Turkey’s dreams of regional hegemony are driving it into an ever-more antagonistic relationship with Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s policies are threatening the country’s fragile federalism.
The deterioration in relations has gone so far that Maliki has accused Turkey of being an “enemy state” interfering in the domestic affairs of its neighbors and stoking sectarianism. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded that Maliki lacks an understanding of democracy, and that in fact, it is he who has a sectarian mentality.
What accounts for this deterioration? After all, the two countries have one of the closest commercial relationships imaginable. Iraq is the second most important destination for Turkish exports after the European Union. Turkey is Iraq’s second-largest source of imports. However, much of this mutual trade is with the Kurdistan Regional government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which has developed a very close relationship with Turkey. Iraqi oil has been flowing into the Turkish Mediterranean ports for many decades.
From a Turkish point of view, there are two primary reasons for the loss of confidence in Maliki’s government. To be fair, Maliki was never Ankara’s preferred choice for the post of prime minister. Following the 2010 Iraqi elections and the interminable delay over the formation of the new government, Ankara and Washington had sided with Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite former prime minister who led a largely Sunni coalition. Far more telling was the very close and supportive links Ankara had forged with the current — and fugitive — Iraqi vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
Still, the Turks, whose primary goal is to ensure Iraq maintains its territorial unity, have viewed themselves as balancers of sorts among Iraq’s ethnic mosaic. Following its convincing 2007 electoral success, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party overhauled its Iraq policy and replaced its largely antagonistic relations toward the KRG with an attitude of cooperation. Ankara even opened a consulate in Erbil, which not only signaled a de facto recognition of the KRG as a federal entity in Iraq but also opened the floodgates for cross-border trade.
Ankara has become persuaded that Maliki’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian style of governance is endangering the fragile make-up of Iraqi politics and encouraging secessionist impulses. Maliki, according to the Turks, has acted more as a sectarian leader than a national one, alienating first and foremost the Sunni community.
Hashemi’s indictment on terrorism charges is the tip of the iceberg of Shiite-friendly politics in Iraq. Pushing the Sunnis to seek their own federal arrangements within Iraq — or the increasing likelihood of a return to the sectarian violence that marked the American occupation — could end with Iraq’s breakup. Turks, irrespective of the close ties they have established with the KRG, do not want an independent Kurdistan, especially when their own Kurdish regions are in a state of flux.
The other reason the Turks have been upset with Maliki is because of his decision to back President Bashar al-Assad in Syria despite the Syrians’ complicity in the sectarian violence in Iraq in earlier years.
Ankara interprets Maliki’s Syrian impulses as sectarian in nature and, therefore, contributing to the deepening of the Sunni-Shiite divide in the region. Moreover, Baghdad is also seen as doing Iran’s bidding in Syria in supporting a regime Erdogan has decided must go. Go it must, and quickly, because instability is costly to Turkish commercial interests throughout the region.
There are additional irritants; the violence in Syria has prevented Turkish trucks from transiting that country en route to the Gulf. Ankara’s entreaties to Baghdad to facilitate this traffic through its territory have been ignored, forcing the Turks to consider far costlier alternatives such as ferrying the trucks to Egypt.
Maliki has a mirror image of grievances with the Turks, such as their Syria policy, including the hosting of the opposition Syrian National Council; their cozy relationship with both the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis and especially the warm welcome given by Erdogan and the Turkish establishment to Hashemi (who, after all, has been accused of serious crimes in Iraq). To Maliki, the Turkish policy in Syria and Iraq represents part of an alignment of Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, against the Shiite states.
The rapprochement between the Sunni Kurds of the KRG and Turkey is, therefore, seen both as part of this alignment and as an attempt to strengthen the KRG’s resolve against Baghdad over issues of oil exploration. This is paradoxical only because both Ankara and Baghdad are theoretically unified in their opposition to Kurdish independence dreams.
Maliki’s discontent, in the final analysis, is a reaction to the changing nature of Turkish policy in the region. Under the AKP, Turkey started off by trying to play the role of conciliator; it tried to bring the Syrians and the Israelis together, for instance. The conciliator policy morphed into one of the balancer, a role Ankara employed when it tried to balance Israel by supporting Syria and Lebanon, and within Iraq by offering to help the Sunni coalition.
However, as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu amply demonstrated in a speech on Syria at the Turkish parliament last week, the new Turkish role is far more ambitious. It is intent on achieving a form of regional hegemony. According to Davutoglu, “from now on, Turkey would control and lead the wave of change in the Middle East. We will continue to be the leader of this change ... If we have a claim for a new Turkey, we also have a claim for a new Middle East.”
If Turkey is to succeed in shaping the changing nature of the Middle East, it will have to increasingly interfere and intervene in the politics of its neighbors. This is deeply disturbing to states such as Iraq at the cusp of the region’s sectarian and ethnic cleavages.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.