This was a clear reference to the rising Shiite-Sunni rivalry.
But the spillover from the Arab Spring and the US exit from Iraq have forced Turkey to make unhappy adjustments to its foreign policy by cutting old alliances and forming new ones. These have made its foreign policy of having “zero problems” with neighbors a thing of the past, and thrust the country into a new regional strategic game pitting Sunni regional governments, and to some extent the masses, against Iran and its newly gained allies in Iraq. These circumstances, though not a creation of Turkey, have limited Turkey's options in Iraq.
It is my contention that those few options are confined to supporting the formation of a Kurdish-Sunni Arab axis, assisting Sunni Arabs in their goal of having one or two autonomous regions in a less centralized federal Iraq, building bridges with the Shiite National Iraqi Alliance and replacing the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Should Turkey and Maliki's opponents fail in their ongoing efforts to unseat him, the alternative for Turkey will be to use its soft power in Iraq to make him less authoritarian and to pursue a less aggressive policy towards Iraqi Sunnis. The clear and unfailing support of the US and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are essential to the success of Turkey's policy options in Iraq.
The factors beyond the current crisis
There is unanimity among the observers of the Iraqi political scene that it is not the change in Turkey's foreign policy which created the crisis between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the Iraqi regime. Turkey's policy in Iraq was to remain above sectarianism and stand at an equal distance from all Iraqi political groups. In the past Turkish politicians were always emphasizing that their policy in Iraq was encouraging national unity and bringing economic prosperity to all Iraqis. The major factor that gave birth to the current tension is the non-existence of a government ruling with national consent.
This was further exacerbated with the exit of US troops in December 2011 from Iraq. The US troops provided a buffer between Iraqi Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite blocs. Maliki has been trying systematically to use the vacuum created by the US troop withdrawal to consolidate both his personal power and the Islamic Dawa Party's authoritarian rule. Furthermore, "This is about an escalating power struggle in Baghdad combined with the regional conflict between Iran, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states being played out in Syria and Iraq," Hasan Turunç, a fellow at Oxford University, was quoted as saying.
During the last few months Iraq has witnessed incidents of sectarian war which were similar to what happened a few years back. Any further escalation of sectarian war will endanger Turkey's national security gravely, considering the instability and disintegration of Iraq, possible acts of ethnic cleansing against Turkmens and the immense economic losses. It is noteworthy that Turkey's trade with Iraq last year was second only to its trade with the EU, and it is expected to exceed $30 billion by the end of the decade. Turkey is in the process of building three more strategic crossings into Iraq. This will make Iraq Turkey's gate to the promising market of the Arab world. Finally, Turkey is currently negotiating a promising energy deal with the KRG and these deals will have a profound impact on its energy needs.
Furthermore, an upsurge in ethnic and sectarian war would adversely affect Turkey's strategic alliance with the KRG and its president, Massoud Barzani, to combat violence perpetrated by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
This in no way means Turkey has no role in the current tension with the Maliki government. The AKP government decided from the very start to side with Ayad Allawi's Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Movement, more commonly known as the al-Iraqiya List. This policy was perceived by Iraqi Shiites as Turkey joining the Arab League's hostile policies towards the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The frequent visits by Maliki opponents such as Ayad Allawi, Tariq al-Hashemi, Sayyid Muqtadā al-Sadr and Barzani to Ankara were also irritating to the Shiites in Baghdad. Turkey tried to allay the Shiites' fear through visits from top Turkish officials to Iraq.
During his last trip, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made sure to spend equal time with all political representatives in Iraq by visiting Baghdad, Najaf and Arbil. In addition, Turkey tried to evenly distribute its economic investments in the Shiite- and Sunni-dominated regions. It appears that these measures were not sufficient enough to allay the fears of the Shiite political circles that Turkey is now joining the anti-Shiite axis in the Middle East. What Turkey failed to do was take steps before and after the US troop withdrawal from Iraq. One may wonder why Turkey did not try, for example, to push more vigorously, in collaboration with the US, for effective implementation of the Arbil Agreement, which formed the basis of the Maliki government. Or one might ask: How did Turkey not foresee Maliki's attempt to establish his sectarian authoritarian rule?
US support for Turkish policy in Iraq
It is safe to assume that Americans believe that they have created a successful model state in Iraq. Antony Blinken, US Vice President Joe Biden's national security adviser, for example, stated in March of this year: “Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous … than at any time in recent history.” It appears Blinken is referring here to the three national elections held in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Maliki secured a second term in 2010, after March elections that produced inconclusive results. Extended multi-party negotiations, combined with a modus vivendi which the US and Iran had reached on Iraq, produced the Arbil Agreement of November 2010, a complex power-sharing deal which divided cabinet posts between the numerous parties that did well in the elections and placed constraints on Maliki's power.
A close examination of those election results will give a very dim picture. Iraqis voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. On top of this, the Obama administration has come to the conclusion that it has to disengage from Iraq at all costs. For these reasons, it pretended to not see that Maliki was reneging on his obligations under the Arbil Agreement. Political observers point to the fact that it was after his return from a short trip to the US that Maliki inaugurated his policy of repression and exclusion of his opponents, especially Sunni politicians from his government. Maliki has been taking a hard-line and confrontational approach with the Kurds, too.
Turkey needs to convince the US that it has the moral and political motivation to assist it in its Iraq policy to stop the country from quickly reverting to a one-party dictatorship. This support could take the form of stopping the many ongoing economic exchanges, as well as weapons sales to Iraq, and of becoming open and public with condemnation of Maliki's repressive policies and his attempt to destroy the democratic institutions which Iraqis, along with the US, have achieved with great sacrifices.
Ousting Maliki from power
Unlike the many Arab regimes in the area which have been thrilled with the successful Turkish experiment and which are trying to open up to Turkey, Maliki was never a fan of Turkey. Furthermore, Maliki is now party to an Iranian-Syrian Shiite axis which is fully dedicated to fighting Turkey and its interests in the region. It is reported that Maliki has told his close circles that if Damascus was to fall to the Sunni opposition, the next round of fighting will be at the gates of Baghdad. Lately, Maliki has branded Turkey a “hostile nation” and Erdoğan as an enemy of Iraq. Furthermore, Maliki's attack on his Sunni opponents coincided with the attack on Turkish interests in Iraq. Hashemi, who was secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party until May 2009, was targeted for his pro-Turkish view, and the pro-Dawa Party mobs have been besieging and threatening Turkish companies and educational centers in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. Recently, Turkish companies were replaced by Korean and Chinese companies in many lucrative business deals in Iraq.
For these reasons, Turkey has no option but to assist Maliki's opponents in democratically unseating him. Unless the Iranian government pulls strings with the Sadr bloc to calm them down, the Iraqi parliament seems to be heading for a clear vote of no confidence. Turkey should assure the Shiites that it is not working against their interests in Iraq and Turkish diplomats need to intensify their efforts in lobbying Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen members of parliament to support the vote of no confidence against Maliki.
Finally, If Maliki manages to survive the vote of no confidence, which he might, he will emerge more powerful and, like a wounded tiger, will be more anti-Turkey. In this case the Turkish government will be left with only one viable option, which is encouraging Sunni provinces to establish federal regions in Iraq similar to the Kurdistan region. Turkey could use its soft power to promote its interests in these regions. As time goes by Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds will be able to see that their interests require working more closely, and Barzani, backed by Turkey, has the potential to be the emerging leader for these three groups.
For these reasons Turkey's national interests in Iraq are immense and no efforts should be spared in helping Maliki's opponents remove him democratically from power. The US and Barzani are indispensible in this regard.
*Dr. Othman Ali, Ph.D., is head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Arbil, Iraq.