An interview with Idrees Mohammed

Topic: Turkish foreign policy, Kurdish issue and Arab Uprising

1. Do you believe that Turkey’s relation with Syria, Iraq and Iran were motivated by the Kurdish issue? How?

Idrees M: Turkish Kurdish issue is the country’s most important political problem. Given the sensitivity of the issue, its ramifications have affected Turkish foreign policy. In other words,Turkey’s foreign policy can be characterized as an extension of its domestic policy. Moreover, a principle characteristic of the Kurdish issue is its interstate nature since the Kurds are divided among regional countries. On the one hand, the Kurds were resorted to use the regional interstate differences to develop Kurdish cause, while on the other hand; they were used as pawns by these states.

The Kurdish issue has been an important factor in Turkey’s relations with the neighboring countries. In cases, it deteriorated the relations while in others it improved them. On different occasions,Turkey accused both of Iran and Syria for supporting Kurdish insurgents (PKK). With Iraq Turkey had to openly involve with the Kurds in early 1990s. Rumors had it that Turkish government considered a military attack on the PKK bases in Iran at 1995.Turkey and Syria were teetering on the brink of war due to Syria’s tutelage for the PKK at late 1990s. And the Syrian decision to expel the PKK leader and its pledges to take an anti-PKK stance had paved the way for the improvement of bilateral relations.

Turkey was not really sympathetic for the former regime inIraq. Nevertheless, it greatly opposed to the 2003 US invasion on Iraq. In one sentence,Turkey left no stone unturned to preventIraqfrom being invaded. This was not illogical though taking into account Turkish interests inIraq. However, all these interests paled in comparison to the emergence of a Kurdish state inIraq. Saddam Hussaien had been an anchor in protecting the country’s territorial status quo.

The invasion paved the way for the consolidation of the Kurdish leverage inIraq. As the Kurdish status was developing, Turkey, Iran and Syria were buttressing the opposition vis-à-vis Kurdish aspirations. These states have their own Kurdish population and have oppressed them as well. They perceive Kurdish statehood inIraqas a threat to their domestic stabilization. Accordingly, the heavy baggage of differences between them was not to overcome their common interest towards the Kurds. Ironically, the Kurdish issue had affected their relations. During the invasion, however, it improved relations. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad paid a remarkable visit toTurkeyat 2004 where he ensured Turkey that Syria would not tolerate the PKK’s activities and presence in its soil and explained that the two countries have moved together from an “atmosphere of distrust to trust.” Moreover, Abdulah Gul, then foreign minister, visited Iran a week later where he held talks with senior officials. The event came after Turkey and Syria found common ground in denouncing attempts by Iraqi Kurds. This was somewhat reached inIranas well when its president said that “Turkey’s enemies, terrorist groups or others cannot harm Turkey by using Iranian territory.” Gul’s counterpart added that “For us, the territorial integrity ofIraqis very important.”

2. How can you evaluate AKP’s foreign policy before and after the “Arab Uprisings”?

Idrees M: During the Cold-War era,Turkeyand theUnited Stateswere in the same camp, making Turkey somewhat subordinate. This is not the case anymore. International and internal developments from early 1990s onwards motivate Turkish politicians to re-think about Turkey’s status. The AKP’s assumption of power coupled with the ramifications brought by the end of the Cold-War and the 2003 US-led invasion have been decisive to present Turkey. The AKP has cautiously and strenuously invested to amend and even shift Turkey’s conventional politics. Turks have appeared increasingly self-confident. The Arab Spring has been the most important challenge to Turkish policy and ambitions.

Having Islamic roots and the history of Turkish politics in mind, the AKP acted very carefully, particularly in its first few years in power, in order not to be caught by the internal and international skeptics and to allay or dispel their fears. It embarked on a European-oriented policy and undertook reforms, opening Turkish-EU accession negotiations. The government also implemented economic policies and made it possible for export-oriented economy to develop.  The economic ambitions motivated and allowed the AKP to reach to different regions. Taking the benefit from the regional political vacuum, the economic prosperity helped the AKP to increase its political leverage in the region and beyond. It started furthering and improving the relations, embarking on several hot-button mediating missions.

Events from 2007 onwards gave the AKP a fresh impetus and so Turkish foreign policy. The ground for a more assertive foreign policy was progressively laid. The EU reforms were helpful to curb the military influence over the state’s politics; the weakness of military influence meant the strength of the AKP. The military had a heavy blow when the AKP overwhelmingly won at 2007 elections. Indeed, the AKP’s internal success proved to be an important development to pursue a more autonomous, from military influence, foreign policy. Turkish politicians had staunchly invested to position Turkey “central” in regional and international system, benefiting from its strategic location, historical background as well as economic prosperity. ThoughTurkeyhas apparently showed the desire for an “autonomous” policy, it practically has been careful to maintain a multi-dimensional course and a not-complete autonomous policy.

Against this background,Turkey should have preferred the region’s status quo. But the Arab Spring presented a different stereotype. It affects Turkish relations with regimes. Nonetheless,Turkey believes that the region is going through a powerful transformation and it is at the “ center of everything,” asserting to play a significant role now and in the future. The American backed order fostered by Israel, Saudi Arabia and Mubarak’s Egypt is somewhat collapsing and Turkish politicians think that Turkey and Egypt should be positioned in the heart of a new one. In fact, Mubarak was discomfort-able with Turkey’s regional activism and the Arab Spring has made the Muslim Brotherhood an important political actor, and not only in Egypt. Moreover, the Arab Spring is greatly affecting Shia-ism, and particularly Turkey’s conventional and regional influence competitor, Iran. Though Ankara tries to avoid an open deterioration of relations with Tehran, even for a limited time, it perceives the developments more hurting to Shia side, which is a good fact forTurkey’s regional agenda.

Like it or not,Turkey is emerging as a great regional power. This is its strategy. International and regional geopolitical trends coupled with Turkey’s internal developments are among the principle motivating factors for Turkey to take such a move. However, this does not imply any pure autonomous foreign policy, perhaps Turkey is yet to reach that point. But it certainly means the subordination of great powers attitudes, including the US. Looking at Turkey, it is both western and eastern specifically following the most strategic decision to host NATO’s anti-missile system. Moreover, as the Arab Spring sweeps regimes and evolves the role of political Islam,Turkeymight be a welcome ally to the emerging regimes. That would certainly make Turkish politicians more confident but simultaneously would make them to act carefully within limitations. Ultimately,Turkey’s relations and influence with regional countries would increase its international weight and pave the way for established and may be improved relations with the West.

3. Do you fear that the Syrian and Iranian regimes may use the “Kurdish card” to impose pressure on Turkey?

Idrees M: The Kurdish dimension is a core part of Turkey’s policy towards Syria’s crisis. Given the background of relations between these three states and the status quo, the employment of the so-dubbed “Kurdish card” against Turkey has permeated Turkish security mindset since the very beginning of the Arab Spring in Syria. As early as Syria’s opposition was publicly having activities in Turkey, Syria poked Turkey about what Turks likely hate the most to be reminded about; the possibility of “the return of history and the end of dreams.” Syria’s ambassador to Turkey drew similarity between Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood for Syria to the PKK for Turkey. In addition to that, some appeared highly skeptical, with some others even convinced, that Iran had the hand in a PKK’s sever attack on Turkish targets last summer.

Reports about the revival of the alliance between the regime and the PKK are wide-spread now, but the PDY considers them Turkish-orchestrated propaganda against the Kurds. Nonetheless, as Syria’s stalemate continues, the possibility of the “PKK-ization” of Kurdish issue in the country perhaps increases, and Turkish senior politicians have warned Syria not to use the Kurdish card. There is a generally-agreed realization that the usage of the Kurdish card againstTurkeyto a certain degree is an extremely dangerous game to play and would have unintended consequences. Yet, it is not impossible for the actors to resort to different available instruments at the end of the day.

4. What is the official position of Iraqi Kurdistan regarding the Kurdish issue in Turkey and its relation with PKK? How do you explain the position of Iraqi Kurdistan towards Kurdish issue in Turkey?!

Idrees M: Turkey’s Kurdish issue is fundamental in the relations betweenAnkaraand Arbil. It can contribute to improve and somewhat deteriorate the bilateral the relations. The nature of Turkish relations with either Kurds affects Turkish relations with Turkish and Iraqi Kurds. There is a mutual sympathy and connections between the Kurds on both sides of the border and many Turkish Kurds visit relatives in Iraqi Kurdistan, study and work. Iraqi Kurds hope to see Turkish co-nationals gain rights. For Iraqi Kurdistan, the resolution of Kurdish issue inTurkeyis critical and central to its relations withTurkey, and so it is ready to contribute to reach that end.

But this solution should not be reached militarily, the Kurds believe. Against Turkish willingness, Kurdish leadership inIraqrebuffs opening up a military front against the PKK. For starters, they are as well Kurds and could fight aside Kurdish Peshmargah for the sake of Kurdish cause. The state’s strong and advanced military, moreover, has not managed to remove the PKK from Qandil, a fact affirming that the mission to be militarily achieved is near-impossible. It is clear that neither the state nor the PKK reached the goals by a security-based strategy. That is what Iraqi Kurdistan believes to be avoided. It has increasingly become an open advocate for a peaceful solution, expressing that the military struggle is passé. It strongly supports pursuing and using peaceful strategies and instruments to solve the Kurdish issue inTurkeyand shows the desire and readiness to offer assistance within this context.

Turkeyis a key and strategic ally for Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish issue in Turkey can hinder the betterment of relations with Turkey. Iraqi Kurds cannot remain a passive bystander to Turkish oppression of the Kurds andTurkeywould feel frustrated of Kurdish stance regarding its Kurds. The best solution lies in Turkish accession into the EU. This process is not promising now.Turkeyhas a historical opportunity to solve the issue during its ongoing constitution making process.

Idrees Mohammed holds MA in International Relations fromWarsawUniversity. He wrote his thesis onTurkey’s policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan, and now largely observes and writes on Turkish foreign policy and Kurdish issue.


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