Something interesting is happening at the moment on the foreign policy front: Turkey, which has long warned the international community against the breakup of Iraq, is now getting apprehensive warnings from the United States that it is “endangering Iraq’s political integrity by developing ties with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region while alienating the central government.”
In his meeting with the Ankara bureau chiefs of Turkish newspapers last Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone argued that the mending of Turkish-Iraqi ties would give Turkey access to 100% of Iraq’s natural resources rather than just the 20% portion located in Northern Iraq. He indicated that tensions between Ankara and Baghdad would play into the hands of those who wanted to divide the country. His remarks are said to reflect Washington’s concerns over Ankara’s policies. In Washington’s view, Ankara — though inadvertently — is laying the groundwork for Iraq’s disintegration by building up ties with the Kurdistan region at the expense of alienating Baghdad.
At the same news conference, Ricciardone said the U.S. was also advising Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the man at the center of the tensions, to seek friendly relations with Turkey, indicating that both neighbors have no other option but to develop a sound relationship.
Pointing out that Iraq presents both major opportunities and risks, Ricciardone said: “I believe that Turkey and the U.S., as well as the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government, all share a single strategic interest: the development of oil and gas, which is strategic for the whole of Iraq. The Iraqis have been struggling to pass a hydrocarbons law and it is very important that they succeed in that. Thus, Turkey would get access to not only 20% percent of the oil and gas, but 100% percent — resources from the entire country. We would very much like to see Turkey become a strategic alternative to the Strait of Hormuz in getting all Iraqi oil and gas out to world markets. If Turkey and Iraq fail to optimize their economic relations, this would play into the hands of those who want to divide Iraq. Acting together will bring about great gains; acting separately great risks and great dangers.”
His remarks indicate that Turkey’s rapprochement with the Kurdistan region and alienation of the Baghdad administration are not seen as far-sighted policies.
Problems on the tactical level
Since the Jan. 21 inauguration of Barack Obama in his second term as president of the United States, observers have said that ties between Ankara and Washington will continue to be generally positive, as they were during his first term.
U.S. and Turkish officials say that problems between Ankara and Washington, like the Iraq issue mentioned above, are limited to problems on the tactical level. That is, differences related to methods employed on the ground. They point out that consensus prevails in the broader context. That is, on the long-term strategic level.
For example, contrary to Washington, Ankara believes that UN sanctions will not have a deterrent effect on Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. On the strategic level, however, Ankara gives strong support to the vision of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and is sometimes leading the efforts. Similarly, Ankara initially adopted an alienating attitude towards Maliki, whom Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan distrusts, but in its official rhetoric it has continued to underline its opposition to Iraq’s disintegration.
On the strategic level, Ankara stands against piracy in the Indian Ocean, figures among the leading supporters of the global anti-terror struggle, and wants the Assad regime to go. Both countries share the same position on these strategic-level policies.
Turkey’s regress in the field of human rights and repressive policies on press freedom are expected to continue to be a source of tension between Ankara and Washington.
Erdogan takes it personally
Western diplomats say that some major issues in Turkey’s foreign affairs go awry partly because Erdogan is personalizing certain problems. Erdogan, for instance, cannot stand Iraq’s Maliki and Syria’s Assad, and thus Turkey’s policies vis-à-vis those countries are occasionally shaped according to the prime minister’s personal convictions rather an in-depth analysis.
According to another opinion circulating in Ankara, Erdogan has come to believe that time is now ripe to build a strong relationship with the northern Iraqi Kurds, whom Ankara used to see as an enemy in the past. It is noteworthy that this notion is developing in parallel to the government’s efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict with the PKK.