Ankara getting ready for worst case scenario in Iraq

Ankara getting ready for worst case scenario in Iraq

One would have hoped that time would have helped Iraq’s young democracy to mature. Unfortunately, it seems the country is heading to general elections in a political landscape more fragmented than in the previous 2005 and 2010 elections and with a rise in violence soaring back to levels not seen since 2008.

Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is bidding for a third term in the elections that will be held April 30. Even before he was elected for the first time, Turkey thought he was a wrong choice, arguing that he would further divide the country rather than reunify it. Since al-Maliki seems to be standing as the frontrunner to win these elections, Ankara appears to be preparing for what it calls the “worst case scenario.”

The Turkish government had lobbied very intensively and actively against al-Maliki the first time he contested the elections, which was previously unheard of in Turkish foreign policy. While it failed in its attempts to prevent al-Maliki’s election, it has nevertheless maintained manageable relations with him, although they deteriorated as Ankara contested his increasingly authoritarian and sectarian style. The government’s decision to provide a safe haven to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who was sentenced to death, even further strained relations with Maliki.

Independent of all the accusations made against Turkey for following a sectarian foreign policy and being quick to endorse the Sunni opposition against Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominant regime, the fact remains that Turkish officials feel vindicated with their very early predictions about al-Maliki.

Either Iraq has to change al-Maliki, or al-Maliki has to change; I heard a high level Turkish official saying both are unlikely to happen. While the attention is focused on the Syrian crisis, the Turkish government appears to be very concerned about the situation in Iraq, whose process of “reintegration” will be one of the most important challenges ahead.

Iraq’s division is viewed by Turkey as the worst case, disaster scenario, as it will lead to a serious geopolitical earthquake. Yet, the consolidation of Iraq’s de facto situation, which is basically a country divided into three parts, is increasingly becoming an option for the near future.

When faced by a worst case scenario, you do everything you can to stop it from happening. But then you need to get prepared for the worst case scenario in case you cannot prevent it from happening. Iraq’s division will be rather bloody and an official told me that “Northern Iraq will be an important buffer zone between us and the rest of Iraq.”

I am convinced that Iraq’s division is not an option for Turkey. But then again, I have the impression that Ankara is increasingly preparing itself for the disaster scenario.

Although al-Maliki is not expected to change his way of running the country, the obligation to form a coalition and that, with the Kurds, is a plausible scenario that will suit Turkey’s interests at the short term, according to an expert familiar with the issue. Any coalition agreement would have to include a deal that will permit the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to sell its oil and gas. But coalition talks with the Kurds or other groups are expected to take months, which means Iraq will remain a perpetual cause of headaches for Turkey.