Iraq in the Middle, Part III: F. Stephen Larrabee on Iraq’s Relations with Turkey

Editor's Note: In the third part of a series on Iraq in a regional context, Robert Tollast interviews RAND Corporation's F. Stephen Larrabee, Distinguished Chair in European History.

Turkey's support for Iraqi Kurdistan

RT: Right now it is hard to imagine further deterioration in Iraqi-Turkish relations, following the Tariq al-Hashemi arrest warrant saga, Maliki and Erdogan’s verbal attacks on each other and Ankara’s support for the Iraqiya coalition. In fact, you could say the closer Irbil gets to Ankara, the worse Baghdad- Ankara relations become. The most pressing issue appears to be the increasing energy cooperation between Barzani’s KRG and Turkey, touted by Barzani at the Irbil energy summit and now taking the form of an oil pipeline which could potentially take 1 million BPD of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, no doubt causing fury in Baghdad. As Barzani and Erdogan continue their policy of jointly condemning the PKK, one is forced to wonder: how much closer can Ankara and Erbil get?  Not that long ago, Erdogan called Barzani “a bandit.”

SL: Turkish policy toward the KRG has to be seen against the broader background of the on-going Syrian crisis, the stepped up attacks against Turkey by the PKK and the growing strains in Ankara's relations with Baghdad. Turkey needs the KRG's support in order to weaken the PKK.  It also is beginning to accept that if Maliki continues to pursue his efforts to isolate and weaken the Kurds and Sunnis, the KRG leaders will be driven more to leave the coalition and seek independence. Faced with this growing reality, Ankara has intensified its effort to improve relations with the KRG, especially in the economic area. Ankara wants to use its economic ties to enhance its leverage and influence over KRG policy.  In effect, "hug 'em close."

 For the KRG the export of the oil on its territory is important as a means of earning hard currency and strengthening its autonomy. The route through Turkey provides the most economical route for exporting KRG oil. In short, given Maliki's attempt to strengthen his power at the expense of the Kurds, improved ties to Turkey - a tacit alliance with Ankara — is the best option.

War over water?

RT: As populations in developing countries increase and water supplies diminish, some argue we face the prospect of war over water. It’s worth remembering the situation in 1989 between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as reported by Adel Darwish:

In 1989 Turkey seized an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to control the flow of water to its neighbours, and provoked a remarkable alliance between enemies. In January 1990, it stopped the flow of the Euphrates. Officially, the interruption was to fill the vast lake in front of the new Ataturk Dam; in fact, it was a demonstration to Syria of what might happen if President Hafez al-Assad continued aiding the Kurdish rebels in south-east Anatolia. Halting the flow of the Euphrates into Syria also brought water shortages in Iraq. Turkish planners thought that would not matter, as Syria and Iraq were bitter enemies.

Faced with this common threat, however, old antagonisms were instantly forgotten; the Iraqi and Syrian media united in denouncing Turkey, and military leaders from both countries drew up plans for armed retaliation.

Continued drought is still a serious issue in Iraq. Do you think Erdogan’s Turkey might see water control as a foreign policy card in the same way that Turgut Ozal did in 1989?

SL: Yes, given the deterioration of Turkey's relations with Iraq and Maliki's support for Syrian and Iranian policy lately, it is quite quite possible that Turkey will seek to use the water issue as a means of exerting leverage in its relations with Iraq.

Taking history too seriously

RT: Turkey and Iran are two of Iraq’s largest trading partners and have significant business and political ties in Iraq. I recently asked Emma Sky about this (Sky was the former counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno in Iraq.) Here is what she had to say:

PM Maliki fears that Turkey is trying to regain the role it played during the Ottoman Empire as leaders of the Sunni world...Iraq finds itself caught between the rivalries of the US and Iran; the resurgence of the old empires of the Ottomans and Persia; and the sectarian struggles between Shia and Sunni, playing out between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is increasingly becoming a battlefield for a proxy war between neighbouring countries who fear a resurgent Iran is turning Iraq into a client state, and building a ‘Shia crescent’ in the wake of declining US influence. While the GCC countries, Turkey, and Jordan all want to see Iraq have a strong relationship with the US, Iran is adamantly opposed.

For most Americans or Europeans, the notion that we could look upon a neighbouring country in the context of civilisations and empires long past (Ottomans and Persians) is an alien concept. Sunnis and Shia in Iraq are known to have thought about their predicament through this historical lens, but do you think such a historical perspective is important to modern Turkey?

SL: The historical/"civilizational" elements are important and influence current Turkish and Iranian policy. However, what's happening is not a battle between an effort by Turkey to recreate the  Ottoman  Empire -- "Neo-Ottomanism" - and an attempt by the Mullahs in Iran to pursue historical hegemonic goals in the Persian Gulf (though there are elements of that). Turkey is attempting to adjust to a change in its regional environment prompted by the political and social forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. This has undermined Turkey's strategy of "Zero problems with its Neighbors" and forced Ankara to find a new equilibrium. At the same time, it has reinforced the historical struggle between Turkey and Iran for influence in the Middle East.

Keeping tabs on sectarian relations

RT: The Syrian crisis is arguably causing what F. Gregory Gause III calls the “increasing sectarianization” of the region. In light of this, Maliki caused much furore when he recently branded Turkey a “hostile state.” Erdogan responded to this outburst by claiming that Iraqis and Turks were “brothers” and Turkey aspires to supporting a democratic Iraq where all sects are fairly represented. Maliki then claimed Erdogan’s remarks “have a sectarian dimension.”

Looking at the Hashemi saga and the recent mass arrests of Sunnis in Iraq (on very thin evidence according to Human Rights Watch) one’s immediate assumption is that it is Maliki who is fuelling a sectarian fire in the region- not Erdogan. However, as Turkey becomes increasingly involved in the Syrian crisis, one is forced to look a little harder at their policies: backing the Iraqiya coalition in Iraq and facilitating a very aggressive Qatari/ Saudi initiative to topple Assad. In contrast, Maliki has gone from condemning the Syrian rebels last year to recently calling for all sides to refrain from arming any side (including Assad.) Considering sectarian relations across the region, do you think Erdogan is playing a dangerous game backing the FSA? One wonders if it would be better if they joined Iraq in professing neutrality and rejected the aggressive Qatari/ Saudi approach to Assad. 

SL: Erdogan underestimated Assad's determination to stay in power and overestimated Turkey’s ability to influence Syrian policy. Turkey has been forced to recognize the limits of its influence in Syria. Turksh-Syrian relations are in a shambles. At this point, I think Turkey's best option is to work with the US, key NATO allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to arm the Syrian opposition and try to forge  a more unified, coherent, better-armed force while simultaneously continuing to encourage the SNC to broaden its base and include more Kurds and Allewites.

Betting on all the horses in the race

RT: The US has been giving intelligence and surveillance assistance to Turkey in targeting the PKK (this is tolerated or supported by most of the Kurdish leadership, with some exceptions such as Mahmoud Othman.) Meanwhile, CIA agents are allegedly in Turkey in an attempt to vet what assistance goes to the many armed factions in the Syrian crisis. This is an anathema to Baghdad, since Maliki’s position is a watered down version of Iran’s: Maliki wants a political solution to the crisis that would ideally see a friendly government remain in power in Damascus. 

Yet Maliki’s government are the recipient of significant US military advice and cooperation, not to mention the various DoS programmes there. The US also maintains good relations with the KRG. So, America’s friends are at odds with each other, and both Maliki and Erdogan have been accused of centralising power and eroding democratic institutions (admittedly these institutions in Iraq are weak to non-existent.) When it comes to America’s support for Ankara, Irbil and Baghdad, not to mention Riyadh, do you think that “backing all the horses in the race” makes sense for the US, or is America playing a dangerous game? It’s certainly a contrast to China and Russia, who have boldly stood by traditional friends, particularly Syria.

SL: I don't think the US is "backing all horses." Washington appears to be quietly backing an effort to arm the resistance to Assad while also exploring other diplomatic avenues. The goal appears to be to strengthen the opposition to Assad and increase the pressure on him either to flee or face an internal coup. It’s not clear the strategy will work, but it seems the best of the not very attractive options available at the moment.

 

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