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Crowded By Two Shaky States, Turkey Shifts Its Weight In Policy


The fighting is so bad in Iraq that yesterday NATO promised to defend member country Turkey from any spillover violence. Turkey borders two countries that some analysts now call failed states, Iraq and Syria. That's forcing Turkey to consider policies that could change the map of the region, even the possibility of more independence for Iraqi Kurds. That's something Turkey has vehemently opposed for decades. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After loudly criticizing the U.S. and Europe for not intervening in Syria, Turkey is now taking the opposite view of the crisis in Iraq. Ankara's position is no intervention in Iraq and certainly no strikes into Iraq from Turkish territory. The reason, says analyst Soli Ozel at Turkey's Haberturk newspaper, is primarily practical - caution driven by concern for scores of Turks including women and children being held hostage in Iraq by radicals who have shown no compunction about killing civilians.


SOLI OZEL: The government wants to make sure that there will be no incentive for them to do any such thing. And in fact, my understanding is that the prime minister's conversation with Vice President Biden was precisely about that.

KENYON: Ozel says Turkey certaily deserves a share of the blame for the violence spiraling out of Syria and into Iraq. Ankara's worst failing, he says, was not controlling the transit of Sunni radicals between Turkey and Syria.


OZEL: The Jordanians, they've been very careful not to align any of these radical elements to actually use their borders or even approach their borders. And so Turkey has been less careful

KENYON: But Ozel says Turkey also has a legitimate beef with the Americans, who in his words, washed their hands of Iraq and allowed Iran to install a sectarian Shiite, Nouri al-Maliki, as Iraq's leader with predictably disastrous results. At the moment, however, the most urgent question is whether Iraq will remain a single country or fragment into warring sectarian strongholds. Turkey's response to this possibility is startling because it involves embracing one of its long-standing foes - the Kurds.

Turkey long opposed any Kurdish move on the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, for example, not wanting to inflame separatist passions among its own Kurdish minority. But when Kurdish forces swept into the oil-rich city with its strong Turkmen minority, Ankara raised no objection.

Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says it's a shocking foreign-policy change accelerated by the stunning advance of the Sunni militants known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Seeing that ISIS could sweep into Kirkuk and take it over, Turkey was now not only comfortable - I'm told behind the scenes that it was actually supportive of the Kurds annexation of Kirkuk. And that suggests that Turkey sees that this is the path to gradual Kurdish secession and is not uncomfortable with those steps.

KENYON: Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Brooking Center, says as the diplomatic struggle begins to cobble together a unity government in Iraq in hopes of ending the marriage of convenience between ISIS and marginalized Sunni tribes, the Kurds are well-positioned to benefit.

SALMAN SHAIKH: The Kurds have been patient, and I think they're cleverly going along with the effort to build a national coalition, perhaps knowing that it may not succeed and that they would be ready, in that case. And, of course, they're the only ones who've got the security forces in order to try and protect themselves.

KENYON: To some extent, Turkish policy toward Iraqi Kurds was already shifting as Turkey received and shipped Kurdish oil over Baghdad's strong objections. But with the explosion of Sunni violence, Soner Cagaptay says there's now a new security element to the relationship.

CAGAPTAY: The Turks are now looking at the Kurds of Iraq and of Syria as a very significant cordon sanitaire that would shield Turkey away from Iraq's instability, civil war. And I think Turkey now looks at the Iraqi Kurds and the Turkey Kurds as a valuable asset.

KENYON: But Turkey's policy shift, which at a time, seemed improvised and reactive, is still missing a major piece, Turkey's own Kurdish minority. The government is now hastily trying to push Kurdish reforms through parliament as Turkey's long-suffering Kurds begin to see themselves as a crucial block in upcoming presidential elections and perhaps beyond. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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