Turkey’s efforts around Iraq are multidimensional and aimed at more than merely suppressing the Kurdish separatist group PKK. The activity that has been in the news in August, of course, is the bombing of Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. Early in the August campaign, the Turks announced their decision to establish a more permanent military presence in northern Iraq, a move that will obviously affect strategic calculations in the region.
Baghdad has been largely silent about the incursions on Iraqi territory, although the Turkish ambassador was summoned last week to hear a complaint from the Iraqi foreign ministry. Iraq’s position is difficult: both Turkey and Iran are bound to be concerned about the Kurds’ use of northern Iraq as a redoubt for their different factional campaigns against Iraq’s neighbors. Iran began attacking Kurdish targets across the border as early as July (see here and here), and with the emerging regional rivalry heating up between Ankara and Tehran, Turkey’s strategic interest in the real estate of northern Iraq was guaranteed to assume a more complex, and even a more urgent, character. If Iraq can’t control the Kurds’ use of her territory, Nouri al-Maliki knows there is a limit to either neighbor’s willingness to refrain from intervention.
The US posture in the area is a question mark: the quality of our military power hasn’t changed, but the amount of it has, while our policy stance has grown flaccid. Even two years ago, Turkey would have expected pushback from Washington if she proposed to establish permanent, significantly enlarged military bases in northern Iraq. It is clear now that Erdogan is justified in assuming there will be no pushback.
The move in the south
In this context, Turkey’s latest move has about it the aura of wasting no time. Down at the other end of Iraq, on the al-Faw peninsula, which runs down the west side of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway as it courses into the Persian Gulf, the Iraqis are finally on the verge of building the major new port they have been planning since 2005. Kick-starting the investment consortium in late August 2011? Three Turkish companies.
It’s not any direct conflict with an Iranian commercial interest that makes this a pointed strategic move; it’s the location and the tactic. The Shatt-al-Arab waterway, representing the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as they empty into the Persian Gulf, has long been disputed between Iran and Iraq, for reasons that reach back centuries. Iran occupied the al-Faw peninsula for a period of time during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; Saddam’s nominal pretext for launching the war was his repudiation of the 1975 accord on the Shatt-al-Arab signed between Iraq and the Shah.
The area is one of Iran’s (and Iraq’s) most sensitive. As the link above outlines, it is also the subject of a bitter dispute between Iraq and Kuwait over port development. Kuwait is already building a rival port on Bubiyan Island, less than a mile off the al-Faw peninsula (and disputed with Iraq until a settlement was achievedon a UN demarcation line in 1994). Iraq is strenuously opposed to Kuwait’s port plans; Kuwait naturally sees no reason to relinquish them.
The threats issued by Hizballah Kataib, the Hizballah group operating in Iraq, against Hyundai and other South Korean firms building the Kuwaiti port have suggested that Iran is opposed to Kuwait’s project as well. Tension between Iran and Kuwait has been fed this year by Kuwait’s discovery in March of an Iranian spy ring inside her borders, along with Kuwaiti accusations that Iran is trespassing in Kuwait’s waters to conduct seismic exploration. Kuwait closed ranks with Saudi Arabia on the issue of suppressing the protests in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, a policy that sat poorly with Iran, which backed some (not all) of the factions seeking to overthrow the Bahraini emir.
Iran’s general attitude toward the Shatt-al-Arab region is conveyed most effectively in this summary by a British analyst of Iranian political and military activities there. Basically, it’s a throbbing vulnerability for Iran over which her leaders prefer to exert as much positive control as possible. Development of a Kuwaiti port at its mouth promises to set up an uncontrollable condition, whereas promoting an Iraqi port there would enable Iran to keep a finger on what happens. Since Iran has her own ports and free-trade zone on the Shatt-al-Arab, it has suited her interests well for Iraq’s port plans to languish, and for Kuwait’s to be subject to threat.
Given these factors, Erdogan’s approach is informative. One option for stymieing Iran would have been simply backing the Kuwaiti port. Already under construction, likely to be completed on time and operated well, it has much to recommend it.
But backing it would not be a way of supplanting Iran as a strategic patron of Iraq. Nor would supporting the Iraqi port politically but remaining in the background. With this month’s move, the Turks have done for the Iraqis’ port aspirations what the Iranians have been no help with: they have come up with money and organization. From a Persian Gulf PR standpoint, the message of Turkish effectiveness is certainly amplified by her naval port visit to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi – the “first one in centuries” – in June 2011.
From Turkey’s perspective, it would be intolerable to have both Syria and Iraq acting under the sway of Iran. There is a defensive reason for Turkey’s actions. But two things must be noted. One is that the catalyst for Ankara’s current activism is not a fear of growing Iranian strength. Iran’s regional power arrangements are actually under threat from multiple sources at the moment, and much of her strategy is being executed in reactionary mode, not from confident assertiveness. What Turkey sees is opportunity, and what created it is the disorder and passivity of US policy. There is a vacuum, and Erdogan is filling it.
Meanwhile, back in the West: “We were here, are here, and will always be here”
The second observation is that Turkey containing Iran isn’t likely to turn out a lot better than Hitler containing Stalin. It sounds clever, but its hazards outweigh the potential benefits. Sooner or later, Erdogan’s objectives are going to collide with the interests of others in the Middle East, with those of NATO, and with at least one of the great powers of Asia.
One of the early flashpoints may be over on Turkey’s other flank, in the Balkans, where Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu helped Bosnian Muslims celebrate Eid in Sarajevo on 30 August. In language guaranteed to alarm Bosnia’s non-Muslim population, Davutoglu and the Grand Mufti pretty much laid it on the table:
Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric welcomed Davutoğlu, telling worshippers that “today is a day we waited for centuries” in Sarajevo. “Today is a day to cherish because the Turkish foreign minister is with us,” he said.
Davutoğlu said Ceric’s sermon was “emotional” and added: “We were here, are here and we will always be here.”
Ceric further commended Davutoğlu after his sermon at the mosque, saying “Allah created him to make history.” Calling Davutoğlu’s Eid prayer at Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque a “historic moment,” Ceric said it symbolized the “rebirth of a new politics and new realities in the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Davutoğlu said after the prayer that he was honored to be in Sarajevo, calling the city as “home.” He said: “In our traditions, we celebrate Eid at home. This is what I am doing, I celebrate the Eid with my family in Sarajevo. Bosnia is our home and Bosnians are our family members.”
As Today’s Zaman demurely puts it, however:
Davutoğlu rejected [the] “neo-Ottoman” label for his government’s foreign policy and said such a label stemmed from the uneasiness some have felt in the face of Turkey’s growing influence in the region.