Geopolitical chess is a complicated affair.
Sometimes there are too many enemies: circumstances demand that one enemy is prioritized and “lesser” evils are often reconstituted as the enemy of my enemy, i.e., my (provisional) friend.
The US-Soviet alliance against Germany in World War II is the canonical case. Similarly, I have noted that Cheney, for example, may at some point feel obligated to choose between antipathy toward Iran and Russia.
Sometimes, however, there are too many friends: circumstances demand that one friend is prioritized and the “lesser” friend is sacrificed at the altar of the paramount friendship.
In the current moment, the US appears to have “too many friends” in Northern Iraq: Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds are both considered “strategic allies.” Both parties, for example, are pressing the United States to pick a side in their battle for control of the city of Kirkuk and its vast oil resources.
David Ignatius made the point in a recent Washington Post column:
The Bush administration has tried to finesse the problem, hoping to keep two friends happy: The Kurds have been America’s most reliable partner in Iraq, while the Turks are a crucial ally in the region. But in recent weeks, this strategy has been breaking down.
There are at least two contentious issues: the idea of a “referendum” to determine the political fate of Kirkuk and the degree of “regional autonomy” in the new hydrocarbons law.
Turkey opposes Kurdish autonomy (i.e., favors the “integrity” of the centralized Iraqi state) and consequently opposes both the referendum and regional control of oil.
If push comes to shove, Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt has threatened to intervene militarily in Kurdish-dominated Northern Iraq.
On the related referendum and the oil questions, one might imagine that the US would tend to squeeze the Kurds, not the Turks.
Where is the dilemma?
Ignatius identifies one key Kurdish asset: “U.S. hopes for long-term military bases in Kurdistan.”
Be that as it may, Turkey is, among things, absolutely central to US efforts to thwart Russian monopolistic control of energy pipelines.
One key Bush administration “diplomat” on this front is Matthew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs. Bryza leads the fight against Russian energy giant, Gazprom.
In a February 2007 roundtable with Turkish journalists, Bryza explained the nature of the US-Turkey strategic energy relationship in relation to Russia and the Caspian:
So on energy security… [one thing] we did that was really substantial was our partnership in Caspian energy which obviously meant Bakhu-Tblisi-Ceyhan which many people thought would never happen, and meant the South Caucasus gas pipeline which is about to open.
Today what we want to do is build on those pipelines, expand the corridor that currently exists for natural gas and make it a major one, a big one, a transit route that will help Europe diversify its gas supply so that it doesn’t feel so much monopoly pressure from one direction. Our goal is not to have a confrontation with GazProm, but our goal is to increase competition, healthy commercial competition which in the long run is good for everybody, including for GazProm itself, by the way. The key to making all that work is helping the Azerbaijani Government work with investors to expand gas production in Azerbaijan as quickly as possible to make sure gas is available to fill the pipelines that will go from Turkey to Greece and Italy, as well as [the Nabucco] pipeline from Turkey to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria.
In that same interview, Bryza was cagey but still relatively clear about US policy on the Kirkuk referendum:
Question: Are you saying that if you allow the Kirkuk Referendum to go ahead, you’re going to put your signature to divide the country into three, at least, different countries or nations, whatever you name it. So do you agree with the Turkish vision in that?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Bryza: When the referendum in Kirkuk would take place is not determined, right?
Question: It is determined in the Constitution. It will happen before the end of this year.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Bryza: Or will it? Who knows if it will. Will it actually? I don’t know if it will.
Question: What does the U.S. think about Turkey’s position on it? Do you agree with the Turkish assessment on Kirkuk? If the referendum goes ahead it is going to be leveraged to divide the country or the Kurds.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Bryza: The way I would answer that is to say that our goal, as President Bush just said, is to maintain a unified Iraq. Anything you hear to the contrary, any pundits or political speculation, whether they be people in power or out of power, to the contrary, is false. Our policy is to support a unified Iraq. We understand how sensitive, how dangerous the situation in Kirkuk is.
The Governments of the United States and Turkey and Iraq, and Baghdad, I mean, share a common vision when it comes to Kirkuk in terms of not wanting that situation to lead to the breakup of Iraq, right? And wanting there to be a way to resolve the difficult property questions and demographic issues that are what’s really fueling the political fire in Kirkuk.
So on timing, et cetera, I don’t have anything else to say. And if you really want to get down into the details of that, please talk to our Iraq policy people. But in general I can say we do share the Turkish society and government’s vision that if Kirkuk is not managed properly it can become a terrible problem that works against our shared goal of maintaining a unified Iraq. That’s our goal. We’ve got to do that.
Did Cheney give a more straightforward promise to Turkish Gen. Yaşar Büyükanit when the two leaders met in February? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
When Turkey came to Bryza for support on the hydrocarbons law, Bryza offered up what appeared to be a vague response:
“One: We completely understand why Turkey is uncomfortable,” said Bryza. “Two: we unequivocally favor Iraq’s territorial integrity, which President [George W.] Bush reiterated in his recent speech on Iraq. Three: the hydrocarbon law was not written by us but by a sovereign state that is Iraq.”
The “third” leg of that answer is, presumably, meant to deflect criticism. But given the massive US involvement in drafting that law, Bryza’s answer seems intended as a way to call attention provisions of the law that favor the Turkish position.
Ed Wong of the New York Times has actually been reporting on Kurdish discontent for some time.
Shiites and Turkey are united on the centralization provisions of the hydrocarbons law.
If the US is going to squeeze the Kurds on this one, then Sunni political forces constitute a crucial swing vote.
Edward Wong and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times report that Sunni Arab parliamentarians look set to stand with the Kurds:
Contributing a further layer of complication, a Sunni Arab legislator said Wednesday evening that the main Sunni Arab bloc, which has 44 legislative seats, objected to any discussion of the law in Parliament at this time. “Acceleration in presenting it is inappropriate since the security condition is not encouraging,” said the legislator, Saleem Abdullah. He said Sunni Arabs were also worried that the law would give foreign companies too large a role in the country’s oil industry. Sunni Arab political leaders supported cabinet approval of the draft law, but appear ambivalent now.
This is, shall we say, a very strategic ambivalence…