BACKGROUND: During Iraq’s March 2010 national elections, Turkey lent support to the more secular Iraqi National Movement bloc led by Ayad Allawi rather than the Shiite-dominated State of Law Coalition led al-Nouri Maliki. As revealed by WikiLeaks, Turkish officials view al-Maliki less as an Iranian puppet than as an ambitious strongman who has exploited the postwar weakness of competing Iraqi political and social institutions to accrue and exercise near dictatorial powers.
Prime Minister Al-Maliki and his allies disliked Ankara’s interference in their domestic affairs, but Turkey’s financial and other support to al-Maliki’s opponents was considerably less than that provided by some Persian Gulf monarchies. And the pressure of Turkey, the United States, and other foreign governments during the coalition formation talks did succeed in inducing the Iraqi rivals to form what looked to be a nominally multi-party government that on paper was to distribute power between al-Maliki, Allawi, and other Iraqi leaders.
Now al-Maliki has exposed the fractures within the Iraqi government and shattered the facade of unity by seeking to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab official in the Iraqi government, on charges of running a terrorist death squad. Al-Maliki then threatened Kurdish leaders after they provided al-Hashemi, who enjoys good ties with Turkey, with sanctuary in the territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial in Baghdad.
Alarmed by the prospects of renewed civil war and Iraq’s possible break up, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called al-Maliki by phone on January 10, 2012, and urged him to reconcile with his colleagues in order to avoid the “irreversible chaos” that would result from renewed ethnic and religious wars among Iraqis, which could spread to encompass other Muslim countries. In response, al-Maliki told the U.S.-sponsored al-Hurra Television network on January 13 that, "Turkey is playing a big role that might bring disaster and civil war to the region and Turkey will suffer because it has different sects and ethnicities.”
The two governments summoned each other’s ambassadors to complain about their respective country’s behaviors. Later several rockets were fired at the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. No one was hurt and no one claimed responsibility, but the Turks naturally suspect the incident was a warning orchestrated by Maliki’s forces.
IMPLICATIONS: Although Turkish policy-makers opposed the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, they have not welcomed the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq, completed mid-December 2011. They share concerns in the Persian Gulf, the United States, and elsewhere that the new Iraqi government and military is too weak to govern the fissiparous Iraqi state effectively. Turkish policy-makers want an Iraqi regime that can keep “peace at home, peace in the world” and not fall under the control of another foreign government, in this case Iran. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Persian Gulf states consider Turkey a useful ally for promoting moderate Sunni causes in Iraq against either Sunni extremists belonging to al-Qaeda or Shiite militants backed by Iran. Turkey’s relations with many Arab governments have indeed improved in recent years.
Turkey also has its complaints, namely that security along the Iraq-Turkish border has been declining and that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been exploiting this opening to intensify attacks against Turkey. Dozens of Turkish security personnel died in the summer of 2011. On October 29, 2011, the PKK killed 24 Turkish soldiers, and wounded many more, in an ambush in Hakkari province. In response, around 10,000 Turkish security personnel, including elite special force units in addition to regular conscripts, engaged in a major military operation in the border region against the PKK. Although most Turkish forces stayed inside Turkish territory, some 2,000 troops crossed into northern Iraq to search and destroy PKK units and facilities. Turkish President Abdullah Gül told visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on December 16, 2011 that Turkey feared its border security situation would worsen now that all U.S. troops were leaving Iraq.
Ankara has sought to minimize its costs and rely on Iraqi forces to deal with the PKK fighters inside Iraq. The leaders of both the Iraqi central government and the KRG in northern Iraq have denounced the PKK attacks and not resisted Turkish military operations on their territory, but they lack the means to eliminate the PKK forces in Iraq. In their conflicts with Baghdad, Turkish policy makers have a surprising ally in Iraq’s Kurds. Turkey enjoys considerable support and influence in northern Iraq due to its deep cultural and especially business presence there. Whereas previously Ankara refused to deal with the KRG, now Turkish officials cooperate fully with it.
Ankara’s conflicts with the Iraqi and Syrian governments will likely worsen Turkey’s ties with Iran, the main foreign ally of both regimes. At the extreme, Turkey could find itself leading a bloc of West-leaning Sunni states against Iran and its Shiite-dominated proxies. Such an Islamic cold war would still promote further divisions among Middle Eastern Muslims as their governments gravitate toward one pole or the other.
CONCLUSIONS: If they put behind them their recent spat, Iraqi policy makers would recognize that Turkey could be Iraq’s best friend in a volatile region. Iran and Syria want, if not a failed Iraqi state, then at least one that is so weak that it cannot challenge their regional ambitions. They would also like to minimize the revival of Iraq’s oil production since Iraqi oil (and gas) directly competes with their own hydrocarbon exports.
For example, Iranians prefer that Iraq remain a divided and weak state that cannot challenge Tehran’s quest for primacy in the Persian Gulf region by regaining its economic and military power. They further want to see a subservient Shiite coalition ruling Baghdad that would not resist Iranian political and economic control over southern Iraq. Such a recipe is primed for indefinite sectarian tensions and possible civil war and state partition.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the GCC governments want Iraq to be stable so as not to export regional chaos, prosperous in order to buy their goods and nonaggressive so as to not threaten them again. At the same time, they want Iraq not only to possess sufficient military power to balance Iran’s regional influence, but also sufficiently independent of Iranian control to have the willingness to do so. GCC capabilities to pursue these goals are limited, however, and have been further diluted by their governments’ need to devote attention to the Arab Spring disorders that threaten their own countries. Iraq’s popularly elected government is a double source of tension since popular democracy in principle challenges the monarchical system prevalent in most GCC countries while its application in Iraq produces governments with a strong Shiite influence that encourages the Shiites in the other GCC states to make their own demands.
In contrast, Turkey’s interests require a strong but democratic Iraqi state ruled by a coalition of political forces that can promote domestic stability, national independence, and regional security. These conditions would favor a revival of Iraqi hydrocarbon production, which would benefit Turkey as a key transit state for Iraqi oil and gas, and achieve strong economic growth, which would benefit Turkish investors and traders. Turkey wants Iraq to have a strong military capable of repressing Kurdish separatists as well as warding off foreign predation from Iran and Syria.
Nonetheless, Ankara has wisely sought try to keep its interventions in Iraq and recently in Syria low-key. If Turkey is seen predominately as a Sunni Muslim patron seeking to marginalize Iraq’s long-repressed Shiite majority or empower Syria’s long-oppressed oppressed Sunni majority, it will more directly confront Iran, which Turkey has been seeking to avoid. Even in Iraq, a more explicitly sectarian approach would be counterproductive since most Iraqi Shiite and Iranian animosity is focused on Saudi Arabia and other patrons of Sunni extremism. Turkey would further buttress its position in Iraq and Syria by collectively addressing the Kurdish concerns shared by all three countries as well establishing an acceptable framework for managing the region’s water assets resources in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".