Iraq crisis has stopped escalation of US-Turkey tension

Iraq crisis has stopped escalation of US-Turkey tension

We do not yet know whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s Sept. 21 message - in which he said he had “become close friends” with President Tayyip Erdoğan and relations between the two countries were “at their best level ever” - really is good news for those hoping for an improvement in Turkish-American relations. We will have to wait and see any practical results of those nice words, but at least they are bad news for those who want an escalation of tension between the NATO allies. The biggest outcome of Erdoğan’s contacts in New York, where he had traveled for the U.N. General Assembly, was a halt in the escalation of tensions between Turkey and the U.S.

It seems that the crisis in Iraq over Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani’s push for an independence referendum on Sept. 25 has given all parties a chance to agree on something. This is not only valid for Turkey and the U.S. After all, the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers had a meeting in New York and announced a mutual consulting mechanism in order to present a joint reaction against the possibility of an independent Kurdish state. They are all concerned that while the KRG may claim territories from Iraq today, it may claim land from Turkey, Iran and Syria tomorrow. 

Russia, meanwhile, has reiterated its position in favor of the territorial integrity of Iraq. As the biggest supporter of the Syrian government, Moscow is not likely to approve the division of its territory. 

So it seems that Israel is the only country to express support for a Kurdish state separating from Iraq. And there is no reason to think that it would not support a similar move in Syria, which could further weaken that country’s central government. 

We understand from Erdoğan’s statements to reporters on his plane returning from New York that he and Trump did not even talk about the S-400 air defense systems that Turkey is on the verge of buying from Russia. (Please read Fikret Bila's 'KRG land does not just belong to Kurds, Erdoğan says')  Vladimir Putin is expected to come to Turkey soon anyway, during which the matter will undoubtedly be discussed. In addition, Trump and Erdoğan do not seem to have spoken about the “bodyguards crisis,” after Trump said he was “saddened” by the arrest warrants against the Turkish president’s guards, who beat up protesters during Erdoğan’s last visit to the U.S. in May. When a similar protest was carried out during a speech by Erdoğan at an event on this visit, unlike the previous case it was the U.S. police who intervened first. 

Erdoğan said he once again complained about the U.S. military aid going to the pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in Syria, who are effectively the foot soldiers of the U.S. army against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but “Trump did not respond.” It appears that the U.S. president also did not respond to Erdoğan’s demands to press ahead with the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher said to be behind the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, while he also did not respond to requests to release Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian businessman arrested in the U.S. over breaching sanctions on Iran. Trump, meanwhile, again brought up the issue of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor in Turkey arrested on terror accusations. Perhaps both leaders said these different cases were matters for independent courts in both countries. 

Despite all these disagreements, both Trump and Erdoğan seem happy to have found an issue that united them: Opposition to the division of Iraq by a Kurdish state.

On that solid ground, Erdoğan, who had already announced a National Security Board (MGK) meeting upon his return on Sept. 22, also asked for an emergency session of the Turkish Parliament to convene on Sept. 24 in order to renew two parliamentary mandates to send troops to Syria and Iraq if necessary. Those mandates had to be renewed anyway next month, but bringing the renewal date forward to before the referendum is thought to be aimed at sending a strong message to Arbil to cancel the Sept. 25 vote.

If Barzani cancels the vote, that could mean the end of his political career spanning half a century. But if he considers a possible honorable exit by Baghdad he could still sell a postponement of the referendum to his people. But perhaps Barzani will simply press ahead with the referendum, as he has vowed. Everyone will then see whether it is possible to change the political map of the Middle East, which came at the cost of much bloodshed a century ago.