“Should the situation deteriorate into an armed conflict in Iraq, and Turkmen people are targeted in the conflict, then Turkey should move to protect Turkmen with all its means,” Yaşar Yakış, a former minister of foreign affairs and the president of the Ankara-based Center for Strategic Communication (STRATİM), has said.
The probability of a civil war breaking out in Iraq is non-negligible, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani having felt the need at the beginning of this month, before he was hospitalized, to caution against an internal conflict.
Yakış believes Turkey should, with respect to the rules of international legitimacy, take a step to protect Turkmens in Iraq. “[In the case of civil war,] Turkey should make use of the concept ‘responsibility to protect’ as was the case in [the change of power in] Libya,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
A wave of attacks against Turkmens have come one after the other in the past few weeks. Last Sunday, car bombs ripped through three residential neighborhoods and five others at various locations in districts of Kirkuk densely populated by Shiite Turkmens, killing more than 10 Turkmens and wounding more than 60. Two Turkmen teachers, who were kidnapped the same day, were found dead in Kirkuk. In protest, many Turkmen teachers and students demonstrated in Kirkuk at the beginning of the week, demanding officials protect Turkmens against attacks.
In another Turkmen-populated city, Tuzhurmatu, five Turkmens were killed in two attacks, and 24 others were wounded at the beginning of this week. As noted by Kemal Beyatlı, the head of the Federation of Türkmeneli Associations, in a press meeting held at the beginning of last week in İstanbul, it is the Turkmen people who have suffered the most, in terms of lives and wealth, in Iraq since the American occupation in 2003.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds flooded Kirkuk after the occupation and built houses on land belonging to Turkmens. Talking about how distressed Turkmens are in Kirkuk today, Beyatlı explained: “Now those Kurdish families are openly provided with guns by Kurdish peshmerga forces. In Turkmen lands, where people are confronted with a life-and-death situation, and particularly in Kirkuk, only Turkmens are without guns and remain helpless.” He called on Turkey to intervene as a security guarantor if Turkmen people should come under attack.
Turkmens forced to leave Iraq
A similar comment came at the start of the week from Ershad Salihi, head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), headquartered in Kirkuk. “Turkmens may have to ask for foreign help should the security of their lives and property not be ensured,” said Salihi, referring clearly to Turkey in the comments. Having no armed units to defend themselves, Turkmens in Iraq would be confronted with a particularly difficult situation in a civil war, as the cities over which both the central government in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claim ownership, such as Tuzhurmatu, Kirkuk and Telafer, among others, are areas where Turkmens have significant populations.
Accordingly, in a possible armed conflict, it would be Turkmens who would suffer the most. Ali Semin, a Middle East analyst from the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), suggests Turkmens should not let the recent attacks agitate them. According to Semin, the message the attacks deliver is: “Choose your side.”
Turkmens in Iraq are distressed. “Turkmens in Kirkuk are trying to find a way to sell their properties and emigrate to Turkey,” said Mahir Nakip, an Iraqi Turkmen from Kirkuk who has been living in Turkey for some time. “Turkmens are even more demoralized than they were during Saddam’s rule,” Nakip, who is also the spokesperson of the İstanbul-based Kirkuk Foundation, commented to Sunday’s Zaman.
The attacks against Turkmens may be aiming to force Turkmens to leave the area. And the fact that particularly Shiite Turkmens have been the victims of recent attacks makes one think Shiite Turkmens, who are probably considered natural allies of the central government in Baghdad, a coalition of Shiite groups in the country, are being driven by intimidation out of the equation in a possible future armed conflict to deprive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Turkmen support in the region.
“The aim of the attacks is to make Turkmens flee the area,” Nakip commented, adding: “In Kirkuk, Turkmen are selling their land. And the buyers are usually Kurds.”
Kirkuk is historically a Turkmen city, and Turkmens have had a major role in the city’s economy. But because Turkmens are under attack, and quite a few Turkmen businesspeople were kidnapped for ransom in the past, many of them have left the city. It is estimated that nearly 50,000 Turkmens may have left the city since the American occupation in 2003.
The situation in Iraq is rather tense between the Iraqi central government of Maliki and the KRG. A conflict between the government and the KRG has been brewing since 2009 over disputed areas that include Kirkuk, Diyala and Saladin provinces, with both sides claiming that the territories should be placed under their own authority. Another major source of tension between the Kurds and the central government is the energy agreements the KRG has concluded with foreign companies without first obtaining the consent of the Maliki government.
After establishing a military unit called the Tigris Operational Command in 2012, the Iraqi central government stepped up efforts to take the disputed provinces under the authority of the central government through troop deployments to Kirkuk. The step was harshly criticized by the KRG a couple of months ago, when indications of a major confrontation became apparent. Following the killing of 12 Iraqi troops in November by KRG peshmerga forces near the city of Tikrit, the risk of the country drifting into a civil war is a real possibility, with both sides having reinforced their positions around Kirkuk and the region.
Difficult for Turkmens to act together with Kurds
Although Turkey has been stressing that it favors the territorial integrity of Iraq, it gives the impression that it has sided with the Kurds, and not the central government, in Iraq’s ethnic and religious equation. Turkey has concluded energy agreements with the Kurdish government of northern Iraq, despite harsh protests from the central government. In the latest case of tension with the Maliki government, the plane of Taner Yıldız, Turkey’s energy minister, was denied permission to land in Arbil by Iraqi authorities at the beginning of the month.
But Turkey’s position in Iraq leaves Turkmens in an awkward position. By having seemingly sided with the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey is indirectly “telling” Turkmens to act in cooperation with the Kurds, but for Turkmens themselves, this is a difficult step to take, as Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KRG, has never uttered words that would also be music to Turkmens’ ears. Moreover, the Turkmens are worried about suffering assimilation into Kurdish culture over time, should they take sides with Kurds against the central government. “Having already lost Arbil to Kurds, Turkmens fear that they would also lose Kirkuk should they act together with Kurds,” Semin told Sunday’s Zaman.
Though noting there is no problem between Kurds and Turkmens in everyday life in Iraq, Semin said, “Turkmens’ misgivings regarding Kurds result from the former attitudes of Kurdish politicians,” also adding, “Unless this crisis of confidence is settled, Turkmen people would not accept cooperating with the Kurds.” Kurds claim Kirkuk as their own, and this is something which is not acceptable by Turkmens. Besides, Barzani has recently described the disputed areas as those that have been snatched away from Kurdistan. But the areas Barzani refers to are densely populated by Turkmens. “When have Turkmen areas ever been a part of the Kurdish region?” Turkmens demand to know.
Turkmens’ misgivings are not baseless: In Kirkuk, a lot of Kurds live today on land which actually belong to Turkmens, and Kurds in 2008 attacked the headquarters of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. Nakip, who also finds the possibility of cooperation between Kurds and Turkmens difficult, is of the opinion that should Turkey have envisioned a policy which prescribes cooperation between the two groups, Turkish officials must certainly inform Turkmen politicians about it so that the Turkmen public would also be in the know. But his words clearly display how Turkmens feel: “It seems difficult for Turkmens to act together with Kurds based only on the grounds that Turkey does so.”