The Blog

The Anti-Federalist Society

Why Turkey, Iran, and Syria all have worries about Iraq's new federalist outlook.

10:40 AM, Jan 28, 2004 • By GERALD ROBBINS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

TURKEY'S PRIME MINISTER Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet with President George Bush in Washington today. Among the topics that will be discussed are Iraq's political future. While the aim of this parley is to correct the recent dissonance in U.S.-Turkish relations, recent signals from Ankara indicate that this will not be a simple task.

The two leaders last met in December 2002. The major issue then concerned Washington's ultimately futile attempt to secure Turkish support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both sides now wish to move past those differences, yet Iraq still remains a contentious topic. There's major discord over how to govern post-Saddam Iraq. Whereas Washington believes in a federalist solution, Ankara thinks otherwise.

Generally speaking, Turks are wary about federalism. It is a concept at variance with the nation's administrative infrastructure. History explains why: The Ottoman Empire's decentralized character was a major factor in its eventual downfall. Loose management of a multiethnic population resulted in constant rebellions and general instability.

Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founding father, saw autonomy's detrimental effects and sought to rectify it. His solution was to create a strong, centralized system, largely derived from the French model of governance. This structure has remained intact throughout the past 80 years, warding off all attempts at reform.

THE ISSUE of the Kurds substantiates Turkey's centralist nature. Fears that a centralized Iraq can augment separatist notions among Turkey's estimated 13 to 16 million Kurds (approximately 20 to 25 percent of the nation's 67 million inhabitants) are based on precedent. From the early 1980s to mid 1990s, the Turkish government fought a Kurdish insurrection which claimed 37,000 lives. Turkey's national psyche is still scarred.

Yet comparing Turkey's Kurds with their Iraqi brethren is mixing apples and oranges. The Kurdish populace is a collection of different tribes and dialects that are often at cross-purposes with one another. This even extends to the political sphere--Turkey's Kurdish separatists adhere to Marxist-Leninist precepts while Iraq's Kurdish leadership reflects a meshing of clan affiliation with social democratic thought.

It can be further argued that a de facto federalism already exists in Kurdish Iraq. A U.N.-sponsored Kurdish enclave was established after the 1991 Gulf War ended. Cognizant of Turkey's cross-border concerns, it hasn't turned into a staging area for Kurdish separatism. Trading thrives between this landlocked entity and the Turkish interior.

FEARS ABOUT FEDERALISM aren't a uniquely Turkish phenomenon. The very idea of decentralization also worries Iran and Syria. In Teheran's case, the prospect of a federalist structure succeeding within the region is particularly vexing. It not only possesses a sizeable minority of 6.5 to 8 million Kurds, but nearly one quarter of Iran--66.5 million people--are Azeri Turks. When Arab, Baluchi, and other groups are further added to Iran's ethnic picture, it turns out that only 51 percent of the country's total population is of Persian descent.

NONETHELESS, democratic Turkey, theocratic Iran, and authoritarian Syria are all united in their stances against federalism. There's a censuring tone that's nearly indistinguishable among their respective leaderships. When Syrian president Bashir al-Assad visited Turkey earlier this month (the first time a Syrian leader traveled there), he stated that a Kurdish state in Iraq would be "a red line, not only as far as Syria and Turkey, but for all the countries in the region." Prime Minister Erdogan recently told the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram that federation "contradicts the reality of Iraq and the will of neighboring countries." Even the Turkish military, usually known for averting public discourse, had their say. "If there is a federal structure in Iraq on an ethnic basis, the future will be very difficult and bloody," one of Turkey's top generals commented.

Amid all this knee-jerk reaction, signs of a more amenable tone towards federalism have begun to appear. Several Turkish analysts note that it isn't federalism that they object to per se, but the emphasis on an ethnic and religious criteria for Iraq. A regional federalism is advocated instead, with Germany seen as the ideal prototype: They would like to see Bavaria's relation to Berlin emulated by the Kurds formulating their ties to Baghdad.

Germany's model can be studied, but to view it as the potential solution to Iraq's political future is an exercise in specious thinking. Bavarian and Turkish sociopolitics can't be homogenized into a one-size-fits-all apparatus. There is no set methodology to federalism, Iraq's model will differ from German and even American designs.