From Distance to Engagement: Turkish Policy towards the Middle East, Iraq and Iraqi Kurds

By Ozcan, Mesut | Insight Turkey, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

From Distance to Engagement: Turkish Policy towards the Middle East, Iraq and Iraqi Kurds


Ozcan, Mesut, Insight Turkey


Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East since 1999 has witnessed revolutionary changes. Turkey's traditional policy in the region aimed for the country to be as distant as possible from the region, but currently Turkey is very much engaged in regional politics and today it is one of the countries that is considered as a mediator in regional problems. The term engagement here refers not to military interventions but to engagement in regional politics. It can be argued that Turkey was also engaged in the Middle East during the 1990s because of its military operations against the PKK in Iraq. However, today Ankara is an active player in the region using non-military means of diplomacy, such as economic tools and international conferences, and Turkey has become an indispensable actor in Middle Eastern politics. The change in the attitude of Turkey towards the Middle East can be easily grasped by examining its policy towards Iraq.

In this article, I will analyze the changes in Turkish foreign policy towards Iraq through a framework of processes, means and outcomes. I look to the processes by which policymakers have interacted with domestic and international actors in terms of regional politics. For this, the changes in the domestic process of making foreign policy and the international reasons for this change and the responses from actors to this change are analyzed. Means refer to the tools employed by the policymakers in realizing their objectives. Results refer to the outcomes of the new policy and the differences from the previous attitudes. The period covered in the article is approximately 10 years and three turning points should be mentioned to allow for the change. These turning points were the capture of the PKK leader Ocalan in 1999, the refusal to allow the transfer of US soldiers by the Turkish parliament before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and the Turkish responses to the PKK attack on the Aktutun military post on the Turkish-Iraqi border in October 2008. Apart from these, we should also keep in mind another important development that affected Turkish policy towards Iraq: Turkey's status as a candidate to the European Union (EU) since 1999. In relation to these developments, the relationship between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish authorities in Iraq has grown in recent years. As a sign of these improving relations, the Turkish foreign minister has visited President of the Iraqi Kurdish Region Barzani, and Barzani visited Ankara, and Turkey has also opened a consulate in Irbil.

During the 1990s, the Kurdish question mainly determined Turkey's domestic and foreign policy. In terms of foreign policy, this issue dominated Turkish policy options and led to security-dominated policy preferences with international actors and neighboring countries. (1) The Gulf War and the resulting power vacuum in the Kurdish region of Iraq enabled the PKK to use this area for its activities. As a result, military issues dominated Turkish policy towards Iraq in the 1990s. In order to eliminate the threat of terror, Turkey cooperated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to fight the PKK militants. It is generally accepted that the attacks of 9/11 had profound impacts on the international system and also regional systems, including that in the Middle East. In relation to these developments, each actor re-evaluated its foreign policy objectives and tools. In accordance with this transformation, Turkey abandoned its position as a "neutral observer" and became a "proactive regional player". (2) Here the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allied forces represents another important date since this development dramatically changed the balance in regional politics.

The transformation in Turkish policy towards Iraq began after 1999 but the change in the Turkish attitude towards the Middle East became more visible during the rule of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), which came to power in 2002. …

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