Ankara has decided to abandon Iraq’s Turkoman community. A secret message to this effect was sent by Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan to President George W. Bush. Turkey will no longer back the Turkoman community, speak up on its behalf in Washington or look out for its interests in the oil city of Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Ankara and Washington add that Erdogan said Turkey did retain an interest in the oil fields of northern Iraq – but only inasmuch as to ascertain that the Kurds do not end up controlling them.
Since the communication was posted after Bush’s re-election, it was taken by the White House as signaling Ankara’s intention to disengage from two areas of conflict – Iraq and Iran – that are certain to keep the president busy in his second term.
Explaining his decision, Erdogan said Iraqi Turkoman officials are becoming hard for Turkey to work with since this minority group had begun falling under Iranian dominance. Ankara had therefore lost whatever influence it thought it had on Turkoman leaders. This situation is a far cry from the time only two months ago, when Ankara rushed to the defense of Turkoman fighters whom US forces were battling in Tel Afar, north of Mosul, after catching them supplying weapons and shelter to Sunni and al Qaeda guerrillas. Turkey forced the Americans to call off their offensive at its critical point, promising that Turkish intelligence officers would supervise efforts by Turkoman Popular Front militia to put a stop to the smuggling.
That was one tall order.
Those smuggling routes are centuries-old, and the art of moving contraband is passed down by indigenous Turkoman families from one generation to the next. Turkmen smuggling clans operate in an area stretching from Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to Iraq and Syria. US intelligence services were skeptical about the Turks’ ability to make good on their promise, but gave them the benefit of the doubt. The Turks were given access to northern Iraq and the Americans interrupted their Tel Afar offensive.
Now, the Turks are admitting they failed to deliver on their promise because Iran has stepped in and walked off with the Turkoman smuggling networks. Ankara has lost all standing in Tel Afar.
No one knows the exact size of Iraq’s Turkmen population. Estimates range from between one million and two million, of which 40 to 50 percent are Shiites. Turkey’s willingness to wash its hands of northern Iraq, where for more than half a century it has staked a claim of national interest – and to do so shortly before Iraq’s general election – betrays its expectation of a bloodbath in the region, of which Ankara wants no part.
The Turks also believe a confrontation between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear weapons program is inevitable and they do not want to become, through their ties with the Turkomen and the Islamic Republic, a party in the US-Iranian contest.
Turkey’s disengagement has shifted forever the longstanding balance among the powerbrokers of Iraq – Shiites backed by Tehran, Sunnis supported by Syria, and the northern ethnic minorities, including Turkmen, under Turkish protection.