Iraq on the Brink

Assad may be center stage, but keeping Iraq from falling apart is critical to maintaining America's relations with Turkey and the future of Kurds in Syria and Iran.

While Syria has the world’s attention, maintaining a teetering Iraq has become another defining issue for American-Turkish relations. And what happens in Syria, which is likely to experience all sorts of overt and covert foreign involvement, will deeply impact Iraq and Iran, especially if a Sunni-dominated government takes over in Damascus.

Both countries fear Iraq’s increasing sectarian turmoil could lead to the breakdown of the country or even regional conflict. That could revive Iran’s dwindling fortunes as well as become a major political headache for the Obama administration. For Turkey, turmoil in Iraq could lead to the realization of a long-standing but much less discussed Turkish nightmare: the establishment of an independent Kurdish state and its impact on Turkey’s restive Kurdish population.

It would be a political disaster for Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Despite their profound interest in a united Iraq, the capacity of Turkey, the United States and Iran to affect stability there is highly uncertain and declining. Importuning Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is necessary but of uncertain value. They need the Iraqi Kurds to help keep Iraq from splintering.

Turks, Kurds and Arabs

Turkey’s ambitious foreign-policy strategy of “zero problems” with neighbors has all but imploded. It was an impressive foreign-policy departure, made political and economic sense, and seemed to make headway early on. But the strategy was devoid of values until the Arab Spring caused a turnabout.

Today, Turkey faces a southern front subsumed with agonizing problems and mostly antagonistic to Ankara. It has openly become a strategic competitor with Iran and possibly with Iraq, given that its relations with the Maliki government have badly deteriorated over Turkey’s ill-disguised support of Iraq’s Sunni leaders. From Maliki’s perch, Turkey increasingly looks like the old Sunni Ottoman Empire throwing its weight around. Turkey supports the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, while Iran and Iraq back the Syrian strongman. At this point, the only success story of “zero-problems” diplomacy is the warming of relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq, which may play a critical role in whether Iraq remains united.

Turkey and the United States have spent decades in uneasy cooperation over Iraq. The Turkish public opposed involvement in both Gulf wars, but in 1990, President Turgut Ozal supported the war. At war’s end, Ozal stimulated the creation of the allied protected Kurdish area with a no-fly zone. Fearing that the anti-Saddam Kurdish protected area would generate an independent Kurdistan, Turkey tried isolating the area except mostly for humanitarian assistance. Complicating this issue up to now has been Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which finds sanctuary in the backwater of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Life changed with Erdogan’s AKP victory in 2002. After the Americans took over Iraq, the AKP gradually altered Turkey’s approach of isolating the Kurdish entity, instead viewing it as critical to Iraq’s unity and an excellent business partner. The turning point came in 2007 because of the surge and because of Ankara’s belief that the United States was willing to step up support for Turkey in its war against the PKK and rebuild Iraq as a barrier against Iran by bringing Sunnis back into the political game. Ankara calculated it would be better to act as the protector of the KRG than its adversary, despite its anger with the KRG over its unwillingness to move against the PKK. The result? Unprecedented economic development of the Kurdish region and important ties between Ankara and Erbil that contrast sharply with Turkey’s badly strained relations with Baghdad’s Shiite leader.

The KRG has benefited vastly from Turkey’s economic support. Despite their differences over matters such as whether the province of Kirkuk belongs in the Kurdish area, the KRG looks to Turkey as its main security ally, particularly as sectarian animosity in Iraq intensifies. The KRG still maintains good ties with Iran. Nevertheless, with American force withdrawal and U.S. unwillingness to provide security assurances, Iraqi Kurds are reexamining their ties to Iraq. All this is happening amidst the rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, the uncertainties of Syria, and the future of Kurds in Syria and Iran.

Kurdish leaders have already indicated their reluctance to participate in an Iraq beset by violent sectarian tensions. They have no love for Maliki and have refused so far to give up Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is wanted for murder. There are reports of KRG leaders and other prominent Kurds from neighboring countries getting together to reconsider their future in Iraq and collaboration with Kurds in Syria and Iran. The Iraqi Kurds, however, know that any precipitous move to leave Iraq would arouse the enmity of Sunnis and Shia as well as the United States and Turkey. An American-Iranian war could offer another enticement to the Kurds to rethink their position.

Turkey and Iran

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