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 Turkey learns rules of the game in Iraq and Kurdistan 

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Turkey learns rules of the game in Iraq and Kurdistan  2.4.2011
By Seyfeddin Kara

April 2, 2011

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        

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani at officially open Erbil's International Airport on March 29, 2011. Erdogan the first Turkish premier visits the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq. Photo: Getty Images
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.

Unholy alliances

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 [1]. 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 personally. [2]

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.

According to 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,
www.ekurd.netand believed that Talabani had been plotting for an independent Kurdish state.

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 249 days.

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 Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan 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 target.

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 southeast Turkey.

Discovering 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 Shi'ites.

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 odds.
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.

Erdogan was 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 participation.

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.

Erdogan's visit 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.

1. Asli Aydintasbas, November 18, 2010, Milliyet Newspaper.
2. Furkan Torlak, November 22, 2010, Dunya Bulteni.

Seyfeddin Kara is a historian, researcher and human-rights activist based in London.

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