Turkey and the unity of Iraq

Turkey and the unity of Iraq

Tariq al-Hashemi, vice president of Iraq, has been sentenced to the death penalty. The judgment of the court was not a surprise for many, because in Iraq and the Middle East everyone knows that the courts are one of the most-used and classical tools to eliminate the political opposition. Anyway, this paper does not aim to analyze the judgment of the court. My aim is to analyze regional developments on the basis of the internal strife of Iraq.

Al-Hashemi left Iraq due to his conflict with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. From Iraq’s Kurdish region, he went to Qatar. Finally, he came to Turkey. He learned of the judgment of the court in Turkey and evaluated it at a press conference. Turkey is hosting al-Hashemi in Istanbul and is showing great respect to him. Surely, this attitude of Turkey cannot be explained only by hospitality since Turkey is becoming not only a side in Iraq’s internal politics, but also a part of a regional “sectarian competition.”

It is clear that the actual reason for the contradiction between these two leaders is the sectarian difference. This difference which causes competition and conflict provides both of them political power in internal affairs and an alliance in external affairs. Correspondingly, al-Maliki, who holds the power inside, is trying to strengthen the central authority while extending his influence to the detriment of Kurds and Sunni Arabs. This initiative inevitably creates a disadvantageous environment for these two Sunni groups – Kurds and Arabs – and ironically pushes them closer to each other. The sect is becoming the basic reference point which determines the attitude of the parties.

Because of its relations with Kurds and Sunni Arabs, Turkey threatens Prime Minister al-Maliki’s centralization project on the scale of Iraq. On one hand, with Turkey’s efforts to develop “oil/natural gas-based” relationships with Kurds, it encourages Kurds to act independently and to be separated from Baghdad. On the other hand, by hosting and protecting al-Hashimi Turkey discredits the authority of al-Maliki. In this situation, al-Maliki not only got aggressive, but also deepened and developed his relationship with Iran and Syria. Turkey has an already-problematic relationship with Iran and Syria. The Iraq issue makes this relationship more complex and unpredictable.

The more interesting issue is that Turkey’s policy toward Iraq does not only differ from these neighbors but also with Russia and the U.S. Turkey has passionate pipeline projects aiming to transfer Kurdish oil and natural gas to Turkish domestic and EU markets without the permission of the central Iraqi government. This idea is not welcomed by either country for different reasons. The U.S. worries that this project will harm the unity of Iraq. On the other hand Russia, as a main supplier, will not be happy to confront a new competitor in the EU’s and Turkey’s natural gas markets.

Although Turkey says its politics does not depend on a sectarian viewpoint, this is no more important. Parties who are struggling in such a complex region will include all arguments like Sunni or Shiite and all tools like the PKK in the play. The problem in the region goes beyond hosting al-Hashemi or efforts to take the competition of Sunnis and Shiites as a reference point.