Mehmet Ali Birand Prime Minister Erdoğan's trip to Iraq that starts today will be a “first” if it isn't cancelled at the last minute. This visit will involve the exchange of very significant messages from several angles. Despite the fact that the Justice and Development Party's, or AKP, closure case has diverted public attention to entirely different issues, a first visit by the Turkish prime minister will be followed with great interest by the Sunnis and the Shiites as well as the Iraqi Kurds. The other countries of the region are also curious to see the Turkish prime minister's attitude and to hear what he has to say.
For Iraq, Turkey is one of the most important balancing factors within the region.
Iran's increasing influence over the Shiites adds to the significance of Turkey's views. Ankara's attitude affects the balances between the Sunnis and the Shiites. As Iran becomes more and more effective in the region, people change their point of view regarding Turkey. Ankara's views become more and more important to Iraq as it tries to fend off Iran's hegemony. America also sees Turkey as a shield against Iran.
Then, of course, there are the relations with northern Iraqi Kurds that involve an entirely different set of balances. Mesud Barzani and Celal Talabani are gradually gaining control over the key to the Kurdish issue within the region. Those two, who used to be minor actors, have now become policy-makers.
Kurds have been very successful in fortifying their status during the Sunni-Shiite conflict. They got constitutional recognition for their autonomous zone as well as increased their influence over the central government. The northern Iraqi administration has acquired internal and external prestige by becoming the only stable region in Iraq.
The Kurds have played their cards well. The United States will probably be another country to closely monitor the prime minister's visit to Baghdad. Washington will keep close tabs on every step Erdoğan takes in Iraq. In fact, the form, the date and the program of this visit were prepared under close surveillance of America. Iraq is so important to America that no Turkish prime minister would have the slightest chance of subjecting this country to his own policies. Neither will Erdoğan be able to do anything outside the set program.
This visit is still likely to produce important results. What will really count for Turkey, however, will be the nuances in Kurdish politics.
Who determines Kurdish policy?:
North Iraqi Kurds have now made up their minds. They will follow a policy of harmony rather than discord towards Turkey. They have one condition, however.
They want Turkey to respect the north Iraqi administration and not to act like the town elder who wishes to discipline the spoiled kids next door. If Turkish officials try to impose their will on them by disparaging the Kurds, they in turn will do their best “to disturb” Turkey.
Things look calm at this stage. It looks as if both sides intend to get along with each other.
Kurds are apprehensive of Iran's general influence over Iraq. The northern Iraqi administration no longer wishes to rely on Iran for protection. On the contrary, they see Turkey as a perfect balancing factor. They realize that Ankara holds the key to their access to the West and the means to transfer their oil to Europe. They also know that they have a better chance of influencing Ankara through their relations of Kurdish origin in the Southeast. They have no such connection to Tehran.
All that is needed now is for Turkey to accept the type of relations that they wish to maintain.
They wanted very much for the prime minister to include Erbil in his visit and to shake hands with Neçirvan Barzani, even if only for a few hours. They are aware of how difficult it would be to fulfill that wish. They just have not been able to calculate the extent of the military influence in the determination of Kurdish policies.
“We are ready to dance with Turkey, but we don't know how many people we are supposed to dance with. It takes two to tango, but there are too many interlocutors in Ankara,” said a prominent name in the northern Iraqi administration, drawing attention to the fact that they cannot decide how much say the government has in the matter.
On the other hand, there is also the closure case.
Nobody wants to play the cards in their hands before the end of this case and before the fates of the AKP and especially of Erdoğan are determined. They underline that this is no time for dramatic gestures. This ambiguity is also thought to be one of the reasons behind the prime minister's reluctance to go to Erbil. In addition, the prevailing view seems to be that it is too early to make such a gesture towards the north Iraqi administration.
Actually, this is not a missed opportunity at all.
Once the fates of AKP and Erdoğan are determined, a similar trip can be planned next year that also includes Erbil.