War Diary: Turkey - US Relations Over Kurds
Apr 11, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence

On April 10, the complexity of the Iraq war came to the fore in the north, where Kurdish forces surged into both Mosul and Kirkuk. The complexity could be seen in the fact that the United States did not want the Kurds to do this and rushed some of its limited forces in the north to Kirkuk to make certain that the Kurds didn't claim the city for themselves.

The central issue is U.S.-Turkish relations, something that outweighs almost all other considerations in the war. Regardless of Turkish cooperation during the war, the United States badly needs Turkey. It is the foundation of American geopolitical strategy not only in the region, but in the hemisphere. Turkey is the pivot. Turkey influences events in southwestern Europe, beyond the Caucuses in Iran, and of course, in the Middle East. Turkey is the single most important piece of real estate there is, and has been the foundation of U.S. strategy since World War II. A break with Turkey is inconceivable, regardless of how it treats the United States.

Turkey, on the other hand, depends on the United States to guarantee its national security, and its army depends on the United States so it can carry out its role as the guarantor of Turkish secularism. It also depends on the United States to prevent the disintegration of Turkey by controlling the Kurds, who are after an independent state including parts of Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

The Kurds have cooperated with the U.S. forces in the war, where the Turks haven't. Therefore, the Kurds expect consideration. The U.S. administration wants to reward the Kurds, but has a limit placed on it by the Turks: An independent state for the Kurds would destroy U.S.-Turkish relations. Of course, the threat of an independent state would terrify the Turks sufficiently to make them cooperative. Therefore, the Turks and the Americans are in a symbiotic relationship that they can't break.

This brings us to the charge of about two battalions of the 173rd Airborne Brigade into Kirkuk. In the minds of the Kurds, Kirkuk is the natural capital of an independent state. The danger was that the Kurds would take the city and declare an independent state. This would have ruptured U.S.-Turkish relations, with more bad outcomes than we can count. To prevent this, the United States had to take action. So, the United States intervened against an active ally to placate a noncooperative Turkey. The telephone lines between Washington and Ankara apparently were blazing for a time, as the Turks howled at Washington and the Americans tried to reassure the Turks.

There is an additional dimension to this. The United States and Syria are in a terrific confrontation whose origins and reasons are not entirely clear. The Israeli army remains on high alert over something to do with Iraq, while U.S. Special Forces are at the frontier with Iraq, closing the border. The United States certainly intends to deal with Syria at some point, but it was not expecting to have to move into confrontation with Syria quite so soon. It would like to defuse the crisis or at least to manage it better. Washington's conversations with Syria have been terminated, by most accounts.

Therefore, the willingness of the Turkish foreign minister to travel to Damascus was important to Washington. The United States needs to take a clear sounding of what Syria intends, and most of the usual sources in Damascus -- the French and Russians -- are tainted and not regarded as reliable, including formal diplomatic channels. Turkey, having stayed out of the war, has some credibility in Damascus in spite of bitter tensions prior to the current government. Therefore, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's trip to Damascus was a service to the United States and one designed to provide insight, if not manage the crisis.

In other words, the politico-military situation in northern Iraq is going to provide a long-term challenge to the United States in every dimension of its occupation policy. The competing forces in the north are both extremely complex to read and even more difficult to manage. More than that, they are necessary to the United States. Washington cannot dispense with Turkey or the Kurds, especially as it confronts the Iranians and Syrians. However, reconciling them is impossible. Therefore, the United States will operate in Iraq while riding two horses going in opposite directions.

This is no surprise. Everyone knew it was going to look like this. However, the fact that it was expected does not make it manageable. The complexity of geopolitics in the north is the Achilles heel of U.S.-Iraq policy. It could undermine not only the creation of a coherent development process, but also the use of Iraq as a base of operations in the region -- and worse, it could undermine U.S. relations with Turkey. The easy part of the war is over. Now it gets tough.