2012-04-04

An uncomfortable tension between Turkey and Iraq

Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in December, Turkish-Iraqi relations have run a worrisome course.

By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 04/04/12

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Turkey's decision to support rivals of Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in that country's election two years ago has led to a noticeable cooling of relations between the once-friendly neighbors, punctuated by sharp exchanges between Maliki and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

  • A once friendly relationship between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has deteriorated over the past several months. [Reuters]

    A once friendly relationship between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has deteriorated over the past several months. [Reuters]

  • Erdogan shakes hands with a worker, on his way to meet Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf on March 29, 2011. [Reuters]

    Erdogan shakes hands with a worker, on his way to meet Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf on March 29, 2011. [Reuters]

  • Turkish troops and tanks at an observation point in the mountains of the northern Iraq, near Dohuk. [Reuters]

    Turkish troops and tanks at an observation point in the mountains of the northern Iraq, near Dohuk. [Reuters]

A harsher tone has been evident since January, when Erdogan warned Maliki over the standoff with Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who has been accused of running a terrorist death squad. Facing arrest in Baghdad, Hashemi fled to Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region.

Erdogan urged Maliki, who leads the Shiite bloc, to resolve ethnic and sectarian tensions to avoid the reversal of stability and security gains on the heels of the US withdrawal from Iraq in late December.

Maliki lashed out at what he deems unwarranted Turkish interference in the internal affairs of Iraq. However, Erdogan has argued "it is impossible for us to remain silent" on policies that could lead to sectarian clashes in Iraq.

Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi affairs analyst, traces the problems to Turkey's support for Maliki's rivals in the March 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections.

While Turkey's previous policy had been to avoid taking sides in the inter-sectarian squabbles of Iraqi politics, in the 2010 parliamentary elections Turkey supported the Iraqiya list, an umbrella political bloc of Sunni and secular groups led by the secular Shiite Iyad Allawi. Vice President Hashemi is a key Sunni figure in the bloc.

"Maliki does not seem to have forgotten that the Turkish government was close to his main rival, Iraqiya, during the last [March 2010 parliamentary] elections," Ali told SES Türkiye.

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group, says it was "a strategic error of the first order for Turkey to have abandoned its policy of keeping equidistant from all political actors in Iraq."

When Maliki came to power, Hiltermann says "he unsurprisingly turned his ire on Ankara, which had tried to thwart his ambition."

"This dynamic has been compounded in 2011 by Ankara's open embrace of the Syrian opposition, which Maliki understands -- in typical sectarian terms -- as the support by a Sunni power [Turkey] of a mostly Sunni alternative to the current [Shia Alawite] regime in Damascus," he told SES Türkiye.

"Maliki feels threatened by the prospect that Syria's Muslim Brotherhood or worse, its Salafis, will come to power, thereby giving Iraq's increasingly marginalised Sunni Arabs a second wind," he added.

Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said Maliki dislikes the increasingly explicit references to sectarian identity in Turkish political rhetoric on Iraq.

"Supporting the Iraqiya coalition, which Turkey did in the 2010 parliamentary election, is in itself not sectarian," he told SES Türkiye. "But when Turkey is making political demands with reference to the Sunni community in Iraq, this is certainly seen as sectarian by Maliki."

However, Ankara's policy might not be explicitly sectarian, so much as it is driven by a worry that the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Maliki could ultimately split Iraq apart. Turkey's primary concern remains Iraq's territorial integrity, in order to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

Baghdad is deeply suspicious of Turkey's influence in the autonomous Kurdish region, where it arguably has more of a presence than the central government. To thwart an independent Kurdish state, Turkey has brought the region under its wings, engaging it economically and politically, especially since 2008.

But officials in Ankara don't see the government's policy as "a reason for the Iraq tension," arguing "this is all about the sectarian and political tensions among the Iraqi leaders."

"The fact that Turkey is trying to build a good relationship not only with Baghdad but also with Erbil, is totally obvious," Abdulmuttalip Ozbek, a former deputy of the ruling AKP, who until last summer chaired the Turkey-Iraq Friendship Group, told SES Türkiye.

"We need and trust [President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud] Barzani and his team due their contribution to peace in northern Iraq, but that doesn't mean that we're ignoring Baghdad," he said.

Ozbek says that Turkey and Iraq have strengthened their economic and political co-operation. "That's our main common goal," he said.

Growing economic relations remain a bright spot, acting as glue holding the two neighbours together. In 2011, Iraq became Turkey's second largest trading partner with total trade volume of $12 billion. Oil and gas remain an important area of future co-operation, as Turkey is a key transit state for Bagdad's gas and oil export strategy.

"For now, both Maliki and Erdogan seem to realise that it is critical for business to be immune from political tensions," Ali says.

To set political relations back on a positive track, confidence building measures are now needed.

Hiltermann suggests Turkey and Iraq could restore confidence by continuing the High Level Strategic Co-operation Council signed in 2008, and work closely to implement 48 agreements concluded in 2009.

Yet it will be a challenge, he adds, because once trust is broken, it is rebuilt only with the greatest difficulty and following a significant passage of time.

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