Turkey Eyes the Shia Crescent

Ömer Taşpınar
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert

February 12, 2007

If you were a mullah in Tehran facing a new western “coalition of the willing,” there’s one country you would try to get on your side: next-door NATO neighbor, Turkey. And lately, the Iranians have been doing this quite well. The reason: Ankara and Tehran increasingly share a cause that unites them: Kurdish guerrillas operating in northern Iraq, and America’s failure to do anything about them.

It would be premature to speak of any entente. Yet Iran clearly seeks to lure Turkey away from its traditional moorings to the West, and the Kurds may be just the wedge they need. During visits to Ankara in recent months, Iranian officials and other state representatives—including Ali Larijani, head of the supreme National Security Council—have gone out of their way to stress the troubles created for both nations by the PKK terrorist movement. Despite myriad promises, U.S. troops in the region do nothing to prevent cross-border raids. Suggesting that Turkey should join with Iran and Syria to establish a tripartite platform of security cooperation against the Kurdish separatists, Larijani and others impressed upon their counterparts the advantages of a large-scale Turkish military incursion to clean out the guerillas—possibly in coordination with Iranian forces, according to Turkish and Iranian news reports.

Nothing so dramatic appears to be imminent. Yet clearly, the prospects of a Turkish intervention are growing. It is certain to be an issue when Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and military Chief of Staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit visit Washington over the next week. And, just as clearly, Tehran has every incentive to stir up trouble. An intervention in northern Iraq would all but end Turkey’s already troubled European journey and spark a monumental crisis with the United States. Estranged from Brussels and Washington, Turkey would see less benefit in toeing the Western line against Iran. To be sure, a Sunni Turkey would have some problems with its historic Shia rival’s acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet that still-hypothetical threat is considered modest next to the reality of Kurdish separatism. On this score, at least, Turks do not see America as being on their side. Iran, however, is.

Ten days ago, the Turkish Parliament met in a closed session under the strictest rules of secrecy. The agenda: northern Iraq and Turkish options. The country’s military spent most of the last 20 years fighting a bloody war against the PKK, causing 40,000 deaths and costing close to $150 billion. The guerillas have since regrouped in northern Iraq and, between 2004 and the summer of 2006, launched a new terrorist campaign against Turkey. Most Turks believe that the current ceasefire is merely tactical and will last only until spring.

As Ankara sees it, the PKK is only part of a bigger problem. Turkey’s longstanding fear that independence-minded Kurdish nationalists in Iraq would set a dangerous precedent for Kurds in Turkey is now being borne out. Emboldened by their partnership with Washington, Iraqi Kurds have embarked on an ambitious nationalist journey with a clear destination: an independent state with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as its capital. This Kurdish dream is a Turkish nightmare.

The fact that the closed session of the Turkish Parliament focused on Kirkuk, where many ethnic Turkmens live, is not a good sign. With a local referendum on the city’s status scheduled for late 2007 and a critical census coming in April, events could quickly turn volatile. Iranian forces, grouped along the Kurdistan border, have shelled a PKK offshoot in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains, and turned terrorists caught there over to Ankara. According to various reports, the Iranians have proposed a coordinated military campaign—an escalation of hugely unpredictable consequence.

It is no coincidence that Gul and Buyukanit are going to Washington. The meetings should put an end to the Bush administration’s happy talk about the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan. Unless U.S. forces act decisively against the PKK, the Turks will warn, Ankara will take matters into its own hands. This is an election year in Turkey, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has every incentive to demonstrate his nationalist credentials against political rivals, many favoring military intervention. All this will inevitably push Turkey toward Iran—and may even end up creating an unprecedented Sunni-Shia axis of frustration against America.