As if Syria were not enough, now we have Iraq. While everyone is busy paying attention to Syria, a crisis is unfolding in Iraq — one that is particularly bad for Turkey.
A quick look at developments in Iraq tells us why: After the US military left, Iraq entered a phase of internal strife and instability. Bombings have become daily events and security has been badly compromised. What is worse, the strife has taken on sectarian dimensions. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government could not stop the violence. The Prime Minister, a Shi’a Muslim, manipulated the situation to his own advantage. This angered the Sunnis and Kurds, especially after the way Maliki had handled Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi. In the end, Hashimi left Baghdad and sought refuge in Erbil.
As Iraq witnessed serious sectarian, ethnic and regional divisions, Maliki did not relent in his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and he cooperated closely with Iran. Maliki’s recent visit to Tehran, his meetings with Iranian leaders (including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei) and the agreements he signed with them are all signs of a new Iran-Iraq strategic cooperation that makes Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and the West very nervous.
What about the Turkish perspective on these developments? Only a few months ago Iraq, just like Syria, was Turkey’s best friend in the region. Economic relations with Iraq developed considerably during the US occupation, and Iraq had became Turkey’s second major trade partner. Ankara always respected Iraq’s territorial integrity and national unity. Turkey actually tried to prove its impartiality toward its sectarian and ethnic differences by trying to reconcile the opposing parties.
But recently, Maliki’s policies have begun to generate criticism from Ankara. After Hashimi’s troubles made the headlines, the Turkish government decided to support him. He is now hosted in Turkey.
Meanwhile, a verbal argument raged between Prime Ministers Erdogan and Maliki. The Iraqi leader accused Turkey of interfering in his country’s domestic affairs and declared that Turkey is now an “enemy country in the region.” As if that were not enough, the Iraqi foreign ministry told the Turkish ambassador to issue a warning about Ankara’s interference. Of course, the Turkish government rejects Baghdad’s accusations. But it is highly unlikely that Ankara’s explanations will convince Maliki otherwise; he seems to be set in his ways, further emboldened by Iran’s support.
But we must also admit that by backing Hashimi and giving the impression that it has become a party to the crisis, the Turkish government has taken a position which opposes the Maliki government.
We are now experiencing tense relations between Ankara and Baghdad. We have tension with yet another neighboring country — if not with the majority of its population, then at least with its current administration. Furthermore, Iraq is becoming a new source of competition between Turkey and Iran. After Syria, Ankara and Tehran are now also on opposing sides of the Iraqi crisis.
The harsh reality is that, for whatever reason, Turkey — which has been trying to promote a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors — is now caught bickering with them.