Making Sense of Turkey’s Iraq Policy

After years of tension, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is in Baghdad today (November 20, 2014) to meet with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. The visit is clearly part of a much broader Turkish effort to repair its relationship with Shia political parties in Iraq. Ankara’s relationship with Dawa – and Shia political groups in general – were first damaged in 2009.

As far back as 2005, the AKP began to assiduously work to organize Iraq’s Sunni opposition. At that time, the AKP hosted Tariq Al-Hashimi, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) – the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – at a major conference in Istanbul to help convince the IIP and the three other Sunni groups to vote in favor of the constitution at the upcoming referendum. Turkey did succeed in convincing the Sunni bloc – which was really just IIP – to participate in the referendum (Notably, it was only the Turkish supported bloc that participated in the referendum. Most of Iraq’s Sunnis chose not to vote). However, Ankara has since criticized the constitution, even though it was their efforts that probably led to it getting passed.

In any case, between 2005 and 2009, the IIP was Turkey’s preferred political actor in Iraq. However, the group’s appeal remained limited, owing to the fractured nature of Iraq’s Sunni politics and the Sunni boycott of Iraq politics. Things changed for Turkey in 2009. After years of shunning the political process, Iraqi Sunnis sought to re-enter Iraqi politics. Turkey – acting in an alliance with Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia (oh how things have changed) – played an oversized role in helping to organize an umbrella organization, known as Iraqiya (Iraqiya included IIP). This decision is ultimately the reason for the failure of Ankara’s Iraq policy – and also contributed to the Turkish decision to facilitate the export of KRG oil independent of Baghdad.

The political party performed well in the 2010 election and actually won more seats than the State of Law Coalition and incumbent Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki. However, the Iranian backed Maliki was able to retain his position as Prime Minister and sideline Iraq’s Sunni politicians during the ensuing negotiations to form a new government. Ankara blames Iran and the United States for standing by Nuri Al-Maliki during this period of time. This anger over American policy-making is one of many reasons for Turkey’s hesitance to fully support American decision-making in Iraq and Syria to this day.

Iraqiya collapsed in 2012; thus leaving Ankara without a powerful Sunni bloc in Baghdad. However, beginning in 2009, the AKP found common cause with the Nujaifi brothers. Osama heads the Mutahidun political party, which up until 2014, controlled 45 seats in Iraq’s parliament. However, after the most recent election, the party lost 18 seats, thus leaving it with only 27. This loss of seats book-ended a difficult time for Mutahidun  and its failure to secure more wide-spread support from Iraqi Sunnis in provinces through out Iraq. As a result, in the days and months before the IS take-over of Mosul – and its subsequent capture of 1/3 of Iraq – Turkey’s preferred political party was on the decline and its influence had waned, in favor of parties aligned with Dawa; all of which now view Turkey with suspicion for its role with Iraqi Sunnis.

The Oil Issue: Ankara and the Kurds

Massoud Barzani first approach Turkey with the idea to export Kurdish oil independent of Baghdad in 2005. Ankara reacted cautiously, choosing only to allow two small Turkish affiliated energy companies – Genel Enerji and PetOil – to begin exploratory work in Kurdistan. Turkey reasoned that a decision to export oil independent of Baghdad would contribute to the break-up of the Iraqi state and irreparably damage its relationship with Baghdad. As such, the AKP made the decision – in 2007 – to forego the export of Kurdish oil, in favor of maintaining close ties with Baghdad. However, Ankara also made clear that it would re-evaluate this decision if its relationship with Baghdad completely collapsed.

In 2009, the AKP relationship with Baghdad collapsed because of the aforementioned Turkish role in the creation of Iraqiya. The real turning point for Ankara came in 2011, after Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Tariq al-Hashimi – Ankara’s erstwhile ally and the leader of the IIP the Turkish supported party in Iraq affiliated with the MB. This sequence of events (among other things pertaining to financial compensation for interested parties) prompted Ankara to agree to export Kurdish oil independently. The agreement was helped by Atheel al Nujaifi, who won control over Mosul in 2009 on a stridently anti-Kuridsh platform, before finding common cause with Barzani (and therefore disavowing his previously anti-Kurdish agenda) shortly after his coming to power. The two Turkish allies – Barzani and Nujaifis – subsequently formed an anti-Maliki Turkish supported bloc in areas of Iraq. This further undermined Turkey’s relationship with Baghdad. However, it also portended the start of the independent sale of Kurdish oil via Turkey to international markets in 2013/2014.

The Islamic State

Things changed again in June 2014. After ignoring numerous warnings from Barzani and Nujaifi, the Turkish consulate was taken over by IS on 10 June 2014. This touched off a MIT led effort to secure the release of 46 Turkish hostages held in Mosul. These negotiations resulted in the swapping of IS prisoners – some held in Turkey, others by allied rebel groups in Syria – for the safe return of Ankara’s personnel.

Meanwhile, the IS threat to the KRG and Iraq prompted the United States to intervene in Iraq and then Syria shortly thereafter. In turn, the US has been able to put together a sizable coalition of nations to participate in air-strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In Baghdad, the US used the situation to force Maliki from power and to empower Abadi – a lawmaker from Maliki’s Dawa party. Turkey has thus far refused to participate in the airstrikes, unless its demands for regime change in Syria, a NFZ, and a buffer zone are met. Turkey’s hesitant approach to the anti-IS coalition has since damaged its relationship with the KRG and Ankara’s closest ally in Iraq – Massoud Barzani. During the siege of Erbil, Ankara failed to provide the KDP with weapons, thus leading to Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, to condemn Turkey in an interview with Rudaw.

In parallel, the PYD, which has been working to establish autonomy in the Kurdish majority areas in Syria since mid-July 2012, came under sustained attack by the IS in Kobane. The IS offensive against the canton began in June, but the PYD’s control over the main city was only threatened in late-August. The IS threat prompted the US, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to begin to strike IS positions outside the city – these strikes have continued up until today. Moreover, in a move that embarrassed President Erodgan, the United States air-dropped weapons and medical aid to the PYD – just hours after Erdogan said any such action would not be tolerated.

Ankara and Erbil have – to a large extent – overcome their differences in recent weeks. Both sides need one another. However, there is no denying that the PYD – which has links to the PKK – has grown in stature in recent months in both Iraq and Syria. This has forced Barzani – who has no love for the de-facto leader of the PYD, Abdullah Ocalan – to make concessions to the group that he had hitherto resisted.

Picking up the Pieces

This brief summary of Turkey’s Iraq policy demonstrates just how difficult it will be for Davutoglu to pick up the pieces of his party’s failed Iraq policy. After maintaining cordial relations with Iraqi Shia up until 2009 (Ankara even hosted Muqtada al Sadr), the decision to help create Iraqiya ultimately led to the downfall of Turkey’s position in Iraq. This decision has resulted in Turkey losing almost all of its leverage with Iraqi leaders. Turkey – which was operating from a position of strength up until 2009 – has few levers of influence with Iraq’s Shia political parties and its current Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi. Davutoglu’s visit is absolutely necessary. The AKP-Maliki tensions was untenable. However, Turkey has lost a lot of leverage and bargaining power in recent years to a country the AKP views as destabilizing – Iran. Indeed, one element of the AKP’s foreign policy that gets far too little attention is its rivalry with Iran and its unorthodox efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. (The prevalence of Shia groups, operating under the direction of leadership of Qasem Soleimani is not a welcome sight in Ankara).

In any case, today’s visit is certainly the first step towards trying to mend the AKP relationship with Dawa and other Iraqi Shia parties. However, there is no denying that Ankara’s efforts to do so will take time and will have to overcome the self-inflicted damage of the past 4-5 years. However, this summary does allow for the asking of some tough questions.

1) Did Ankara’s decision to facilitate the independent export of Kurdish oil help or hurt Barzani?

2) What is Ankara’s future Iraq policy. The Nujaifis are in favor of the creation of a sort of ‘Sunnistan’, similar to that of the KRG. Does Ankara support this?

3) How will Davutoglu’s visit today seriously change the state of affairs with Baghdad? What is the metric of success?

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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