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How serious is Turkey on its Kirkuk claim ?

Monday 29 January 2007, by Emre Uslu, Önder Aytaç

Source : The New Anatolian, 20-01-2007

The developments regarding Kirkuk are likely to shape Turkey’s domestic politics in the coming days. Western observers are skeptical about the prospects of a materialization of Turkish nationalist discourse on northern Iraq. In other words, despite the rhetoric, Western observers think that given the political reality on the ground, Turkey’s ability to interfere with the region should Kirkuk become a part of the regional Kurdish government following the referendum scheduled for late this year is extremely limited.

Some of those columnists argue that this is mainly because of the fact that any possible involvement by military means could result in intolerable economic costs as well as political and military costs.

Although it is true that any Turkish military engagement in the region would be expensive, in our view, those costs are unlikely to prevent Turkey from getting involved in the Kirkuk issue for several reasons.

Contrary to what is said by outside observers or nationalists’ claims, the Turkish concerns over Kirkuk are not due to the rich oil resources of the region. Turkey’s concern is deeper than dreaming of control over the oil fields.

First, the fear that the Kurds will split from Turkey is of more immediate concern than an alleged ambition to seize the Kirkuk oil fields. The fear of a possible Kurdish separation is the main factor to shape Turkey’s policy toward the region in the coming years. Such a scenario, however, can be prevented through different policies, such as speeding up the European Union processes or initiating economic development projects for the Kurdish regions.

A social trauma

What makes Turkey’s involvement in the Kirkuk issue look unavoidable is the social trauma that Turkish society has suffered since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, no matter how costly it is, Turkey would intervene in Kirkuk. In this case, Turkey could face another migration wave into Anatolia from Kirkuk, i.e. the Turkmens. Since the Balkan Wars in 1912, Anatolia has become the “motherland” for many former Ottoman subjects. The last waves of migration came from Bulgaria and Bosnia in the 1980s and 1990s. In both cases, despite Turkey’s inability to stage a military intervention, Turkish diplomacy played a key role to prevent the deterioration of the conditions in these Ottoman remnants.

One historical case similar to the Kirkuk issue is Turkey’s Cyprus operation. Despite economic, political and military risks and prospects for international sanctions, Turkey did not hesitate to step in although it was in a weaker economic position in 1974. This decision was not because of its ambition over the island of Cyprus, which had no oil fields, but because of the social trauma of having to face a possible migration wave from Cyprus.

With the Cyprus operation by the Turkish military, the Turks’ psychological wound, which resulted from the collapse of their empire, was partially healed. The military operation on Cyprus prevented a possible migration wave into Anatolia, as well as demonstrating the Turkish military’s strength since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Since then, it is in the “social genealogy” of the Turks to protect the Ottoman remnants, wherever they live, and prevent possible migration movements into Anatolia. This aspect of the reality plays a greater role with decision-makers, who are therefore inclined to undertake costly adventures even if clever diplomatic moves or military cost-benefits analyses require doing otherwise. In a way, the issue of Kirkuk once again is becoming an issue about social responsibility for the Turkish community at large, and no government is likely to stand against this collective will of the people.

In addition to the social genealogy aspect, two other elements of the issue should be considered carefully by all sides. First, the Justice and Development (AK) Party government is a wounded government when it comes to the Kirkuk issue. We would like to bring to your attention to an old news story that appeared in Milliyet in 2004, in which it was claimed that in case of a possible Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk, the AK Party government wasn’t in a position to do anything. This news caused a serious wound in the government. Since then the AK Party has been criticized for being passive in the face Kurdish terror. For this reason, the government would be more willing to take risks than any other government.
Moreover, Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit is known as a hard-core nationalist, hence he is also in the same camp as the government. In a way, Gen. Buyukanit is also a wounded character in that some Ulusalci (hard-core neo-nationalists) supported him in standing up against the AK Party government’s erosions of state gains. Buyukanit, except for a few timid comments on critical issues, such as the Cyprus problem, however, has disappointed his own supporters so far. In order to show his stance in case of a possible involvement in Kirkuk, Gen. Buyukanit would go with the military intervention option.

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