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.

Turkey has been competing with Iran for business contracts and political influence in Iraq by supplying money and advice to Sunni leaders to improve its political prospects. Maliki has become increasingly unhappy with this political interference and publicly censured Turkey’s ambassador. And the recent arrest warrant for Vice President Hashimi, a leading member of the Iraqiya Party, which has close relations with Turkey, set off a series of strong accusatory statements between Erdogan and Maliki. Senior Turkish officials deny that their trouble with Maliki is a Sunni-Shiite issue and claim with some justification that Malik is uncompromising and power hungry. While Turkey often plays down its Sunni character, Erdogan has taken a characteristically personal role in policy toward Iraq, and his rhetoric seems colored by his world view as a pious Sunni Muslim. He made clear that if sectarian conflict overtakes Iraq, Turkey will not keep silent. Combined with Maliki’s “provocations” against the Sunnis, the escalating tension between Erdogan and Maliki has deeply eroded Turkey’s influence with Shiite leaders.

Despite pledges of brotherhood between Turkey and Iran, the reality is more competitive than either side advertises. Turkey’s unending desire to step back into the diplomatic ring for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program does not reflect trust between Ankara and Tehran, but it is Turkey’s way of balancing three concerns: the economic impact on Turkey of sanctions on Iran, fears of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and the real possibility of war.

Economic competition in Iraq has escalated. The Turks have expanded their business ties with Baghdad and the South, both dominated by Shia with ties to Iran. Thus the displeasure of Baghdad and Tehran over Turkish “interference” may also be fueled by Turkey’s dynamic trade and investment efforts.

Iran and Turkey also support opposing blocs in Iraqi politics, and Erdogan’s war of words with Maliki is as much about Iran. The Syrian debacle has furthered the tensions between Turkey, Maliki’s Iraq and Iran. These tensions will grow. Erdogan’s once-private hope of personally helping bridge the Sunni-Shiite gulf has proved elusive.

Salvaging Iraq

Keeping Iraq together is no picnic. There will be ups and downs. Should Assad fall in Syria, the repercussions in Iran and Iraq will be great—and could cut in uncertain ways. For the moment, Iraq’s sectarian tensions appear to have eased. Sunni leaders have agreed to return to the government, but the fundamental issues of control, governance and confidence remain unresolved. A federal structure for Iraq is unacceptable to Maliki. Nor have the Kurds been able to work out their differences with Arab Iraq over where Kurdistan starts, who controls Kirkuk and energy ownership. The Americans never were able to do the trick.

The United States and Turkey must help find a way to preserve Iraq’s government and territorial integrity. Whatever his imperfections, it is hard to envision continuing Iraqi unity without Maliki, certainly for the nine months before U.S. elections. The United States remains in contact with all the parties, particularly Maliki, but has struggled to influence events since its military withdrawal.

Turkey has little influence over Maliki, but like the United States, it has strong relations with the Kurds, the critical third piece of Iraq, who have tried to calm the situation between the Sunni and Shia by proposing a national conference to address some of Iraq’s major issues. Turkey has followed this up by sending an invitation to Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite religious leaders to meet in Istanbul at the end of February in an attempt to bridge their differences over Iraq’s future. Prospects for both are not promising. In any event, Turkey will press Erbil to avoid any move toward Kurdish independence.

The United States will continue to pressure Maliki to find some better basis for sectarian political cooperation. The Kurds are crucial to this difficult effort. Of course many Kurds would be tempted to leave Iraq if the present situation were to worsen, but that would meet all sorts of resistance within Iraq and from the United States and Turkey—not to mention Iran. The Kurds need to help tie up the loose ends of the Hashimi matter, which has dragged on for many weeks. Then they should move on to being something of an honest broker between Shia and Sunnis. The Kurds are more likely to play this role if they feel properly supported: the United States and Turkey must publicly endorse Kurdish efforts at dialogue and compromise while privately reassuring them of the U.S. and Turkish commitment to their security. Speed is essential to overcoming the present impasse before the returns from Syria are in.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Jessica Sims is a research associate at The Century Foundation.