Friday, February 3, 2012

Turkey-Iraq Relations Transformed

Time is funny. Before the United States-led invasion of Iraq, Turkey's principal concern in Iraq was maintaining the territorial integrity of the country so as to not end up with an independent Kurdish state on its border. Though this policy has not changed, Ankara now enjoys better relations with Erbil than it does with Baghdad.

As highlighted by last month's fiery exchanges between Prime Minister Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over Turkey's condemnation of the arrest of Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Maliki's accusations that Turkey was meddling in its affairs, Ankara seems comfortable pursuing relations with Erbil independent of Baghdad.

Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin recently canceled his visit to Baghdad during which he was to discuss Turkey-Iraq-United States cooperation to fight PKK terrorism, most importantly the bases inside northern Iraq from which the PKK operates with relative ease. Yet earlier in the month Erdogan sent a special message to KRG president Massound Barzani through Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, leaving Baghdad out of the process. Soon after Barzani met with Caglayan, the KRG president issued a statement urging the importance of the Turkish economy and the need for the two countries to strengthen ties. Al-Hashemi is currently hiding inside northern Iraq.

Such communications have promoted some foreign policy observers to wonder if Ankara will grow closer to Erbil in coming years than it will to Baghdad, and whether Turkey might become some sort of protector for Iraq's Kurdish region. From Semih Idiz writing in Hurriyet Daily News:
Ankara now sees that the struggle between Iraq’s Sunni’s and Shiites is increasing the probability of such a division. In the meantime, Turkey has lost all clout over Baghdad, given the harsh exchanges between Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki - who says Ankara is interfering in his country’s affairs.

Thus, Turkey’s nightmare seems to be coming home to roost, especially with increasing speculation that the Iraqi Kurds are getting ready to declare independence if things in the country get out of hand. But given the events in region, it is interesting that this prospect is not as scary for Ankara as it was in the past.

To the contrary, a stable and prospering Iraqi Kurdistan that has increased political and economic ties with Turkey will probably end up being a buffer for Ankara against increased turmoil in other parts of Iraq.

In the meantime Joost Hiltermann, a senior member of the International Crisis Group and expert on Iraq, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 02 saying that “Turkey’s involvement could pave the way for the Kurdish government to exchange fraying ties with Baghdad for Turkish protection”
Hiltermann said we “could see the emergence of an oil-rich, Kurdish-run Turkish vassal state in Iraq.” That is pushing it a little of course, but it is a fact that events have forced Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey to be closer than anytime in the past.

The PKK lodged in Northern Iraq’s mountains is still a thorn in these ties, of course, but even this highly touchy topic is not being allowed to poison the atmosphere between Ankara and Arbil. Meanwhile, it is demeaning for the Kurds of Iraq to be told they could end up as “Turkish vassals,” especially since it is clear that enhancing Turkish-Kurdish ties will be beneficial to both sides.

On the other hand, Turkey is in the throes of trying to solve its own Kurdish problem that is also laced with continuing terrorist attacks by the PKK. An Iraqi Kurdistan that is politically independent and which declares it has no territorial designs on Turkey could also be helpful in efforts to solve this problem.
Idiz says Iraqi Kurds have little incentive to shake the waters either given the current tenor of their relations with Baghdad. Meanwhile there is talk that Turkey might host a national reconciliation summit for Iraqi leaders, including powerful Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Al-Sistani. The meeting would be held in Istanbul in late February.

For another take on Iraq as to why Turkey and Iran are taking such care to shore up their relationship with the troubled country, see the Middle East Institute scholar Gonul Tol's recent analysis.

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