Would the March 1 motion make any difference?

Would the March 1 motion make any difference?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent reference to the March 1, 2003, motion, which was rejected by the Turkish parliament prior to the second Gulf War, has alarmed everyone in Turkey. It sparked a debate: Is Turkey going to rush a motion through? Are we going to send soldiers to Syria or what?

Yet the first question we need to ask is whether it would make any difference if the March 1 motion was accepted by parliament. Only once we find its answer, can we analyze today and tomorrow correctly.

Erdoğan incited this discussion on his way back from Latin America last week, saying: “We don’t want to make the mistake we made in Iraq, in Syria too. I was standing by the March 1 motion. If the March 1 motion were accepted, Turkey would be in Iraq. Then the situation in Iraq would not be like this. Turkey would also be sitting at the table.”

Hence people are asking if a new motion is on the way. Yet they seem to have forgotten that we already got a valid motion. The Turkish parliament passed a military motion in October 2014 which was extended for another year in October 2015. In addition, its content is quite far-reaching since it authorizes the government to deploy the Turkish army to Iraq and Syria.

Additionally Turkey opened the Incirlik air base to the U.S. last July. In other words, Turkey is not short of a motion at all.

Then what is the address of Erdoğan’s message? His following words make this as clear as crystal: “Turkey is determinant to not allow a formation in northern Syria just like in northern Iraq. It will not stand by such a development. At the moment we are prepared for any eventuality with all our security forces.”

As a matter of fact this brings forth the following question: Would Turkey really be able to change the equation in Iraq if the motion had passed? Would Ankara have "sat at the table,” as Erdoğan argues?

The answer could be found in the context of the first Gulf War, when the Turkish parliament passed a motion, and also in today’s conditions.

Prior to the Gulf War in 1991, then-President Turgut Özal managed to pass a motion after a second vote in parliament following his longstanding and insistent efforts. Yet even though the motion passed, Turkey could not get engaged in northern Iraq to the extent it envisioned. This proved to be even more disappointing since the main reason why Özal insisted on the motion was to control the Kurdish entity in that region.   

The motion in 1991 opened the Incirlik air base to American jets. In addition, Turkey joined the international sanctions imposed by the United Nations against Iraq and also massed its troops along the Iraqi border.

Yet despite all this, Turkey was not able to engage in the no-fly zone established by the U.S. north of the 36th parallel to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq. Ankara could use its authority to chase Kurdish militants only a few times and to a most limited extent, i.e. in the course of only two to three days, in an area not more than 10 km deep into Iraq and only towards the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) camps. 

Furthermore the equation in Iraq changed dramatically and unfavorably for Turkey following the first Gulf War. Northern Iraq became federal and the PKK built a military force of around 20,000 militants in the Kandil Mountains.

I had talked to Nüzhet Kandemir, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington at the time, right after the motion of October 2014 was accepted by the Turkish parliament. He had explained in detail how that protected zone in northern Iraq had fed the PKK camps.

Beyond this, the U.S. found an opportunity to control the oil imports from this region from 1991 on. This is exactly why the U.S. is said to want to keep Turkey out of northern Iraq. In other words, Washington does not want Turkey to have a say over the oil trade in this region. Kandemir had explicitly said that the “U.S. never wanted Turkey to enter Iraq, neither then, nor today.”

Additionally, Özal was seeking to protect the Turkmens in Iraq, just like Erdoğan is aiming to save the Turkmens in Syria today. It was also reported recently that Özal had said Turkey would “control the Turkmen region by entering Iraq” and he had made an agreement with U.S. on this understanding. 

In short, Ankara was not able to achieve its goals despite the motion.

Moreover, what is happening today only strengthens the argument that a “March 1 motion wouldn’t change anything.” The U.S. is giving support to the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its military wing the YPG (People’s Protection Units) more and more overtly in spite of Turkey’s insistent and strong objections.

Furthermore, Washington’s reaction towards Turkey’s recent crisis with Baghdad verifies Kandemir’s argument to a great extent. The U.S. stood by Baghdad, calling Ankara to pull out its “unauthorized troops” from the Bashiqa military camp in northern Iraq. One of the main causes of the U.S.’ reaction was to prevent Turkey from becoming permanent and influential in Iraq. 

In short, it doesn’t really make a difference if Turkey passes the motion or not, whether it sends soldiers or not. After all, the superpower goes its own way.