Dancing on Iraq’s divide
Turkey has been walking a tightrope on Iraq, from which it might now be set to fall, writesSalah Nasrawi
When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Iraq last week, he took time out to join millions of Shias paying homage at the Shia holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala on Ashura, the most sacred day of the Shia calendar which marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohamed’s grandson Imam Hussein by the Umayyad caliph Yazid in 680 CE.
Back home in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also attended two Ashura day ceremonies, emphasising in his speeches that Imam Hussein’s “sacrifice is a source of unification and brotherhood” among Muslims “rather than of separation”.
However, Davutoglu and Erdogan’s symbolic gestures towards Iraq’s Shias, which come as Ankara is trying to break the ice with the Shia-led government in Baghdad after a three-year lull, seemed to be more an exercise in political dancing or tightrope walking than a solid diplomatic initiative.
For Turkish diplomacy to be able to mend fences with Baghdad, it needs to be doing more than just avoiding disagreement by saying what Davutoglu and Erdogan think their Shia interlocutors want to hear. This gets them into trouble when the Shias realise that Ankara is courting them while having its eyes firmly fixed on the country’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Ankara’s relations with Baghdad deteriorated following a series of crises after the Shia-led government accused Turkey of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs and fuelling its ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
Tensions rose after Davutoglu and Erdogan sponsored the mostly Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc in Iraq’s elections in 2010, hoping it would replace the Shia alliance that had controlled the Iraqi government since the collapse of the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Shias at that time had accused Ankara of trying to bring the Sunnis back to power.
Relations took another dive after Ankara started building strategic relations with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, including by allowing the Kurds to export oil through Turkey. The state-backed Turkish Energy Company (TEC) was established to operate in Kurdistan, eyeing joint exploration on more than a dozen oil and gas fields in the semi-autonomous region.
Iraq’s central government also protested against Turkey’s decision to give refuge to fugitive Iraqi Sunni Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi, who has been sentenced to death in absentia on charges of terrorism.
An unauthorised visit by Davutoglu to the disputed city of Kirkuk in August 2012 also triggered a backlash when Baghdad accused Turkey of defying its sovereignty and backing Kurdish claims to the oil-rich province.
In addition, the war in Syria, which borders both Iraq and Turkey, has been a source of contention as Ankara has supported the Syrian rebels in their drive to oust the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while the Shia-led government in Baghdad has argued that the rising violence in Iraq has been caused by the civil war in Syria that has strengthened the Sunni insurgency and the Al-Qaeda-aligned groups there.
These disputes have embroiled Baghdad and Ankara in a tug-of-war and accusations by the Iraqi Shias of neo-Ottomanism, or attempts by Turkey to promote a greater role for Ankara in the Middle East, including in Iraq which was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
But in recent weeks, Turkey has seemed to have been reconsidering part of its regional strategy, especially its approach to Syria, presumably arising from the stalemate in Syria’s civil war and the deadlock in its peace efforts with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey now seems to feel threatened by the rise of Islamist extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Syria, and the resurgence of a Kurdish autonomous entity led by PKK allies on its southern borders.
While for understandable reasons Ankara needs to advance its political and economic ties with the Kurds in Iraq in order to balance those with its sceptical, or even negative, perceptions of the PKK, it has moved fast to build on the Baghdad government’s concern about Al-Qaeda to improve the two countries’ strained relations.
During his visit to Baghdad, Davutoglu pledged to end the diplomatic tensions plaguing the two neighbours. He told his Iraqi hosts at a press conference that “the historical friendship between Turkey and Iraq is as inseparable as ever”.
On Friday, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz proposed that Ankara be the broker in trying to find a solution to an oil dispute between the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan Region. He suggested that Ankara serve as an independent intermediary by having Iraqi oil revenues deposited into an escrow account at a Turkish state bank.
However, it does not take much to realise that the real objectives behind the Turkish moves have not been so much to cement ties with the Shia-led government as to lure the Iraqi Kurds towards Erdogan’s agenda.
On Saturday, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, visited south-eastern Turkey in a historic trip meant to shore up support for the flagging Kurdish peace agreement and bolster Turkey’s influence across its troubled southern borders.
The peace process has stalled since a truce in March, with the PKK saying a package of democratic reforms declared by the Erdogan government last month to reinforce the rights of the Kurdish minority had fallen short of its expectations.
In an unusual scene, the government allowed thousands of Kurds to greet Barzani in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s Kurdish region, in a rally that was attended by Erdogan, who billed the visit as “a historic process”.
Observers have been asking how significant all of this is to Erdogan, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces crucial elections next year. According to Turkish commentators, Erdogan’s invitation to Barzani serves several political purposes.
First, Erdogan hopes to weaken Kurdish leader Abdallah Ocalan by reminding him that Barzani, who has no love for the imprisoned PKK leader, is a key actor in Kurdish politics. He hopes that by stirring up inter-Kurdish competition he will be able to push Ocalan and his supporters into taking a more conciliatory position on the peace process.
Second, Erdogan is keen to press the peace process in the run-up to the municipal elections next March, with the ruling AKP looking to tempt the Turkish Kurds away from the PKK supporters who govern some Kurdish cities, including Diyarbakir.
Third, Erdogan hopes that Barzani will denounce the transitional administration that the Kurds in Syria declared last week, despite Turkey’s objections, for fear that the enclave will fall under the control of pro-PKK local parties.
“In a way Erdogan is trying to hit several birds with one Barzani stone in this move,” wrote Turkish commentator Murat Yetkin in the Hurriyat newspaper on Sunday.
If this was Erdogan intention, then at first glance he has certainly succeeded in driving a wedge between Iraq’s Kurds and their brethren in Syria and Turkey.
However, it is unlikely that Erdogan and Davutoglu’s Ashura gestures will achieve anything meaningful to the Iraqi Shias or alleviate their concerns about what they perceive as Ankara’s game-playing in Iraq’s internal affairs.
Erdogan government’s proposal to try to broker a solution to the oil dispute between the Kurdistan regional government and the government in Baghdad has fallen on deaf ears in the latter.
The Iraqi government, which deems the exploration and production of oil by the Kurdish administration as illegal, has repeatedly said it is opposed to any direct or unauthorised exports through Turkey.
Iraq’s Shia-controlled government also expects Turkey to show signs that it does not support Sunni extremists working to topple the government. It also expects Ankara to hand over Al-Hashemi, in line with an Interpol arrest warrant.
Quite how the Shias reacted to Ankara’s attempt at rapprochement has been evident in their religious leaders’ response to Davutoglu’s pilgrimage to the two holy cities.
One of the Shias’ most important demands from Turkey came from an unexpected source. The Turkish media reported that Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani protested to Davutoglu when he received him about Turkey’s construction of major dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that are reducing water flows into Iraq.
According to these reports, Al-Sistani dismissed Davutoglu’s explanation about Turkey’s water policies vis-à-vis neighbouring countries and suggested that the water problem should be resolved by UN arbitration.
A prominent Shia preacher in Karbala was even less diplomatic.
“The Ottomans were the Yazids who used to kill the Shias,” he told his congregation outside Hussein’s shrine as Davutoglu was paying homage to the tomb of the slain Shia imam, alluding to stories of the slaughter and persecution of the Shias by the Sunni Ottomans.