Over the past weeks, the warm relationship between Iraq and Turkey has soured, with the two PMs in a war of words about Baghdad’s political crisis. However the real reasons may have more to do with Syria. And Iran.
Last month there was what was described as a “war of words” between the leaders of Iraq and Turkey in the local and international media.
The conflict began with the issuing of an arrest warrant against one of Iraq’s vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, who is also a leading member of the opposition party Iraqiya. Currently the Iraqi government is led by Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law bloc, which is Shiite Muslim dominated. Iraqiya, which is Sunni Muslim dominated, are the main opposition party. Iraqiya also have close ties to the Turkish government.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan then gave a speech in Turkish Parliament, which was televised, in which he said that his country would not stand by idly if Baghdad was intending on causing sectarian strife.
"Maliki should know that: if you start a conflict in Iraq in the form of sectarian clashes, it will be impossible for us to remain silent," Erdogan said. "Those who stand by with folded arms watching brothers massacre each other are accomplices to murder."
Al-Maliki was quick to respond. In a statement, he said that, “Erdogan has provoked all Iraqis with his comments … Sunni and Shiite Iraqis are brothers and do not need anyone claiming to defend them against each other.”
Other examples of the worsening of relations between the two countries included the two regimes both calling in one another’s ambassadors to protest against critical comments. A rocket was also fired at the walls of the Turkish embassy in Baghdad.
However, according to some analysts, the root cause of the controversy lies far from Ankara or Baghdad. Some believe that the real reason for the growing rift between the two nations, whose relationship has actually been growing closer over the past few years, lies with Syria and the growing violence and protests in that country.
Up until very recently, Turkish-Iraqi relations had actually been improving. In late January Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has attracted attention worldwide for his diplomacy, talked about how a strong and united Iraq, with all sects and ethnicities standing side by side, would be a good thing for the whole region.
The Turkish have also played a role in mediating various internal issues in Iraqi politics. The real shift came about in the summer of 2007 when a large number of Sunni Muslim politicians said they would resign from al-Maliki’s government because of the government’s inability to deal with the security situation. Al-Maliki asked the Turkish to help negotiate and they responded positively, convincing the politicians to staying the government.
As a result, Turkey became something of a political authority for both Sunni Muslim sect and the ethnic Turkmen in Iraq, there were new trade deals and economic agreements made and the Baghdad government “overlooked” the fact that the Turkish military were making incursions into Iraq in pursuit of anti-Turkish-government groups.
Turkey and Iraq are also among each other’s top trading partners with trade between them reaching US$12 billion, according to January 2012 figures. Of this, just over two thirds of investment and trade is happening in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq’s north, which borders on Turkey.
One thing that has distinguished the “neo-Ottoman” policy is the way that Turkey has balanced its relationships with both Baghdad and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Erbil. If one relationship starts looking a little tense, Turkey tries to improve its relationship with the other. This puts both governments - the federal one in Baghdad and the state government in Erbil - under constant pressure and allows the Turkish to get the best from both.
But the latest enmity seems to be proving a little more problematic. Protests in Syria began last March, just as Erdogan was visiting Iraq, and since then it’s become obvious that there is a clear division in the way that the Turkish and Iraqi governments see Syria’s future.
Right from the early days of the Syrian uprising, Turkey has supported protestors’ initiatives, aimed at toppling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As US current affairs magazine The Atlantic reports, on a story about Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian opposition: “Turkey has hosted the majority of Syrian opposition conferences on its soil, from Istanbul to Antalya. Ten thousand Syrian refugees who fled a massacre in the Idleb province last June are currently living in tents on the Turkish border.”
Meanwhile the Iraqi government’s relationship with Syria has also seen a change, with some saying it’s a change that’s been encouraged by Iran, another of the nations that plays a strong political and economic role in Iraq. Al-Maliki’s government is reportedly strongly influenced by Iran.
In the summer of 2009 Iraq was accusing Syria of arming militias that were causing instability in Iraq. But these days Baghdad’s tone is far more ambiguous, leading many to believe that the Iraqi regime is supporting the Syrian government.
Syrian observers felt this particularly keenly after a visit to Turkey by powerful Iraqi cleric, Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The visit by al-Hakim, a Shiite Muslim said to be closest to the Turkish government than many others, was ostensibly about smoothing out Iraqi-Turkish tensions.
But a statement about Syria was also made. Al-Hakim said that the crisis in Syria could only end with dialogue between the Syrian people and their government, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the Iraqi people to support the demands of the Syrian people. To Syrian activists used to reading between the lines, the first statement by the Iraqi cleric was an echo of the calls for dialogue made by the Syrian government itself; the Syrian opposition has already rejected any idea of dialogue that allows al-Assad remains in power.
By all accounts, Iran is supportive of the Syrian regime, whether covertly or overtly. The two countries have had a mutually beneficial relationship since the 1980s. For Iran, Syria is a springboard into the Arab Middle East. And some observers say that Iran, which is reportedly pulling out all the stops to support al-Assad, is now trying to influence Turkey on the Syrian issue, via their Iraqi allies.
Then again, it also seems that al-Maliki’s government has no real interest in supporting the Syrian uprising for its own reasons. After all, why would they wish for unrest on their western borders, unrest that could well spread into Iraq itself, at this difficult time?
Most likely what will influence the outcome of this situation most is the trade balance between the two countries. In the past Turkey has used its economic ties with Baghdad to pressure the Iraqis. Now, judging by the tone that al-Maliki is taking with Turkey – a harder line, and one that he has not tended to use with Turkey before – it seems that Baghdad is reversing that role. Baghdad has realized that they are Turkey’s only trade route into the Middle East, now that Turkey has ceased economic and diplomatic relations with Syria.
However despite the seriousness of the current relationship crisis between the two countries, it seems unlikely that Turkey or Iraq will really push this diplomatic boat out on this conflict. Neither of them can afford to gamble with, or disregard, their own economic interests in this case; both rely on one another and it would be ill advised for both nations.
Which leads one to believe that this crisis in Turkish-Iraqi relations must be a temporary one. And it is one that will be resolved when the fate of the current Syrian regime becomes clearer – which must happen soon, one way or another.