In the aftermath of its brief military incursion into Iraq, Turkey appears to have maintained remarkably good relations with both the Iraqi government and the US, long a key ally. Meanwhile, it continues to build economic ties with Iran, considered a pariah by the American government. The signs of Turkey's increasing leadership role in the Middle East, and its willingness to talk to all parties are indeed encouraging, though Ankara will have to steer a careful course to avoid upsetting its allies, old and new.
Turkey's top general has sought to reassure the international community that the country will continue to work closely with the US in the wake of the army's controversial operations in northern Iraq.
General Yaþar Buyukanit, head of the military General Staff, said, "there is no change in our ties" after Turkey's eight-day raid to root out militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging a terror campaign against the Turkish state since 1984. The operation, which ended on February 29, took the troops into the region of Iraq controlled by Kurdish authorities, which have in the past stoutly protested against Turkish troop deployments.
Turkey is thought to be concerned not only about the alleged tolerance of PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, but also the implications of the Kurdish region of Iraq's high level of autonomy for its own Kurdish minority. Therefore some observers have alleged that Turkey is using the PKK as an excuse to shoot across the bows of the Iraqi Kurd government, warning them off moving towards de facto independence.
While indicating that this offensive might not be the last, Buyukanit also asserted that Turkey had "no secret plans for the region", despite nationalist calls to push further into Iraq. "I say that the mission has been completed," the general added.
Some have complained that Turkey pulled out early at the US' behest, as on February 28, the US urged Ankara to make the operation a short one. However, if this was the case, it may even be a good sign for Turkey's relationship with Washington. The Turkish troops are thought to have had some strategic assistance from the US in targeting alleged PKK camps, indicating that, after a period of strained relations, the alliance between the two countries may be back on track.
Additionally, the response from Iraq has so far been muted, indicating something of a wary acceptance of Turkey's actions, so long as the incursion was brief. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani paid an official visit to Ankara on March 7. Talabani is himself Kurdish, and while he will certainly not praise the Turkish incursion, his visit indicates that the Iraqi government wishes to maintain good relations with its northern neighbour.
The Turkish authorities also have good reasons to keep relations with Iraq on an even keel - and in particular with the Kurdish region of Iraq. Turkish companies have been expanding operations in the relatively stable northern region, and the government would not wish to jeopardise this - and nor would it wish the area to descend into the carnage that has engulfed much of the rest of the country. Talabani's visit and the US's apparent conditional support of the operation are indicative of a growing sense that an increasingly assertive and stable Turkey can take a role as a regional leader. Already widely praised as a model Muslim democracy, particularly after the re-election of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey is looking to expand its diplomatic and economic clout in the region.
The US may be particularly anxious not to lose a key ally (with NATO's second largest standing army) as Turkey builds bridges with Iran, the Bush government's latest bête noire, and becomes a growing force in the Middle East. This may explain its willingness to allow Turkey's operation against the PKK.
On March 3, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar visited Ankara, meeting Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, in a move to promote burgeoning economic ties. Turkish-Iranian trade is estimated at more than $8bn in 2007, up 19.5% from 2006, while bilateral trade in January 2008 was up 32.35% on the same month in 2007, totalling more than $700m. On the political front, Tehran has been supportive of Turkey's incursion into Iraq, and has compared the PKK to its own Kurdish secessionist movement.
For all the good news of improving ties with both Iran and the US, as
well as Iraq, it is clear that Turkey's diplomatic position does not always allow it to act consistently. While it is (so far successfully) attempting to strengthen relations with two countries diametrically opposed to one another, it has run into stormy weather over its stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Turkey has long been Israel's closest ally in the Middle East, even conducting joint military manoeuvres, but it has recently hardened its criticism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has branded recent Israeli military action against the Hamas Islamist movement in Gaza "unacceptable", and the issue was brought up by Sheikh Attar during his visit.
Erdogan's official position is that Turkey is happy to mediate, having good relations with both parties; perhaps the government will attempt the same between the US and Iran. If this is the case, Turkey can at last take a deserved role as a very influential and positive force in the region. Nonetheless, Ankara may find that it cannot please all its allies all of the time.