Turkey-Iraq Tensions?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ali Akbar Asadi, PhD Candidate
Department of International Relations, University of Allameh Tabatabaei

Following the fall of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, Iraq and Turkey tried to ignore their existing problems and challenges and took important early steps toward deepening and expanding bilateral ties. They especially tried to develop economic interactions by signing economic cooperation agreements. The two countries’ relations, however, have been marked with political tensions which have cast doubt on future outlook of their relations. If continued, tensions between Ankara and Baghdad may even leave their negative mark on the entire region. In view of this important development, one of the most basic questions is what are the root causes of recent tension between Turkey and Iraq and how the two countries can possibly reduce or even overcome the tension?

When discussing root causes and the main reasons behind the existing political tensions between Turkey and Iraq, it is necessary to have a correct understanding of both countries’ political viewpoints, on the one hand, and new conditions and developments in the region, on the other hand. From the viewpoint of the Iraqi government, tension began when the Turkish government started to criticize performance of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his interaction with various political groups in that country. Later on, the Turkish government increased its cooperation with some Iraqi opposition figures, including the former vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, who has been indicted on charges of supporting terrorist activities against the Iraqi government. The Iraqi prime minister argues that Turkey’s approach is direct intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq and believes that the new turn in Turkish foreign policy represents Ankara’s new ambitions. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government believes that relations between two countries should be based on the presumption that both sides’ governments are legitimate and elected because other forms of relation between two countries will be illogical. Although the government of Turkey originally sufficed to supporting Sunni groups in Iraq, it has expanded scope of its political activities in that country and by overtly criticizing Maliki’s policies and performance is trying to increase its influence on the internal developments of its southern neighbor. On the one hand, this policy is related to recent challenges that Maliki has been facing in its interaction with Sunni groups after his government decided to put al-Hashimi on trial, which caused tension between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdistan region. On the other hand, it fits within framework of Turkey’s new regional policy for increasing Ankara’s regional clout, especially in Syria. Moreover, different regional roles and policies adopted by Iraq and Turkey have further aggravated the ongoing tension between the two neighbors. While Iraq had put the highest amount of energy in subduing insecurity and solving domestic political problems following the fall of Saddam, now, after withdrawal of the American troops from that country and restoration of the central political sovereignty, Baghdad has started to play its important role in the area of foreign policy, especially in areas close to its borders. That role, however, is in conflict with Turkey’s regional role. Iraq’s close ties with Iran and its balanced stance on internal political developments of Syria, which have been construed as a sign of Iraq’s support of the incumbent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are in contrast with Turkish policy in Syria, which is based on regime change in that country.

Although different viewpoints and aforesaid factors have thus far remained limited to political disputes and rhetoric between Iraqi and Turkish officials and have not had a remarkable impact on bilateral relations, especially with regard to economic interactions, continuation of those disputes will naturally lead to downturn in relations and further expansion of regional rifts and rivalries. In that case, not only the national interests of both sides will be at stake, but the trend will have considerable negative effects on regional stability by inciting confrontation among regional alliances. Control and reduction of tension and disputes between Iraq and Turkey will led to resolution of, at least, part of differences over regional issues, for example, through mediatory efforts undertaken by regional or even international third parties. It will also have positive consequences for the two countries and regional stability. To achieve that goal, taking the following steps seems to be necessary:

- To prevent political disputes from being exposed by the mass media and also to reduce political rhetoric by both countries’ officials in order to reduce tension;

- To recognize each country’s internal issues and disputes and accept that they should be addressed only by that country within the scope of its national sovereignty and to convey any criticism and critical viewpoint through official diplomatic channels;

- To focus more on common grounds and bilateral interests such as economic issues and interactions and the two countries’ territorial integrity and national security, including by joining hands in fighting terrorist groups;

- To prevent third parties with negative and destructive goals and intentions from influencing the two countries’ bilateral relations while adopting a balanced approach in foreign policymaking;

- To accept existence of differences in certain fields and over specific regional issues such as the crisis in Syria, and try to manage and control rivalries to reduce their destructive effect on bilateral relations;

- To pay attention to both countries’ long-term interests and realities which they should take into consideration in the long run and also to pay attention to long-term security complications and instability which results from escalation of tension and disputes.

Key Words: Turkey, Iraq, Tensions, National Sovereignty, Bilateral Interests, Syria, Asadi

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