By Kemal Avci
Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Jusice and Development Party (AKP) and a key advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said it has become clear for Ankara “that Iraq has practically become divided into three parts.” In an interview with Rudaw, Celik placed blame for the unfolding crisis in Iraq squarely on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the “sectarian policies by which he marginalized the Sunnis.”
Sounding pessimistic over developments in Iraq, where rebels are marching on Baghdad to overthrow Maliki’s Shiite-led government, Celik denied accusations that Turkey had ever aided the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is involved in the Iraq fighting. “What we see now is the absence of authority in Iraq,” Celik said. “It is unfortunate that Iraq became a second Syria.” Commenting on ties between the autonomous Kurdistan Region and Turkey – Erbil’s largest trade partner and arguably its closest ally -- Celik vowed: “We will continue to develop our relationship” despite Baghdad’s disapproval of growing ties, which include large cooperation over oil exports that Baghdad has opposed.
Rudaw spoke to Celik in Ankara. Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
What we see now is the absence of authority in Iraq,
Rudaw: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has controlled Mosul and the onslaught continues, while the Turkish consulate in Mosul has been occupied. How do you evaluate the situation and what do you think the goals of the ISIS are?
Huseyin Celik: We are certainly worried about the safety of our citizens in the Turkish consulate of Mosul and condemn this action. We hope our citizens will return without being harmed. But I would like to comment on how Iraq is viewed from Turkey. Undoubtedly, what’s going on in Iraq is worrying for Turkey as a neighbor. We have strong economic relations with Iraq. It has become clear for us that Iraq has practically become divided into three parts.
The path has become clear for the creation of a federal region or a state system and this is internationally acceptable. However, the central government of Iraq has been absent. Unfortunately, Maliki’s sectarian policies have brought Iraq to the brink of collapse. The occupation of Iraq by the United States and then abandoning it has created a great chaos. Maliki’s government came to power amidst this chaos and it was extremely weak and incompetent. He implemented sectarian policies by which he marginalized the Sunnis and did not give them a chance to take part in the political process.
When people are denied access to express themselves within a democratic political framework, the radical groups will take the initiative. The ISIS and the other radical groups are the product of such policies.
As you know a short while ago parliamentary elections were held in Iraq and Maliki’s list was the winner in the elections, but he cannot form a new government without resorting to a coalition. This means that Iraq is practically without a government. Aside from that, the Iraqi parliament is made of around 10 small political blocs. In general, there is a weak political process in Iraq.
Our brothers in northern Iraq also held parliamentary elections. It is true that the government has not been formed yet, but the groups have agreed to appoint Nechirvan Barzani as the prime minister and Qubad Talabani as his deputy prime minister. In this aspect northern Iraq is a stable region with a progressive booming economy and it has very good ties with Turkey. As friends of -- and brothers of -- northern Iraq, or let’s say Iraqi Kurdistan, we are very happy with the continuous progress there. Seventy percent of our economic transaction with Iraq is done through Iraqi Kurdistan.
When people are denied access to express themselves within a democratic political framework, the radical groups will take the initiative.
It is obvious that the Iraqi government is upset with the economic ties between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan and tries to hinder them. But we will continue to develop our relationship.
Five more gates (border crossings) will be opened between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future. Our ties will progress at all levels after opening these new gates. I believe the Iraqi central government does not like this, either.
However, Iraqi Kurdistan is a federal region, and there could exist another federal region (Sunni). But, a government that can protect the territorial integrity of Iraq is important for Iraqi-Turkish ties.
Rudaw: You said that Iraq has practically been divided into three parts. Don’t you think that this division will deepen further if the ISIS creates a de facto state in Mosul and Tikrit?
Huseyin Celik: What we see now is the absence of authority in Iraq. No one knows who is the enemy and who is a friend. There are also rumors that Turkey assisted the ISIS. But I would like to emphasize that Turkey wants the removal of the oppressive regime in Syria more than anything else.
We are not hiding our desire to topple Bashar al-Asad, because we believe that he represents the authority of a minority that wants to rule the majority through force. He is hurting the Syrian people for this reason. But Turkey only supports the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The ISIS is fighting against the FSA, against the Nusrah Front and against the Democratic Unity Party (PYD). Hence, the rumors accusing Turkey of assisting the ISIS is ridiculous and laughable, because we only support the FSA.
Rudaw: Do you think that the Middle East is on the brink of a sectarian war?
Huseyin Celik: There are some people who wish this war to happen, but our hope is to never see this happening. I would like to draw your attention to the statements of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran says that they will get involved in the war in Iraq if Najaf and Karbala were threatened. You all have witnessed the intense fighting in Syria. Iraq has also become engulfed in this fighting. The Iraqi army has practically gone offline. The Peshmargas are controlling some regions in the north and there is a state and government authority in those regions. But unfortunately the Iraqi army has disintegrated.
There is no information about the regions evacuated by the Iraqi army and which are controlled by armed groups. Imagine what happens if Iran got involved!
It was greatly unfortunate that Iraq got occupied and then abandoned by the United States of America (US), before the normalization of the situation on the ground. As a result we see groups like the ISIS have surfaced, and this is a great misfortune for the region and the Islamic region.
We are not hiding our desire to topple Bashar al-Asad,
Rudaw: Is the ISIS alone or supported by other forces?
Huseyin Celik: We have to know the ISIS is not a state, and they cannot buy weapons with their own pocket money. Let’s put the weapons they seized in Mosul aside, and think about their number, which exceeds thousands, and how they can provide food and transportation for them. I do not want to talk about the mind and the power behind the ISIS. It is important to be wise at such circumstances. It is unfortunate that Iraq became a second Syria.
Rudaw: What message does the ISIS want to send to Turkey through abducting the members of the Turkish consulate in Mosul?
Huseyin Celik: We can say that the ISIS has resorted to the Turkish consulate because it is the only foreign representative in Mosul, through which they can send their voice to the world. They would have attacked other foreign representatives had they existed in Mosul. They want to make the world hear their voice through this action.
Rudaw: The Turkish media have been talking about sending Turkish forces to Mosul and Kirkuk, according to the Ankara agreement of 1928. What do you say about this?
Huseyin Celik: Turkey does not have expansionist and imperialist ambitions. Iraq is our neighbor and its borders are obvious. We respect those borders and support protecting them. Some people might like to write scenarios, but the Turkish government does not act according scenarios written by other people.
Rudaw: If Iraqi Kurdistan declared independence in the light of the current situation, what would Turkey’s reaction be?
Huseyin Celik: The Kurds of Iraq can decide where to live and under what title they want to live. Turkey does not decide for them. The people of Iraqi Kurdistan are our friends and we helped them in all aspects. We will continue to help them and we will never become their rivals. So if Iraq could not solve its internal problems and the practical division of Iraq that we mentioned earlier, and this became an official division, then the people living there would have the right to self-determination like other nations. Of course, our hope for Iraq is to remain united, but at the same time we hope that all sides will respect the human rights, their democratic aspirations and the achievements of the federal units. Turkey will always support Iraqi Kurdistan whenever they have such aspirations.
Rudaw: How can Iraq overcome this crisis?
Turkey does not have expansionist and imperialist ambitions. Iraq is our neighbor and its borders are obvious.
Huseyin Celik: It depends on PM Maliki. If he really wants to become the prime minister (again), then he should treat everyone equally and stand at the same distance from everyone. He must not differentiate between the Shiites and the Sunnis. He must not differentiate between the north and the south. The solution for this crisis is clear.
You remember when I wanted to visit his Excellency Barzani (in Erbil) in order to attend a number of ceremonies. Baghdad did not give our private plane permission to land, so we came with an ordinary plane. This incident is enough to understand the nature of the Iraqi central government.