BACKGROUND: The immediate target of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anger is Turkey’s decision to give refuge to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who enjoys close ties with many Turkish leaders. Al-Maliki has sought to arrest al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni official in the Iraqi government, on charges of running a terrorist death squad against Iraqi officials, the security forces, and Shiite pilgrims. The feuding extended to encompass the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) gave al-Hashemi refuge on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial in Baghdad. KRG leader Masoud Barzani, who enjoys good relations with Turkish leaders, has also become alarmed by al-Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies and is striving to enhance the KRG’s autonomy from Baghdad. Al-Hashemi then visited his Sunni backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar before arriving in Turkey on April 9 and taking up indefinite residence in a luxury apartment in Istanbul, where he continues to denounce Maliki while undergoing medical treatment and enjoying round-the-clock police protection and elite patronage.
Even a recent Interpol Red Notice has not flustered the Turkish government. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ insisted that, "We will not extradite someone who we have supported since the very beginning," Al-Hashemi has denied the charges and his backers in Turkey agree that he would not receive a fair trial in Baghdad under the al-Maliki regime, so he is being tried in absentia. Erdoğan said that Hashemi has initiated an appeal process with Interpol and that, "We gave him all kinds support on this issue and we will continue to do so."
At the same time, Turkey has also been giving growing support to the Sunni insurgents seeking to overthrow the regime in Syria, which is backed by al-Maliki and Iran. The insistence of Erdoğan and others that Assad must relinquish power due to his human rights atrocities can hardly appeal to al-Maliki, whose opponents have accused him of violating their own civil rights and whose main Shiite backers consider themselves victims of oppression and atrocities at the hands of the earlier Sunni regime in Iraq.
For his part, al-Maliki is accusing Turkey of not showing “respect” and “becoming a hostile country.” The U.S. government has thus far declined to intervene in the case, though Republicans in Congress have attacked the administration for dropping the ball on Iraq.
Ironically, the split between the governments of Turkey and Iraq has occurred against the background of a general deepening of ties between the two nations. Trade and commerce between the two has risen as the markets in Syria and Iran have been impeded by civil strife and sanctions. Iraq is now Turkey’s second-ranking trading partner, and could rise even further as its oil exports continue to rise. Meanwhile, Turkish investment in Iraq continues to grow, and more than half of the foreign firms now in Iraq are Turkish-owned.
IMPLICATIONS: A mixture of defensive and offensive motives are driving Turkish policy toward Iraq. The defensive consideration is the conviction among Turkish leaders that al-Maliki’s divisive policies, designed to weaken his rivals for power and rally Shiite partisans behind him, is leading Iraq back towards sectarian civil war. They fear that renewed confrontation could undermine Turkey’s economic interests in Iraq, present Ankara with yet another humanitarian crisis on its border, and undermine Turkey’s carefully crafted policy of containing Kurdish nationalism in Iraq within tightly constrained limits.
Another defensive goal of Turkey is to keep Iranian influence in Iraq limited. Although Ankara has sought to develop better ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority, Turkey has generally sought to balance Tehran’s use of some Iraqi Shiites as its main local proxies by supporting various Sunni and Kurdish leaders in Iraq. Ankara does not want to wage a proxy battle with Iran on Iraqi soil, but to ensure that a coalition government rules Baghdad in which Turkish interests are represented. Turkish leaders also want to ensure that neighboring Kurdistan is governed by leaders that will take Turkey’s economic and especially security interests into account. Al-Maliki naturally resents what he sees as Turkish efforts to contain his power and divide and rule parts of Iraq.
But Turkish ambitions have grown during the past year of Arab upheavals and now extend to making the Middle East a zone of democratic states. Although neoconservatism remains out-of-fashion in Washington, with the Obama administration largely discarding the democratization rhetoric of the preceding administration, the AKP in Ankara has been presenting itself as the life force that will help guide democratic transformations in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Al-Maliki’s harsh rhetoric appears partly motivated by his suspicions that the United States and various Arab governments are plotting against him and using Turkey as their local champion. His rhetoric about Turkey sharply escalated after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed their unease at the situation in Iraq in a February 13, 2012, joint press conference.
Clinton stressed that it was important “that the Iraqi Government be an inclusive one in which all Iraqis believe that they have a stake in the future of a united Iraq.” Clinton went on to add that “the foreign minister and I had a good discussion about Iraq and how we can work together to strengthen their democracy, help to settle political differences between various factions.” She pointedly added that, “We encourage Turkey to continue to play an important role in trying to reach out to Baghdad, to many different personalities within the political system, and we’ve encouraged other nations in the region to do the same. We think Turkey has played a very constructive role. ..We share the concern about the need to demonstrate unequivocally a commitment to an inclusive Iraqi Government that represents all Iraqis.”
Davutoğlu then said that “Iraq is the backbone of the stability in our region. If there is no stability in Iraq, there cannot be stability in our region. We have been always saying Iraq is like a small Middle East. We have all sectarian, ethnic communities, religious communities in the Middle East we have in Iraq.” But Davutoğlu went on to insist that, “The welfare of all Iraqis, regardless of their ethnic or sectarian background, that is the only demand of Turkey.... We see all Iraqis as our eternal neighbors, brothers and sisters. Their welfare is our welfare. If they have any problem, any pain, it is us, we feel the pain.” Davutoğlu added that the Iraqi constitution requires power sharing among its communities and that Turkey considers that principle essential for the “success of the Iraqi democracy,” adding that, “If there is a successful Iraqi democracy, that will be a good model for other countries as well.”
CONCLUSIONS: Many in Washington believe that Turkey is well positioned to counter Iranian influence and Islamist extremism in the Middle East. Americans would also welcome the advent of genuinely liberal democratic governments in a region notorious for its opposition to such ideas. Insofar as the democratic peace theory is a universal principle of international relations, Turkey would benefit from having a more benign environment, if not necessarily zero problems with its neighbors should democracy spread in neighboring countries.
Iraq in particular is seen as a country in which Ankara can act as Washington’s partner and sometimes its proxy. But, as the United States has repeatedly learned, Turks need to understand that while striving to promote just and democratic governments in the Middle East is an admirable objective, many in the region are prone to suspect that there are in fact other motives at work. Just as many Arabs suspected Washington was actually only seeking to exert an imperialist control over the Middle East, so many in the Middle East see Turkey as pursuing an imperialist neo-Ottoman agenda rather than a democratic one.
The recent statement of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that Turkey is going to be the “leader” of the new regional order certainly sustains the impression that Ankara harbors imperial ambitions. Posing as the new regional strongman that is going to set the rules is not a risk-free enterprise. In fact, Turkey’s self-image as the leader of the Middle East notwithstanding, Ankara now finds itself in the less enviable position of enjoying good neighborly relations with only the Kurdish region of Iraq. The Turkish-Iraqi rift shows that Ankara is yet to finesse a foreign policy that protects its interests without provoking the ire of its neighbors, to the detriment of those interests.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis Hudson Institute.
© 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".