x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A crisis in Ankara's backyard that does not involve Assad

For Turkey, Syria is a problem but so is Iraq, and the challenge in both cases is to find ways to use its influence to encourage stability.

When leading politicians from around the world met in Tunis late last month to discuss what to do next to help Syrians under siege, many of the "Friends of Syria" focused on the pivotal role that Turkey, Syria's large and influential northern neighbour, can play in shaping the outcome.

But Turks themselves are equally focused on another neighbour 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 leading figures from Iraq's divided Sunni and Shia communities to Istanbul in the coming weeks to build confidence and discuss possible steps towards 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, and the region. 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 US 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 Mr Al Maliki and Mr Erdogan flared up in January after the Maliki government issued an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tarek Al Hashemi on charges of supporting terrorist acts.

The Turkish and Iraqi leaders accused each other of stoking sectarian tensions, with Mr 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 Mr Al Maliki's forces.

The diplomatic row between the two countries stems from differences over several issues.

First, Mr Al 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 neighbours to the south.

Third, the two governments differ starkly in their reaction to the Syrian crisis, with Turkey voicing sharp criticism of the Bashar Al Assad regime and hosting opposition elements, whereas Iraq has tacitly backed Mr Al Assad, fearing a civil war in Syria would have a violent spillover effect.

Finally, the Turks perceive that Mr Al 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 and 2007. Such a scenario, in Ankara's view, could even lead to the break-up of Iraq into three regions, with the Kurds in the north finally gaining their independence, a development with important 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, Mr Al Maliki appears to have acted with the opposite impulse, appointing Shia loyalists to key positions in the army and arresting Sunni politicians on terrorism charges.

Mr 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 has no interest in losing Turkey as a friend and partner. With high unemployment, poor infrastructure and ongoing terror attacks in Iraq, Mr Al 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 realise they can ill afford to alienate their giant northern neighbour.

It should be a very interesting meeting in Istanbul indeed.


Gonul Tol is the Executive Director of the Middle East Institute's Centre for Turkish Studies in Washington