This Opinion first appeared in the National on March 5, 2012
As leading politicians from around the world met in Tunis last Friday as the “Friends of Syria” to discuss what to do next to help Syrians under siege, many eyes turned toward the pivotal role Turkey, Syria’s large and influential northern neighbor, can play in shaping the eventual outcome. But Turks themselves are equally focused on another neighbor just as troublesome: Iraq, with its rising sectarian tensions and semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The potential for the Iraqi political standoff to deteriorate into a full sectarian conflict, with all that might portend for Kurdish irredentism both in northern Iraq and in Turkey proper, fills Ankara’s strategists with almost as much angst as the Syrian nightmare.
Thus, in a bid to defuse tensions, both between Turkey and Iraq and among the Iraqi factions, Turkey recently announced that it was planning to invite in the coming weeks leading figures from Iraq's divided Sunni and Shi’a communities to İstanbul to build confidence and discuss possible steps toward resolving the political crisis in Iraq. The invitation comes at a pivotal time, with domestic and regional dynamics making Iraq a sensitive issue not only for Turkey but also for the United States. The political deadlock on Turkey’s Kurdish question, the violent instability in Syria, and the persistent threats of a strike on Iran, together with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, have served only to add fuel to the recent spat between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The heated rhetoric between Maliki and Erdogan flared up in January after Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi on charges of supporting terrorist acts. Both leaders accused each other of stoking sectarian tensions, with Erdogan warning that Ankara would not remain silent if it felt Baghdad was pushing Iraq into a sectarian conflict. Later in the month, rockets were fired at the Turkish embassy in Baghdad, which Turkey took as a warning by Maliki’s forces.
The diplomatic row between the two countries stems from differences over several issues. First, Maliki didn’t much appreciate Turkey’s relatively open support for his rival, Ayad Allawi, in the 2010 Iraqi elections. Second, Baghdad’s rapprochement with Iran makes Turkey nervous, as it does Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors to the south. Third, the two governments differ starkly in their reaction to the Syrian crisis, with Turkey voicing sharp criticism of the Assad regime and hosting opposition elements, whereas Iraq has tacitly backed Assad, fearing a civil war in Syria would have a violent spillover effect. Finally, the Turks perceive that Maliki has been trying to push influential Sunnis out of positions of power, thereby increasing the likelihood of a reversion to the kind of sectarian war witnessed in 2006 – 2007. Such a scenario, in Ankara’s view, could even lead eventually to the break-up of Iraq into three regions, with the Kurds in the north finally gaining their independence, a development with ominous implications for the status of Turkey’s own Kurdish minority.
Evidently, Turkey fears any eventual Iraqi Kurdish autonomy might lead to similar territorial claims among Kurds within its borders. This fear is driving Turkey to urge Baghdad to adopt a more inclusive approach in its domestic political arrangements, allowing Sunnis and Kurds to feel they have a real share of power. In recent months, though, Maliki appears to have acted with the opposite impulse, appointing Shi’a loyalists to key positions in the army and arresting Sunni politicians on terrorism charges.
Erdogan has not lost hope, however, that he can repair the rift and improve ties, given the importance Turkey plays in Iraq’s regional integration. While Iraq’s stability and unity remain of primary importance to Ankara, Baghdad also has no interest in losing Turkey as a friend and partner. With high unemployment, poor infrastructure and ongoing terror attacks, Maliki desperately needs foreign investment to be able to deliver on his promises of an improving economy. Turkey currently runs neck and neck with Iran as Iraq's biggest trading partner, but with Iran’s increasing isolation and economic fragility under the pressure of severe sanctions, the Turks are betting Iraq will realize they can ill afford to alienate their giant northern neighbor. It should be a very interesting meeting in Istanbul indeed.