What went wrong with Iraq and Syria?
“Arbil is my home as well,” Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan said in Kurdish yesterday in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq as he was welcomed by KRG President Massoud Barzani, showing the hard-to-believe improvement of relations between Turks and Iraqi Kurds.
A few hours later, news wires reported from Badghad that the Turkish Embassy was attacked with rockets. Though there were no injuries, the building was damaged. Ankara took it as another act of animosity shown by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The KRG is also hosting the Syrian Kurdish opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, similar to Turkey’s hosting of Syrian opposition activities.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s relations with both al-Maliki and al-Assad were brotherly not more than a year ago; now they are like arch enemies.
There can be two interpretations for the situation.
The first one is the backfiring of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy after the Arab Spring. As Turkey decided to side with the rightful demands of the peoples in neighboring countries, it lost the friendship of the autocratic administrations and the fall of the one in Syria, for example, was not as easy as the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
The second one says two main factors changed the nature of relations with Syria and Iraq. With Syria, it was the Arab Spring. Al-Assad was afraid of a similar fate with Gadhafi and gave up his pseudo-democracy game to take things under control the way he knows. Erdoğan, who had to make a choice in Libya affair in siding with the Western alliance NATO as a member, stood against the line of al-Assad.
With Iraq the game changer was the U.S. troop withdrawal. It was no secret that Iran would try to increase its influence over the Shiite majority in Iraq following the U.S. evacuation, especially when the future of Syria, its main ally in the region started to become uncertain.
As quick as the last American soldier left Iraqi soil, al-Maliki started to intimidate his coalition partners; Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Arab deputy of the Kurdish-origin President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, is in a fugitive position in the Kurdish region.
One high ranking official of the Turkish Foreign Ministry explained Ankara’s position yesterday as follows: “Turkey has no problems with Iraq and Syria, but has problems with al-Maliki and al-Assad’s policies. Our relations with the rest of the region and with many partners are in their best state for years. With North Africa countries, with Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf, with the U.S. and Britain, with Azerbaijan and Russia (with the exception of the missile shield radar discrepancy) we have no serious problems. And with Iraq and Syria, as soon as their state policies change, our strategic relations will resume from where they were frozen.”