Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will make his long-awaited trip to Ankara next week, working to smooth over the strain in bilateral relations resulting from the ongoing presence of PKK rebels in northern Iraq, followed by a second stop in Iran.
The Iraqi leader will lead a delegation to Turkey on Tuesday and to Iran on Wednesday "to discuss the bilateral relations between Iraq and these two countries in the political, economic and security fields," according to spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
Dabbagh was light on specifics regarding the topics for discussion, but the expectation that the he would discuss the PKK in Ankara could not be avoided. "There will be calls for efforts to solve this matter. The Iraqi government will ease the Turkish worry. We want relations with our neighbour on its best levels," Dabbagh said.
Erdogan has indicated US representatives may attend the meeting, implying that the encounter could be under the aegis of the trilateral security commission established to provide a venue for discussion on the Kurdish issue, though the State Department has not confirmed planned attendance.
Maliki reportedly plans to take a number of top officials in his delegation, but one faction certain to not be represented is leadership from the Kurdish regional government. Though the Iraqi government has tried to push KRG representation as a part of the trilateral security apparatus, Erdogan has refused to allow their participation at negotiations.
While Turkish obstinance on this point can be understood, it does create an obstacle for efficient progress.
Ilnur Cevik writes about how the Iraqis could be handle this problem, though his solution would still require an indirect conduit to the Iraqi Kurds in the KRG.
This deficiency could be overcome if Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is included in the Maliki delegation. Maliki was to have come here with five ministers including the oil minister and a Sunni Arab state minister in charge of foreign relations. But when the Sunni Arabs quit the cabinet Maliki reportedly decided to bring Zebari to Ankara with him.
If this happens then Zebari, who is a prominent Kurd from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the uncle of Massoud Barzani, could be on hand to take charge of the security file. Zebari is highly experienced in dealing with the Turkish government and the military and has been privy to the PKK file for nearly two decades.
Even with Zebari's long experience and family ties, a satisfying resolution to the two countries' bilateral disagreements would seem a long shot.
It's not likely the Turkish military would follow through on its threats to invade Iraqi territory, but the constant low-grade mortar campaign against training camps and villages along the border could continue indefinitely. The central government in Baghdad could not publicly assent to a serious crackdown on PKK activities in northern Iraq without risking a rebellion from the KRG, but ignoring the mass of Turkish troops on the border would be equally unwise.
A column Monday in the Washington Post alleged that the US had been developing plans for covert assistance by American Special Forces, who were reportedly to work with the Turkish Army to carry out operations against the PKK. If there were serious covert planning in the works, they may have been scuttled by columnist Robert Novak's love for publicly revealing classified information.
"In Washington's politics, this is called 'blocking leak.' When certain individuals or groups want to prevent something secret from being carried out, they leak it to the press, and it's effectively killed," Bülent Alirıza, director of Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC, told the Turkish Daily News.
The buzz around DC concerns who leaked to Novak. Most suspicion falls on Congressional members briefed on the program by undersecretary of defense Eric Edelman, who may have thought the endeavor an unwise US policy choice. But the more interesting theory is that the Pentagon never intended to cooperate with the Turkish army, but committed to do so for the sake of friendly relations, and then implicated Congress in leaking the "plans" in order to quash the operation they never intended to undertake.
Only Novak knows who wanted to suppress the possibility of US-Turkish covert operations against the PKK, but the topic of future cooperation will likely be an item for discussion in Ankara next week. Maliki's delegation will be prepared with rhetoric on Iraqi hopes for regional friendships, but is not in a position to order action against the PKK. If the trilateral commission reaches agreement on a serious campaign against the PKK, the public will probably only learn about it when someone decides to leak.