Arguably, Erdogan is on a slippery path. His acrimonious exchange with Maliki underscores that Turkey's isolation is almost complete in its immediate neighborhood. The weakest link in the Turkish strategy is Barzani himself.
Ankara heavily depends on Barzani to broker deals with the PKK as well as to finesse the Syrian Kurds. True, Barzani has a vested interest in working with Ankara since Iraq's Kurdistan has developed extensive economic links with Turkey and these ties are deepening by the day. But Barzani has his limitations, too.
Everything hinges on his capacity to harness Kurdish nationalism scattered across not only Turkey, Iran and Syria but also Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Lebanon and to convince them that their only realistic hope is to seek increased autonomy within existing state structures on the lines he has secured with American support. That's a tall order. Whether the Kurdish militants will be persuaded to put down their guns and follow Barzani's footsteps remains in serious doubt.
Barzani is a controversial figure himself among the Kurds. Essentially, he is a tribal warlord who uses coercive methods, often very violent methods, to keep his family on top of the heap of Iraqi Kurdistan and his family exercises personal control over the region's land, property, resources and finances. Put plainly, he and his family run a business cartel called "Kurdistan". Kurds increasingly resent that they are being treated as his tenants and serfs.
Barzani's patronage system is predicated on his practice of treating the budget and revenues from Kurdistan's oil and gas as his family's private accounts with no real financial control or accountability. This patronage system is overwhelmingly based on clan rule and it may run only so long as there is no rule of law, but then, Iraq's democratization is spreading its virus into the Kurdistan as well and educated Kurds are beginning to resent the Barzani clan's autocratic lifestyle.
For instance, the 'oil contracts' signed by the Turkish, American, British and other foreign companies are going to be the principal instruments for Ankara and Washington to influence Barzani, while no one has a clue as to what these 'contracts' are about, how they were negotiated or where the money comes and goes. To be sure, Barzani has extensive business interests in Turkey, the US and several European countries.
All said, the bankruptcy of the US policy today is such that it made heavy sacrifices in human lives and resources to remold Iraq as a democratic country and, arguably, the one signal success it had would be the democratization of Iraq. Despite all the aberrations of the Iraqi system, the country enjoys a degree of representative rule, which is an exception rater than the rule in the Muslim Middle East. Now, in a curious twist, Washington is propping up Barzani in order to realign Iraqi political scene to suit its geopolitical interests, completely overlooking his veal track record.
Obama is literally taking a leaf out of Henry Kissinger's monumental cynicism and duplicity toward Iraq's Kurds - pampering their national aspirations as part of a ruthless, deceitful process to destabilize the regime in Baghdad but all the while not wanting their protegees to win their struggle because it could be too disruptive for the entire region, especially for the US's closest ally, Turkey. Barzani has always been, historically speaking, "a card to play" and even by the yardstick of covert operations Obama and Erdogan are locked in a cynical enterprise.
Kissinger, at least, was forthright. Looking back at the US's sellout of Kurds in Iraq in 1975, Kissinger commented, "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work." Obama would probably agree here, but his crucial difference is that Erdogan has showed him how dalliance with the Kurds can also be made self-financing and put on cost-accounting principles, an angle that always fascinates Obama in these hard times.
In short, while Kissinger was immersed in realpolitik, Obama also makes sure American companies do some profitable business in Kurdistan's fabulous oil fields so that the US is sure to be in a "win-win" situation no matter the trajectory of democracy in Iraq or the longevity of the criminal/assassin regime in Damascus...., always working on behalf of the odious and infamous White House Murder INC, in the Levant....despite all appearances....