In Support For Kurds, Does Turkey Hope For A Redrawn Middle East Map?

Originally published on June 18, 2014 7:08 pm

One actor with an eye on Iraq's ongoing violence is Turkey. For more on Turkey's complex relationship with Iraq, as well as its interests in Iraqi Kurds, Robert Siegel speaks with Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group.

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We're going to turn now to the complex relations between Turkey and Iraq, especially when it comes to Iraq's Kurds. A spokesman for Turkey's ruling party who's also an advisor to the prime minister was interviewed by a media outlet in Erbil reveal this week - that's the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. And at one point, he was asked what Turkey's reaction would be if Iraqi Kurdistan declared independence. And while they did express hope that Iraq remains unified, he did say the Kurds can decide where to live and under what title they want to live.

Well, is Turkey breaking the ice for discussing the redrawing of the map in the Middle East? We're going to ask Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group. He's based in Turkey. Hugh Pope is this a change in Turkey's position on Kurdistan in Iraq?

HUGH POPE: I think it's an incremental step to add to a series that we've seen since about 2007 and has definitely come into sharper focus since the political earthquake that's happened with the ISIS takeover of Mosul, which has made everyone think much harder about what is the future of the Middle East, especially from Turkey's perspective.

Turkey had a very ambitious idea about the Middle East a few years ago - tried to create a kind of European union of the Middle East. But one by one, each with Middle Eastern pieces has turned out to be rotten or not able to fit into Turkey's scheme but all that's left is the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey has helped build an oil pipeline that will allow Iraqi Kurds to have an independent access to the Mediterranean. And those are steady series of messages that the Iraqi Kurds can do more. For instance, during this Mosul event, the Iraqi Kurds pushed forward and took control of Kirkuk and a great wave of disputed territory south of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey, which would normally have said this red a line, you can't go past us, was silent.

SIEGEL: Now, you should just clarify for folks here that while Turkey has enjoyed good relations with the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, it also has an issue with Turkish Kurds. And it has been trying to negotiate a better relationship with its own Kurdish minority, which is a different issue from their dealings with the Iraqis. Is that right?

POPE: Correct. And the question is what happens to the Iraqi Kurds if there is a break up of Iraq? And one train of thought is of how tightly bound the Iraqi Kurds could become. With Turkey, there is a chance that Turkey's Kurds - who make up about 15 percent of the population here - could start achieving a critical mass in which they say, well, we would like to have the same rights as the Iraqi Kurds.

SIEGEL: Turkey borders Syria. I gather you were down near the border last week. In view of what's happened in Iraq with the successes of ISIS, have Turkey's actions there - have their policies toward the conflict in Syria changed much recently?

POPE: That is one of the terrible dynamics Turkey's facing. They have come out so aggressively demanding the ousting of President Bashar Assad in Damascus and supported the armed opposition. And now it is discovered that what they have said is biting them and their 49 Turkish diplomatic staff currently held hostage by the ISIS group in Mosul. And this is causing a whole series of re-evaluations. But whether that will lead to re-evaluation of the policy toward Damascus, I think it's much too early. I don't think the current Turkish government can change its very strong position on that.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, there were an independent Iraqi Kurdistan declared and if, in fact, Turkey didn't protest to that wouldn't that mean the break up of Iraq? Wouldn't it possibly mean the break up of other countries? Are people in Turkey thinking about a very different looking Middle East?

POPE: Well, yes there's lots of speculations but this is not serious Turkish government state policy. They are very concerned, also, about the Sunni Arabs. It's not just the government. The Turkish state wants to see a balance in Iraq, possibly between these three main areas - the Iraqi Kurds, the Sunni Arabs and the Shia Arabs. But they would certainly prefer such an outcome then seeing one part of Iraq going it alone and leaving the rest in possible turmoil.

SIEGEL: Hugh Pope, thank you for talking with us once again.

POPE: Thanks for having me on the show.

SIEGEL: That's Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group. He's based in Istanbul, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.