by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 10, Muharram, 1435)
Let by unrealistic expectations of reviving the Ottoman legacy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan chewed more than he could swallow in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. After repeated failures, Ankara has embarked on a course correction, one hopes, in sincerity.
After four years’ absence, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu must have had uneasy feelings when he returned to the Iraqi capital last month. In his two-day official visit to Baghdad (November 10 and 11), he met senior figures of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government as well as Kurdish and Shi‘i leaders in the country. Since the Iraqi elections of 2010, Baghdad has been at odds with Ankara. During the elections Turkey put all its eggs in the Iraqiyya coalition bag that was made up mostly of Sunnis, secular Shi‘is and Turkmans.
Turkey’s relentless support for the coalition upset the Kurds and al-Maliki. This ultimately turned into a major crisis when Turkey granted refugee status to former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Baghdad considered the move as Ankara’s attempt to influence Iraq’s internal affairs and reacted strongly. Subsequent events such as Davutoglu’s unauthorized visit to Northern Iraq, prevention of the Turkish Energy Minister’s plane to fly to Erbil and Ankara’s obstinate support for the Syrian opposition further exacerbated relations between the two countries.
Since then Turkey has been unremitting in its uncompromising attitude toward al-Maliki’s government. The Turkish government wanted him to leave office by supporting opposition groups but as has been the case in Syria, they miscalculated the internal and external dynamics of the new Iraq as well. Faced with total isolation from neighboring countries, Turkey finally decided to recalibrate its relations with Iraq. Davutoglu’s aim was to convince Baghdad that the Turks have now changed their position toward Iraq and are willing to work together for bilateral economic and political benefits. In this regard during a joint press conference with his iraqi counterpart, Davutoğlu said, “We set no limits to our relations and our cooperation [with Iraq]”.
Turkish policy makers know that if they want to reestablish cordial relations with Iraq they need to resolve their problems regarding the Syrian civil war. Davutoglu, therefore, emphasized that they had consultations regarding regional issues concerning both countries, particularly Syria. Davutoglu said that from now on, a closer consultation mechanism on Syria will be carried out, and that the two countries will stand shoulder to shoulder against those who want to provoke sectarian and ethnic strife in the region. Davutoglu said, “Our region has witnessed enough bloodshed. Therefore, we have to work together toward peace and stability.”
In response, the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said that there was a standoff between the two countries in the past but now a new era in relations has begun. Emphasizing that Turkey and Iraq have established very privileged relations, the Iraqi foreign minister stressed that it was agreed to reestablish political dialogue and to reactivate the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council.
Zebari was referreing to blossoming economic ties between the countries that allowed Turkish companies to secure lucrative contracts all over Iraq and joint oil pipeline projects that would have helped both countries’ economies immensely. But the foreign-backed civil war in Syria interrupted these projects and all the major projects between the two countries have been postponed. But now Turkey’s changing stance in relation to Iraq and respecting the red lines of Iraq that al-Maliki identified when he received Davutoglu seems to herald new rapprochement between the two countries. “We want good relations based on common interests, mutual respect and non-intervention in domestic affairs,” al-Maliki said.
Turkey has declared its intention to reconcile with Iraq. During a November 13 press conference, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan said that Turkish parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek would soon go to Baghdad, after al-Maliki’s visit to Ankara, during which the dormant “Turkey-Iraq High Level Strategic Council” will be reactivated. Erdogan added, “After that, there will be my return visit [to Baghdad]. I believe that in this way we will make an important contribution to peace in the region.”
Cicek, a senior figure in the AKP, visited Iran in October and met senior Iranian officials to discuss a number of issues, especially Syria. It has been suggested by the Turkish media that he was tasked by Erdogan to reconcile relations with Iran and find common ground on the question of Syria.
These developments are strong indications of the changing direction of Turkey’s foreign policy toward Syria and Iraq. Despite his harsh remarks against both countries Erdogan seems to have come to an understanding that the only way to solve the problems is in an atmosphere of dialogue with these countries including Iran.
In this regard, talking to a private TV channel last month, Erdogan announced, “Of course these developments and joint works [with Iraq], with the inclusion of Iran will pave the way for a peace process on the issue of Syria.”
Further acknowledgment came from Bulent Arinc, number two in the AKP. During his visit to the US last month Arinc delivered a speech at influential Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and stated, “The confusion in Syria affected our relations with Iraq negatively. But we are improving the relations at the moment, Maliki will visit Turkey soon.”
The obstinate stance of Erdogan’s government on the issue of Syria and Iraq caused great harm to Muslims by further fueling sectarianism. Although his Sunni background is well known, Erdogan is a student of Necmeddin Erbakan, the late leader of Milli Gorus movement, and does not have sectarian biases. Yet the policies his government devised only served to increase the Shi‘i-Sunni divide in the region.
The timing of Davutoglu’s visit gives a good indication that Turkey is planning to reverse a policy that has caused great harm. Davutoglu visited Iraq in the month of al-Muharram and despite the warnings, due to serious security risks, he visited the city of al-Najaf. There he met with Grand Ayatullah ‘Ali Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, the most influential religious leaders in the country.
According to al-Monitor during the meeting with Ayatullah Sistani the two discussed sectarian violence in the region “for which both shared mutual understanding and agreement.” Sistani also mentioned his disapproval regarding construction of a series of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that will reduce water flows into Iraq. This issue has created a major problem for the Iraqi economy as well as the country's environment that must be resolved through cooperation between Iraq and Turkey, according to Sistani.
In his meeting with Muqtada al-Sadr, the two also discussed the regional sectarian crisis and stressed that Iraq and Turkey must work together to confront terrorist groups taking advantage of the volatile situation in Syria.
After these meetings Davutoglu, in Shi‘i mourning attire, visited the shrine of Imam ‘Ali (ra) in al-Najaf and Imam Husayn (ra) in Karbala’, saying, “May Allah bless us by allowing us to walk in the footsteps of Imam Husayn.”
In the context of recent interim nuclear deal between the US and Iran, Turkey needs to come to terms with the idea that even Washington cannot deal with Iran (as well as Syria and Iraq) through confrontation. Therefore, Turkey should work with its neighbors to tackle regional issues together.