An ambiguous turmoil awaits Iraq–and its neighbors–after Mam Jalal’s stroke.
By Egemen Bezci
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had a stroke on 18th of December, 2012. Currently, President Talabani’s health condition is still at a critical phase as he is transported to Germany for further medical attention. Yet it is already clear that 79-year-old Iraqi Kurdish statesman will no longer be able to serve effectively as Iraq’s president. The power calculations within and outside Iraq will be reviewed for the post-Talabani period. It is difficult to estimate how the power relations will be explicitly re-shaped after Mam Jalal (a name used by Iraqis that means ‘Uncle Jalal’), however, there is not doubt that his absence will have serious policy implications for Turkey, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, America and Iran.
Mam Jalal had been recently overwhelmed by the escalating conflict between Prime Minister Nuori al Maliki and regional leader Masoud Barzani, with Jalal acting as a balancing power between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG). Mam Jalal’s wife Hero states that Jalal Talabani was in sorrow while managing the conflict between Maliki and Barzani over the problems on sovereignty rights, which almost brought the North and Central government into an armed conflict. Thus, without any Mam Jalal that champions Iraqi territorial integrity via balance of power politics, the power struggle in Iraq may lead to the KRG’s violent secession from Baghdad in the near future.
Mam Jalal was also the anchorman of US policies in the region, and a counter weight against Iranian influence in Iraq via Maliki. With the loss of Mam Jalal, it will be difficult for Iraq to elect a new president, and, moreover, it will be nearly impossible to elect a pro-American president. Therefore, it is plausible to argue that, under such circumstances, the US may compromise with Iranian leadership on a candidate that would not ignite violent turmoil in Iraq. American decision-makers would be hard pressed to choose between compromising with Iran over the next president of Iraq and the sovereignty rights of the central Iraqi government, or watching Iraq dissolve and oil prices dramatically increase due to the ensuing chaos. The decision will test the foreign policy direction of the recently re-elected President Obama and incoming Secretary of State John Kerry.
Mam Jalal’s fatal illness will also have critical policy implications for Turkey. First, Turkey has diminished relations with the Maliki government. The reasons behind these diminished relations are Turkey’s power struggle with Iran over Iraq, Ankara’s expanding relations with Barzani, and Turkey’s decision to grant asylum to Tariq Hashimi, Iraq’s former Vice President. In a recent incident, the Iraqi government did not even let Turkish Minister of Energy Taner Yıldız’s plane land in Erbil for a meeting with Kurdish officials. Relations between Turkey and Iraq are not currently pleasant, only Mam Jalal was preventing the relations from worsening further. Without Talabani’s acting as a mediator between Ankara and Baghdad, there is nothing will to keep both governments from engaging in a more aggressive foreign policy towards each other.
Secondly, Mam Jalal had also been acting as a mediator between Ankara and the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) for possible disarmament of PKK and a permanent solution to the Kurdish question. However, Ankara has remained acutely aware that Mam Jalal, a left-wing Kurdish politician, would not desire a complete banishment of the PKK, but rather would keep the PKK at a certain level of activity that wouldn’t negatively affect Turkish-Iraqi relations. Mam Jalal’s stroke means Ankara has lost one of the critical pillars in its Kurdish policy. The importance of Mam Jalal in Turkey’s Middle East policy could be even read in Prime Minister Erdogan’s immediate call for Turkish medical assistance to Talabani. Ankara was not prepared for an unexpected illness out of Talabani, and what comes out from a post-Talabani Iraq will negatively impact Ankara on multiple levels.
Mam Jalal is one of the few remaining of Cold War-era politicians in the Middle East. He mastered the technique of power-balance, thus preventing direct clashes between competing forces in and around Iraq. Mam Jalal’s unexpected illness and his exit from Iraqi politics will likely accelerate the disintegration of Iraq’s territorial unity. America and Turkey are now in disadvantageous situations, as both countries wish to see a stable Iraq that is integrated into the region. A new round of power struggles has begun in Iraq, and this time it will be even more costly for all involved.
Egemen Bezci is a Senior Editor at The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Creative Commons