Turkish Armed Forces conducted a surgical operation, codenamed the Eagle-Claw 2, in Gara Region of Northern Iraq in February 2021. The loss of 2 officers and 1 petty officer in this operation and the murderous execution of 13 soldiers and civil servants who had been taken hostage by the terrorist organization, the PKK that had kept them in captivity for the past 6 years deeply saddened the country nation-wide. This operation has been subject to serious criticism in terms of its planning and execution in a number of professional circles in the country. In light of discussions on these cross-border operations, this paper is prepared to recall an earlier proposal on related matters of Turkey’s national interests, including but not limited to security issues, and, to underline a number of concrete suggestions and cautionary remarks within a forward-looking context.
It is important to remember that the Gara Operation was conducted in Northern Iraq, a peculiar geography that lies within the area of jurisdiction of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Authority – IKRA, The provisions of current international norms and bilateral agreements stipulate that the conduct of military operations to preempt and eliminate cross-border threats of terrorism should be carried out by the respective authorities in the area where such threats originate. As such, military operations against terrorist activities that launched against Turkey from Syria or Iraq should normally be carried out by the sovereign authorities of Syria and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, such threats originate essentially in areas that are under the authority of the IKRA in Northern Iraq. In fact, most of the PKK terrorist camps are located in this defined territory. It is well known that this terror organization moves almost all of its so-called personnel trafficking through the supply lines in the areas that are under the jurisdiction of the IKRA. It is important to note here that though Erbil (the administrative seat of the IKRA) may appear to keep its distance and not facilitate any official support for the PKK. It is obvious that the IKRA is fully aware but cautiously ignores the PKK’s activities in the region. On the other hand, the central government of Iraq in Baghdad has limited capacity and power to have any meaningful influence over let alone the border crossings the Northern Iraqi territories. As a result, the IKRA, effectively ends up being the only constitutionally legitimate political actor in the region with full responsibility to prevent and eliminate terror-driven activities in its vicinity. However, it is unrealistic to expect the IKRA to engage in any military action against the PKK, as such action would trigger an internal armed strife, projecting an image of setting Kurds against Kurds . In fact the regional government still appears to be hung up with nurturing plans on independence despite the total collapse of its earlier attempt for a constitutional referendum on this issue.
As for Syria, the outlook for this country is not so different than the neighboring Iraq, due to a set of specific reasons that are unique to the Syrian case. Thus Turkey’s ill-conceived policies lie in roots of the stalemate that characterizes the current state of the affairs between the two countries. At this point, one does not need a deep strategic perspective to expect that Damascus would prefer and encourage an increasingly worsening outlook of terror related activities against Turkey let alone combating or curbing such activities within its own territory.
Under the prevailing circumstances, Ankara is not in a position to expect any support for its anti-terror campaign either from Iraq or Syria. Therefore, if such is required, Turkey must be prepared to conduct cross-border military operations along its south-east borders unilaterally . Having said this, it is also equally imperative that Turkey has to develop a two-track policy here with prospects of several benefits for all parties involved. On one hand, this approach would focus on maintaining capabilities and combat readiness at the highest levels should a need arises to carry out such operations effectively. On the other hand, Turkey must continue its efforts to seek ways of improving the relations with both Syria and Iraq in developing positive diplomatic grounds so that both countries would assume their above-mentioned political and legal responsibilities and obligations in a region-wide effort to combat terrorism. In an order of all available options, Turkey, as a first step towards adopting this policy, must resort to and re-table its “soft power” option which entails a long-neglected project that was developed in 2010 but has been gradually shelved since and is no longer an agenda issue currently.
Turkey possessed an important asset that would enhance its hand vis a vis its stance with Iraq in terms of utilizing its “soft power” option in the region. This asset is the possibility of the opening of a second border crossing at the Ovaköy location which is approximately 16 km. West of “Habur Gate” border crossing that currently serves as the only overland passage between Iraq and Turkey. The Turkish Foreign Ministry had already presented the idea of a Second Gate to the related authorities in Turkey on a number of occasions before. However, these proposals received persistent opposition, at the local level, due, at times, to economic arguments or by the intervening military or political actors on both sides of the border and this never got adopted. So much so that the last attempt was done following the much-debated vexed “independence referendum” whereby the Turkish government resolved to initiate the “Second Gate Project” immediately, a decision that was announced personally by Mr. Binali Yıldırım, the prime minister at the time but was never followed up for reasons still unknown.
Habur border gate opens directly into the IKRA territory. Incoming passengers and logistic traffic to Iraq passes through a corridor of about 90 km under the conjecturally changing rules, regulations and whim of administrative practices of the IKRA before they enter into the jurisdiction of Central Government in Baghdad about 5 km. away after the provincial town of Dohuk. It is widely known that this journey through the Iraqi Kurdish Region often gets quite cumbersome with the arbitrary and restrictive policies of the regional authorities. On the other hand, a second border crossing to be opened in Ovaköy on the Turkish border between the towns of Silop and Cizre and about 16 km. west of Habur would provide a short, approximately 4-5 km passage through the Iraqi Kurdish region before entering into the area that is controlled by the Baghdad central government. As such, one should not view the alternative second gate in Ovaköy as a routine border gate but in the context of a gateway to bring ease and safety to south-bound transportation and commercial routes all the way to the Gulf. This alternative route would also enable new prospects in introducing vast opportunities for Turkey in the politico-strategic field as well as leading to important economic and social benefits for the country (1). Lastly, this project should also be viewed as a pre-cautionary measure to contribute to Turkey’s security concerns emanating from the political and military developments in Sinjar region in Iraq and especially in Northern Syria as well as with respect to uncertain and unpredictable policy implementations of the U.S. Government pertaining to the region in general.
As a matter of fact, if the above-mentioned obstacles had been overcome and the second gate in Ovaköy had been commissioned when it was first proposed, it is quite probable that this move would have had a positive critical impact on the political weight of the Iraqi Turkish population (2) in the region at the time of drafting of the new constitution in Iraq. Yet, even today, it should be possible and a second border crossing to be effective in Ovaköy, this gate would provide direct connections with the South and facilitate more meaningful transaction with the Turkish community in the region irrespective of their sectarian origins for whom Turkey still does and should bear and maintain moral responsibilities. Furthermore, this would assure sustainable condition of living in their own native land with considerable level of comfort and sense of power and security.
The proposal for a second border crossing must, under any conditions, be addressed within the framework of a package deal. The access roads to the new border gate must be planned in such a way that a new multi-lane highway project must be designed and developed so that, after entering into Iraq from Ovaköy, it should track along the existing Kerkük-Yumurtalık pipeline, following the intermediate pump stations and the service roads for about 4-5 km. in the IKRA territory before joining provincial borders of the Ninova Governate under the exclusive jurisdiction the Baghdad central government. This road would cross 2 bridges to be built along the way and thereafter would pass through the ever-neglected town of Telafer in the East of Jebel-Sinjar without encountering any geophysical barriers and directly reach Mousul. At first stage, the security of the border controls and the areas this passage way would be established would be provided by the Turkish authorities. However, once a legally and contractually viable arrangement is reached within a long-term administrative model, Turkey would transfer the territorial control of the area along with the border controls to Ninova (Mousul) Governate authorities. This move, again as part of the package approach, would significantly increase Turkey’s profile with Baghdad, providing it with substantial political clout and expanded maneuver capabilities.
The project bears an important pre-condition to ensure a lasting strategic value for the whole region; the need for Turkey to access the Gulf Region and the Arab Peninsula through the shortest way possible; thus, to develop an infra-structure that would support the multi- dimensional nature of the new generation of relations to be established with Iraq and more specifically with Ninova and Anbar provinces.(3) This infra-structure should be enhanced by a railroad that would originate from Nusaybin at the Syrian border, bypassing Qamishli rail junction traversing over Cizre in Turkey, and upon entering Iraq joining the Iraqi National Railway Network system at Tel Kuchek. This “package approach” would be designed to include the necessary connections of the highway dimension that was described above and the railroad project with İskenderun and Mersin port terminals in the West on the Mediterranean. Consequently, the “Ovakoy Gate” would yield significant economic value for Turkey as well as its neighbors in the region while serving as an important policy instrument in Turkey’s capability to carry out its “soft-power” policies. This “mega-project,” to name it in the currently popular terminology, along with its unquestionable efforts on a global scale, would be bound to create a sustainable web of interdependencies and mutually beneficial relations among Turkey, Syria and Iraq. This new climate of collaboration and cohabitation would strongly strengthen political unity and territorial integrity of the respective regional actors, facilitating, also, smooth and more effective control of the region-wide sub-groups through economic incentives and the like.
It was noted earlier that economically driven concerns that underlay the rather cool and stand-offish attitudes towards the opening of a second border crossing over Ovaköy despite all the benefits of this project were apparently among the top reasons for the shelving of this proposal. Indeed, in spite of Ministry of Foreign Affairs` strong and persistent support of the project in question, staunch opponents at various quarters, often argued that the broadly structural initiatives would inflict “huge” and “unnecessary” burdens on the State. As a matter of fact, this line of argument serves merely as an excuse to play into the hands of those lobby groups, influential on both side of the border with economic and political stakes in maintaining the status quo in the region. In reality, a good part of the required infra-structure is already in place in Ovaköy and is conveniently positioned with its service roads and access points, both technically and topographically to be elevated to full operational capacity without excessive costs on the central budget. In any case, should this project be designed as part of a broader package that would reach out to Mediterranean Sea through İskenderun and Mersin port terminals, this approach would make financial concerns and budgetary constraints secondary to the expected value to be captured, thereby, nullifying the validity of “economic costs argument”. Successful realization of this project would substantially expand Turkey’s policy options and flexibilities in this geography to levels far greater than that which exist today; would provide new economic prospects for Turkey’s neighbors and their neighbors in the region; and, would promote Turkey’s “soft power” beyond regional scale onto the global level.
In conclusion, it is important to note that in formulating regional policies, it is imperative to take into account the socio-political, economic and trans-border anthropological characteristics of the Middle Eastern and East Mediterranean societies, their historical dynamics and affinities within global networks and integrate them into internally consistent and visionary programs.(4) So much so that policies reflecting ideological obsessions have proven unsustainable in recent history and have resulted in clear and painful failures as in the case of Syria. Shallow tactical maneuvers, misconstrued for actions of strategic depth, may produce short-term, superficial outcomes on the surface; yet, it must be clear by now that such would only be short-lived achievements. If the real objective is to build a lasting order based on international peace in the region, thereby, securing Turkey’s national security as well as regional stability, this can only be accomplished by a far-reaching vision with a broad perspective as has been described above.
Osman KORUTÜRK, Ambassador (retd.)
Selim KARAOSMANOĞLU, Ambassador (retd.)
(1) Emin Taha, the president of Foreign Economic Relations Council Turkey-Iraq Business Council, in a statement to the press on December 21, 2020, has pointed out that a second border gate in Ovaköy would increase Turkey’s exports to Iraq by % 50.
(2) The term “Iraqi Turks” has been used here as opposed to “Iraqi Turkomans” as the former is historically the correct use of the term.
(3) Once entering Iraq through Ovakoy and utilizing the existing Arar border crossing gate in Iraq, it would be possible to reach directly to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula without passing through the Syrian and Jordanian territories.
(4) If the railroad project that is described here is realized, it will, in a way, possible to re-activate the historic Berlin-Baghdad Railway Project through an under-water passage at the İstanbul Bosporus Strait.