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
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.
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.