BACKGROUND: The impending U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq has intensified the contest for geopolitical influence in that strategically pivotal country after 2011. The United States aims to retain considerable weight in Iraq even after that date through its’ continued political and economic programs to Baghdad, but Iraqi-U.S. relations have been strained for decades and there will be a natural tendency of any Iraqi leader to burnish his nationalist credentials by distancing himself from Washington. Iran’s influence in Iraq has grown significantly since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the emergence of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The Persian Gulf states of the Middle East have sought to counter Tehran’s influence, but they have proved unable to achieve widespread influence in Iraq. Turkey, however, though not pursuing an overt or perhaps even deliberate policy of balancing Iran, has managed to overcome years of tense ties with Iraq and emerge as a major force in that country’s political, economic, and cultural life.
For several years after the 2003 invasion, Turkish influence in Iraq was limited by Ankara’s decision not to support the U.S. invasion and then by Ankara’s focus on preventing the PKK from expanding operations in northern Iraq, which at times looked like it might become an independent country, something Turks fear would encourage separatism among their own Kurds. Until recently, Turkish leaders generally refrained from seeking to influence the composition of policies of the Baghdad government except regarding Kurdistan.
As an occupying force, the United States has not managed to win the hearts and minds of many Iraqis. Earlier American dreams of transforming Iraq into a beacon of liberal democracy in the Arab world have vanished like a mirage in the desert. Saudi Arabia, the most regionally influential of the Persian Gulf states, is widely distrusted among Iraq’s Shiite majority. Iranians filled this vacuum early on, but in recent years Turkish influence in Iraq has also grown considerably.
In the political arena, Turks have sought to improve relations with Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis as well as Kurds. In the past, Turkey would deal primarily with the central government in Baghdad and eschew contact with the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil. In contrast, Turkish officials now engage directly with Kurdish leaders, who in turn have clearly accepted the necessity of remaining part of a unified Iraqi state and have demonstrated a commitment to suppressing PKK operations in their area of control. Turkish officials have developed ties with moderate Kurdish leaders such as Jalal Talabani, the current Iraqi President, and Massoud Barzani, head of the regional Kurdish Government, who frequently visit Ankara as honored guests.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s influence in the rest of Iraq has also grown as Turkish policy makers have adopted more inclusive policies and as economic and cultural intercourse between Iraqis and Turks have grown. The application of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has led Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, President Abdullah Gül, and other Turkish policy makers to balance unilateral military action with the soft power means of influence in Iraq through deepening cultural, education, and business ties. In essence, Turkey has replaced the stick in favor of the carrot.
Turkey’s economic weight in Iraq, as in many nearby countries, continues to increase. Trade between Turkey and Iraq amounted to $6 billion in 2010, twice that of 2008. Expectations are that Iraq will soon become Turkey’s main export market. Turkish policy makers would like to increase this level to $25 billion in five years.
Turkey’s economic influence has grown especially large in Iraqi Kurdistan, as to be expected if economic rather than adverse political factors shape their relations. The border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has never been more open, as 1,500 trucks pass daily through the 26-lane border crossing of Ibrahim Khalil. A few years ago, the main Turkish presence in northern Iraq was military. Although some 1,500 Turkish troops now quietly remain in northern Iraq, Turkey’s most visible presence is its pop culture, especially cinema, and Turkish goods. Turkish clothes, furniture, toys, building materials, and other products flood the malls and shops throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. Aydin Selcen, who heads the Turkish consulate in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has said that the border barriers would be further reduced in coming years since “we are going to integrate with this country. Roads, railroads, airports, oil and gas pipelines — there will be a free flow of people and goods between the two sides of the border.”
Turkish investment is also flourishing, with more than half the foreign firms operating in Iraqi Kurdistan being of Turkish origin. Many Turkish business leaders see Iraqi Kurdistan as both an area of economic opportunity in itself as well as transit zone for increasing Turkish trade with more distant regions in the Middle East. Turkish political leaders want to strengthen their border security by working with Iraqi Kurdish authorities against the PKK. They also hope that the increased economic exchanges across the border will bring greater prosperity to the traditionally economic backward regions where many of Turkey’s Kurds, which constitute one-fifth of Turkey’s population, reside.
Iraqi Kurds appreciate that their economic development depends heavily on their attracting Turkish investment as well as being able to trade with Turkey and beyond by means by transiting Turkish territory. They also want to deepen ties with the Turkish Kurds since, at least for the time being, the possibility of establishing a unified Kurdish political entity is excluded. But Turkish businesses are also very active in other parts of Iraq. For example, in Basra, Turkish construction firms have refurbished the landmark Sheraton Hotel, built the International Fair Ground that opened in June 2010, and are presently constructing a large stadium. To increase travel to the area, Turkish Airlines is planning four flights a week from Istanbul to Basra. Meanwhile, two Turkish ships docked at Basra supply the city each day with 250 megawatts of electricity A major oil pipeline runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan in Turkey. It carries one quarter of Iraq’s oil exports. The flow assures both the authorities in Kurdistan and in Turkey considerable revenue while helping secure Turkey’s position as major energy bridge between the Middle East and Europe.
Turkey has also cultivated non-economic ties with Iraqi Shiites, including by reaching out to populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr by training lawmakers belonging to al-Sadr’s party in parliamentary protocol. Erdogan, though a devout Sunni Muslim, attended the Shiite commemoration of Ashura. In addition, a Turkish consortium plans to participate in an $11-billion renovation project in Sadr City, Baghdad’s largest Shiite neighborhood.
This comprehensive and sustained Turkish outreach effort has helped overcome the awkward fact that, during Iraq’s March 2010 national elections, Turks generally supported the more secular Iraqi National Movement bloc led by Ayad Allawi rather than the eventual winner, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. According to WikiLeaks, Turkish officials view al-Maliki less as an Iranian puppet than as an ambitious strongman who has exploited the postwar weakness of competing Iraqi political and social institutions to accrue and exercise near dictatorial powers. But Turks’ support to al-Maliki’s opponents, financial and otherwise, was much less than that provided by the Persian Gulf states. And the pressure of Turkey, the United States, and other foreign governments during the seven-month process of coalition formation did succeed in inducing the rivals to form a multi-party government in which al-Maliki’s influence will be somewhat diluted. The leaders of the new government in Baghdad seem eager to work with Turkey. Whereas its Shiite members seek to limit the influence of the Persian Gulf monarchies, and non-Shiite leaders want to constrain Iranian influence in their country, neither they nor any other influential Iraqi group opposes Turkey’s growing sway.
Iranians have strong religious influence in Iraq. Furthermore, many Iraqis have deep personal ties with Iranians thanks to student exchanges and other opportunities for Iraqis to live in Iran and vice-versa. Many of Iraq’s top leaders have traveled to and from Tehran seeking political advice and counsel. But Iran’s economic potential in Iraq is limited by Iran’s weak economy, economic sanctions, and unilateralist tendencies, now on display in how Iranians are cutting off fuel supplies to Afghanistan to signal displeasure at the U.S. military presence in that neighboring country.
CONCLUSIONS: The Western governments have generally encouraged Turkey to expand its presence in Iraq. Not only does it dilute Iranian influence, but Turkish business activities generate economic growth and jobs in Iraq, helping the country recover from decades of war and avoid returning to civil strife. Furthermore, many Western leaders still see Turkey’s Islamic-influenced but essentially secular system as a model of the type of political and social system that could work well in Iraq, which its large Sunni minority and secular tradition, or at least as offering a superior alternative to that of an Iranian-style Shiite autocracy.
This trend is likely to continue as Western influence in Iraq continues to decline in coming years with the further natural integration of Iraq into regional politics. And by helping keep Iraq out of Tehran’s orbit and linking Baghdad to the West, Ankara will increase its own regional influence and enhance its value as a strategic partner of Western and Persian Gulf governments.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".