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Is Turkey's long game in Iraq a success?

The latest developments in Iraq have proven Turkey's foreign policy strategy effective.

Last updated: 03 Sep 2014 11:29
Saban Kardas

Dr Saban Kardas is the President of ORSAM (Middle East Strategic Research Center) and a faculty member at the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.
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Turkey's former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has maintained good relations with various groups in Iraq, writes Kardas [AFP/Getty Images]

Turkey's difficult relationship with Iraq's outgoing prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, figured widely in discussions on its Middle East policies. Epitomised at times by the direct confrontation between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Maliki, the tensions manifested themselves in issues ranging from the position of the Sunnis in Iraqi governance structure to oil exports by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Taking some high risk decisions on several occasions, Turkey challenged the way Maliki governed the country. Many took the deterioration in bilateral relations as an indication of the failure of Turkey's Middle East policies and its loss of influence in the region, while Ankara was also accused by the West of undermining Iraq's territorial integrity by developing closer ties with the Sunnis and Kurds.

It has become clear now that  the concerns that directed Turkey's foreign policy on Iraq early on - the problematic governance in Baghdad and marginalisation of Sunnis - constitute the root of Iraq's problems and all of a sudden are at the spotlight of international attention. Moreover, Turkey's long game, calling for a new government without Maliki to save the state apparatus and the country's territorial integrity, has now, finally, been backed by the international community.

Although it is unclear whether a new government alone can solve the country's security and governance crisis, Iraq at least has made a step forward. What is clear, though, is that those who declared Ankara's Middle East policies a failure were wrong. More importantly, contrary to those suggesting that Turkey has turned into a mere bystander, it has in fact actively shaped the course of events in Iraq paving the way for the new government - a move that should pay off in improving bilateral relations.

Listening Post - A divided Iraq and a fractured storyline

In fact, Turkey was instrumental in breaking the political deadlock in Baghdad, which led to the appointment of Haider al-Abadi to form the new government. The results of the April 2014 elections were not conducive to the formation of a stable government and the situation was complicated further by the deteriorating security situation following the advance of the Islamic State group.

As the new parliament convened, the coalescence of multiple issues - selection of the new parliamentary speaker, replacing the president and forming a new government - paralysed the political processes in Baghdad. Many political actors were pushing for a “package deal” in which all three positions were to be decided on simultaneously; a similar deal was made for the formation of the 2010 government. This demand, however, exacerbated the unstable political situation in Iraq.

At this critical juncture, Turkey intervened by reaching out to different groups to push for a gradual approach to consensus. Turkey was able to do that because even at the time of tensions with Maliki, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made sure not to pursue a narrow Sunni-oriented policy but maintained good relations with all groups in Iraq. During a trip to Iraq in November 2013 in the Shia sacred month of Muharram, he visited not only Baghdad but also Najaf and Karbala; he met all major players, including key Shiite leaders Ammar al-Hakim, Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. These close contacts were maintained through the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad and other channels.

The decisive intervention came through Turkey's ties with the Sunni leadership, several of whom visited Turkey. Davutoglu would host them for iftar or sohour in the holy month of Ramadan to discuss ways to resolve the current crisis. He received both the outgoing and incoming parliament speakers. He advised Osama al-Nujayfi and other Sunni political leaders to choose, democratically, a common candidate for the parliament speaker. The Sunni groups under Nujayfi's leadership favoured Salim al-Jabouri whose election in mid-July got the wheels turning for the election of the new president, Fouad Massoum. Throughout the process, Ankara had several phone calls with the political circles of the KRG. This development paved the way for the formation of the new Council of Ministers, following the provisions of the constitution.

Meanwhile, the "no-Maliki" coalition gained strength, especially after US Secretary of State John Kerry set a unity government as a precondition for US assistance against the Islamic State. Major Shia groups also withdrew their support for Maliki, allowing President Massoum to grant the mandate to Abadi. Ankara was the first capital to call Massoum to congratulate him and encourage him to move forward with the political processes. In the stand-off caused by Maliki's initial reaction to hold on to power, Turkey openly took a position backing Abadi; the foreign ministry issuing a statement, and Davutoglu calling it a coup attempt. Turkey declared support for Abadi's efforts to form an inclusive and non-sectarian government that can implement federalism.

It is Turkey's objective to see Iraq's territorial integrity maintained and its government functioning; the only way to achieve that is by observing the constitutional political process and encouraging national reconciliation. Since the political system in Iraq is based on a delicate balance of power and revenue sharing arrangement, Turkey has promoted an inclusive approach to manage the country's cultural and political diversity and maintain a functioning federalism.

Turkey's criticism towards Maliki's policies was a reaction to his inability to demonstrate the subtle leadership required to manage differences, and his strategy to pursue aggressively the monopolitisation of power. As the country goes through a severe security and governance crisis, keeping the political process open still remains a must in order to counter the security threats to the fragile foundations of the country.

Ankara is aware that a stable and unified Iraq with a functioning state apparatus, which will also enable the resolution of such pending issues as oil exports, depends on Abadi's success. It sees that the new PM has a good chance to build a wide coalition inclusive of all groups for a unity government. Only then can Iraq have a window of opportunity to direct its energy on the next essential task - ensuring national reconciliation, reintegration and identity-building. 

In any case, Abadi's task will be difficult, as he first will have to rein in his Dawah Party and the Shiite bloc to form an all-encompassing non-sectarian government. An equally daunting challenge will be to reintegrate the Sunnis and regain the Kurds' trust to stabilise the country.

A major impediment in this process will be the extreme fragmentation of the Sunni groups and their disenfranchisement. This will be hard to overcome even with the help of Turkey, which is currently engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Sunni groups to encourage their participation in the unity government.

Dr Saban Kardas is the President of ORSAM (Middle East Strategic Research Center) and a faculty member at the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. He has published scholarly articles and book chapters on Turkish domestic and foreign policies, human rights, energy policies and international security and has been an occasional contributor to Turkish and international media. He is assistant editor to the quarterly journal Perceptions and writes analyses for the German Marshal Fund's On Turkey series. 

Follow him on Twitter: @sabankardas

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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