Turkey learns rules of the game in
Iraq By Seyfeddin Kara
Muffled guffaws would have been an
appropriate response from Iraqis to Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's claim this week
that openness and sincerity have been hallmarks of
Turkey's policy towards its neighbor.
Erdogan, along with the usual coterie of
business people seeking deals in the growing
economy, met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
and other senior politicians in a two-day visit.
Erdogan had paid two previous visits to his
growing neighbor, but the unusual content of his
trip from March 28 marked it as a foreign policy
event of particular note.
Before flying to
Baghdad on Monday afternoon, Erdogan told
reporters: "Turkey will continue to support Iraq.
We put a lot of
effort into improving
bilateral relations in many areas with Iraq.
What he went on to say was worthy of
derision in Iraq: ''Turkey has been pursuing an
open and sincere foreign policy towards Iraq over
the past eight years. We tried to provide support
to ease the pains of our Iraqi brothers."
While Turkey and Iraq have a growing
economic bilateral relationship, Turkey has its
own agenda dominated by the Kurdish issue.
Ankara's main focus is the prevention of an
independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the
elimination of attacks on its territory by the
Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) across the border in
northern Iraq, and the protection of a Turkmen
minority residing primarily in Mosul and Kirkuk.
To forward its political agenda, Turkey has been
supporting Turkmens and some Sunni Arab factions
located in its orbit.
Turkey saw its "opportunity" to support
its agenda during last year's elections in Iraq.
As a part of a status of forces agreement, the
United States will be withdrawing its last troops
from Iraq by the end 2011, which would make way
for Turkey to increase its influence. But first
the right pieces had to be put together to
refashion the political landscape of Iraq.
Growing concerns on the part of the United
States and Saudi Arabia about the rising influence
of Iran in Iraq gave further impetus to the
Turkish plan . The US had wanted to strengthen
its influence by inaugurating a close ally into
the Iraqi government. With the blessing of the US
and Saudi Arabia, there seemed to be no obstacle
for the Turks to realize their goal.
Turkey embarked on a complex and risky
political game during the elections. Under the
leadership of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davudoglu,
who accompanied Erdogan during his visit this
week, Turkish bureaucrats worked behind the scenes
on a coalition in which secular nationalist Sunnis
and Turkmens were placed at the center.
Inclusion of a secular Shi'ite leader,
Iyad Alawi, who held the premiership for 10 months
to April 2005, strengthened the plan and gave
birth to the al-Iraqiyya coalition. The Turkish,
US and Saudi alliance planned that Alawi would
lead the coalition and gain a majority to form the
next government. With involvement from Turkey, the
coalition ran for the election and the campaign
went ahead despite protests from the leaders of
religious Shi'ite groups who conveyed their
messages of discontent to Erdogan and Davudoglu
When the election results
were revealed the Turks were taken by surprise.
Although al-Iraqiyya came first, it had
insufficient seats to form a government. It was
close-run and the Turks failed to turn their gains
into a political victory. Even after the election,
Ankara continued to refuse to listen to the
religious Shi'ite groups and Kurds, and instead
insisted on forming a government with the
leadership of al-Iraqiyya.
Cengiz Candar, a prominent Turkish expert on
Middle East affairs, Ankara wanted a Sunni
president, possibly Tariq al-Hashimi, to replace
Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. The Turks have
always been suspicious of the Kurds, and believed
that Talabani had been plotting for an independent
An earlier rift between
Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the leader of
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that
administers the predominantly Kurdish north of
Iraq, gave false hope to Turkey's policymakers.
But the two Kurdish leaders had already resolved
their issues and Barzani continued to support
Talabani when he needed it the most.
Al-Iraqiyya was doomed not to form the
government right from the start. It included
ex-Ba'ath members and nationalist Turks and Arabs.
The combination the Turks put together was
unattractive to both Shi'ites and Kurds; hence the
formation of an Iraqi government was delayed for
Finally, the Iranians, who have
had good relations with all groups and strong
influence in certain sections of religious Shi'ite
groups, seized the opportunity: the Iranians got
the Kurds and Shi'ites to sit around a table and
helped them find common ground. A government -
headed by Nuri al-Maliki in his second term as
prime minister - was formed, but few concessions
were given to the al-Iraqiyya coalition.
A second chance Turkey's
intractable attitude angered the Kurds and the
Shi'ites. In an interview given to Milliyet, a
Turkish-language newspaper, Talabani did not
hesitate to express his dismay: "I don't know who
is behind this policy but Turkey's policy on Iraq
[during the elections] was wrong and it failed.
Yes their favorite [candidate] couldn't become
prime minister. And their favorites couldn't
become president and foreign minister ... They did
not support me first but then [when I became
president] they congratulated me."
Talabani, known for his skills as a
politician, promised cooperation with his
disappointed neighbor, while also downplaying
Iran's influence in Iraq. Talabani knew how
necessary it was for the new government,
especially its Kurdish element, to work with
Turkey closely for the future and how mutual
economic interests and the realities of post-US
Iraq were pushing Turks and Kurds together.
Turks also learned their lesson. It was
obvious that Erdogan's trip aimed to break the ice
with the Shi'ites and Kurds, and to lay a
foundation for a new approach to Turkey's foreign
policy on Iraq. Turkey seems to have realized that
if influence in Iraq is desired, then it needs to
overcome obsessions with the "Kurdish threat" and
"Shi'ite conspiracy" and work with both groups to
nurture mutual interests. This is perhaps why
Erdogan became the first Turkish premier to visit
Najaf, a power center of Shi'ites, and Irbil,
capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.
In line with the policy in its relations
with other neighbors, Turkey wants to increase its
"soft power" in Iraq. Ankara has been working hard
to get maximum benefit from Iraq's economic
prosperity and natural resources. Soon after the
US invasion of Iraq in 2003, an aggressive
economic campaign was launched by private Turkish
enterprises, especially in closer and more stable
northern Iraq. Since then, almost 80% of goods in
northern Iraq have been imported from Turkey; the
region's trade with Turkey has reached $7.5
billion a year.
On Erdogan's previous
visit to Iraq in October, 2009, 48 memoranda of
understanding were signed for a more comprehensive
economic integration. A senior Turkish official
traveling with the business delegation earlier
this week announced that Turkey hoped bilateral
trade would rise from $7.5 billion last year to
$10 billion in 2011 and reach a $25 billion
Turkey also has been seeking to
become the main route for the export of Iraqi oil
and gas, especially for the proposed Nabucco
pipeline that goes through northern Iraq to Turkey
and on to Europe.
Iraqis are also pleased
with the growing economic relations as Turkish
construction companies are rebuilding the war-torn
country and Turkey is acting as a gateway for the
vast energy sources of Iraq for European markets.
Turkey is a major investor in Iraq,
especially in the gas sector and it hosts key
pipelines for Iraqi oil exports through its port
on the Mediterranean, and provides Iraq with
electricity. More than 260 Turkish contractors
currently operate in Iraq on projects valued at
nearly $11 billion. Turkey also means stability;
in the current climate of uncertainty and mayhem,
securing support of a popular country may give a
sense of steadiness to a frail Iraq.
However, the biggest obstacle to closer
relations remains the issue of the PKK. Erdogan
made this very clear in a speech to Iraqi
legislators aired on state television.
Understanding the sensitivity of the issue, Maliki
signaled a harsher crackdown on the PKK in Iraq by
making allusions between the PKK and al-Qaeda.
This seemed to raise hopes among members of the
Turkish delegation, given their concerns that the
PKK's spring campaigns will probably soon begin
with the melting of snows on the mountains of
Shi'ites Erdogan's meeting with the most
senior Shi'ite religious leader of Iraq, Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was a very important part
of the mix on the visit. Erdogan became the first
Sunni premier to meet the 80-year-old influential
cleric and to pray at Imam Ali Mosque. Although
Turkey and Iran have been developing good
relations, Turkey had been worried about the
increasing influence of Iran in Iraq, and blamed
Shi'ites for paving the way for Tehran.
Consequently, regardless of their different views
on Iran, Turkey has remained aloof to the
Recent developments, however,
are forcing Turkey to think outside of the box.
George Friedman, founder of US think-tank
Stratfor, made it clear in an interview that
Turkey must change its stance:
The US army is leaving Iraq this
year, hence the future of Iraq and Iran's
ambition to become a dominant power in Iraq
directly affect Turkey's national interests.
Turkey claims "We don't have any problem with
Iran"; yes, they may say this but they cannot
ignore the problems regarding the future of
Iraq. Turkey will have to come to an
understanding [with Iran] as much as possible
for the future of Iraq. This might [lead to]
Turkey and the US [being] at
Turkey may have already begun to
reach for better understanding: As a sign of
Turkey's changing policy, Erdogan has been making
conspicuous gestures to Shi'ites. A few months
ago, he joined the Ashura ceremonies, the most
important Shi'ite occasion to commemorate the
martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet
Mohammad, held in Istanbul.
the first Turkish leader to attend the ceremonies
and to give a speech that was warmly received by
Shi'ites all around the world. It has been
reported that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the
kingmaker of Iraqi politics, sent a personal
message to congratulate Erdogan on his
This month, during the
first days of the de facto Saudi invasion of
Bahrain to suppress Shi'ite demonstrators, Erdogan
warned the Saudis about causing another Kerbala
for Shi'ites. Although he soon backtracked under
pressure from Riyadh, Erdogan's message was again
well received by Shi'ites.
to Sistani came as the latest and perhaps the most
important development for Turkey's rapprochement
with Shi'ites. In the meeting, issues regarding
Iraq weren't the only topics under discussion.
They talked about regional developments,
especially the Saudi invasion of Bahrain. As
Khaled al-Jashaami, a member of Najaf's provincial
council put it before the meeting took place, "We
expect Iraqi issues to be discussed, as well as
what is happening in neighboring countries,
especially in Bahrain."
The timing of
these events suggests that they are calculated
moves by the Turks who finally have realized that
they should not underestimate the growing
significance of Shi'ite influence not only in Iraq
but in the whole region.
Notes 1. Asli
Aydintasbas, November 18, 2010, Milliyet
Newspaper. 2. Furkan Torlak, November 22,
2010, Dunya Bulteni.
Kara is a historian, researcher and
human-rights activist based in London.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online
(Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and