MESOP : TODAY’S COMMENTARY – New Turkey, new Iraq in new Middle East / By Serkan Demirtas

10.7.2014 –  For the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the presidential election is not between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his two contenders, but between the advocates of the “new Turkey” and the “old Turkey.”This column will try to analyze how this proposed new Turkey will deal with growing challenges in foreign policy, with particular emphasis on what’s going on in Iraq and the Middle East in general, or as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggests, in the “new” Middle East.Therefore, it’s useful to make a reference on how the foreign minister – believed to be one of the strongest candidates for the Prime Ministry in the case of Erdoğan’s election as president – sees this new environment.

“A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” he told Parliament in April 2012, in response to criticism from the opposition parties over the government’s Syria policy.

Two years after his statement, what this new Middle East illustrates to us is huge, full of uncertainties surrounded by tens of thousands of heavily armed jihadist fighters threatening the security of all countries and their people. The right question to be posed to Davutoğlu is whether his government is still the “owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East?” Let’s leave the task of asking this question to our colleagues from pro-government newspapers, and look into how the foreign minister is now conceptualizing developments in Iraq, a key country whose unity and integrity is of vital importance for regional stability and regional balance. Policymakers at the Foreign Ministry are fond of using the phrase “the new Iraq” while citing developments in this neighboring country and envisaging possible consequences to the current state of affairs. A flexible autonomy that would give more powers to the country’s three main ethnic and sectarian groups in their respective regions is seemingly better than the fragmentation of Iraq.

However, the declaration of an independent Kurdistan will not shake the earth and heavens if efforts to keep the country in one piece fail. (In a televised interview yesterday, July 8, Davutoğlu said they were advising Kurds to stay in a unified Iraq, but the protection of Iraq’s territorial integrity was primarily the responsibility of the central government led by Nouri al-Maliki).

One other thing Turkish officials try to outline is that the new reality in the region – the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now the Islamic State (IS) – is a Sunni challenge to Baghdad, and is evidence of the merge of the Iraqi and Syrian theaters. As they explain in various meetings, there are three belts in Turkey’s south: The Kurds are the first as a security belt to Turkey, stretching from Sulaymaniyah to Latakia, a Syrian town on the Mediterranean coast. The second belt is led by IS-led Sunni groups, stretching from the Iraqi province of Diyala to inner Syrian territories, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. The third is a Shiite belt in the southern part of Iraq, centering on Baghdad.

They are trying to rationalize this mood on two important bases: al-Maliki’s sectarian and discriminatory policies that put the entire country into danger, with Kurds and Turkmens suffering most; and Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds’ aspirations to capitalize from rich oil and gas reserves located in the northern part of Iraq.

The latter makes it quite apparent how energy has become an increasingly important issue defining Turkish foreign policy. Turkey’s pragmatic relations with Russia, Iran and northern Iraq could be cited under the same formulation. It’s getting more obvious every day that the Turkish government’s alliance with Iraqi Kurds and Turkish Kurds is becoming deeper and more diversified. This is a multifaceted alliance embracing Erdoğan’s ambitions of becoming Turkey’s president and Masoud Barzani’s ambitions of declaring independence, as well as capitalizing from lucrative business opportunities and deals. One vague point in this equation is how would the rest of the Middle East respond to this, and what would the consequences be of such a move? One clear point is that the Turkish Foreign Ministry is playing this game without an intact plan.