According to a senior government official who I talked to last week, Turkey has set things in motion to beef up a contingency plan for the future of Iraq in the face of the increasing likelihood that the country may be divided along sectarian lines under the joint pressure of the militant Shiite regime in Tehran and its co-conspirators in Baghdad. The fallback position for Turkey now or Plan B for the future of Iraq is to create a united front, consisting of Sunni Arabs and Kurds, against the Shiite majority. Because of the sensitivity of the partition issue, the official spoke under the condition of anonymity.
The utmost priority for Turkish foreign policy for many years has been to protect the territorial integrity of neighboring Iraq and maintain its social fabric, be it ethnic or religious. In the post-US invasion era, Ankara has lobbied hard to instill a representative government in the Iraqi capital that would have reflected all colors in Iraqi society. The al-Iraqiya bloc, a loose cross-sectarian alignment led by Iyad Allawi, was actually set up at Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s residence in the Turkish capital. Amazingly, in a relatively short period, it grew in strength and secured a sizable number of deputies in elections.
The effort eventually failed when Iran pushed hard for the pro-Iranian Shiite-only bloc led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, despite strong Turkish protests delivered at confidential meetings. Iran has aggressively worked for Maliki’s State of Law coalition, dispensing lots of cash, providing arms, perpetrating killings and bombings and sending fighters and mullahs in order to create a Shiite Iraq. The aim was to establish Iraq as a buffer zone against Western and Sunni Arab encroachment. As soon as the Americans left the country on Dec. 18, Maliki moved to consolidate his power by striking his Sunni rivals. He started with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who was accused of running death squads with trumped up charges leveled by Maliki proxies.
Turkey has woken up to the reality that the priority of maintaining Iraqi territorial integrity may no longer be a sustainable policy. As Hashemi is holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Iraq’s Kurdish president, Maliki has started to dismantle the Al-Iraqiya bloc, using power, position, employment and money, eroding Turkish influence. He is trying to achieve what he wanted all along: A majority Shiite government backed by Kurds. The question of Kurdish support remains highly debatable, however, as Kurdish regions in the North are highly suspicious of Iranian influence. The resentment of Kurds towards Iran is such that they would rather see Turkish boots on the ground instead of Iranians meddling with their affairs. The treatment of Kurds in Iran was an important lesson for Iraqi Kurds to learn.
There are two tracks the Turkish government has been following to help realize the potential of an alliance between Kurds and Sunni Arabs. One is to help soothe the concerns of Iraqi Kurds towards Turkish intentions and the other is to resolve issues between Kurds and Arabs in disputed provinces like Kirkuk. On the first track, there has already been considerable progress, as Ankara has de facto recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and established strong political and economic ties with it. Both sides have recently come to an understanding on how to deal with the militant Kurdish terror waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The KRG is actively working with Ankara to marginalize the PKK terrorists.
The biggest challenge is the second track of resolving disputes in oil-rich Kirkuk province, whose population is a volatile mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. The sharing of oil revenues and future status of this province are at the heart of a long dispute between Iraq’s central government and the KRG. Turkey has already helped establish some kind of alliance between Kurds and Turkmen in the province. The naming of Hassan Toran, a member of the pro-Turkey Turkoman Justice Party, as the chair of the Kirkuk Provincial Council just hours before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s landmark visit to the KRG’s capital Arbil in March 2011 was a significant message. It shows that with the Maliki government’s strong push against Sunni Arabs, Turkey would easily be able to broker an alliance between Kurds and Sunni Arabs as well. Policies pursued by Maliki and his puppet-masters in Iran are actually playing into the hands of Turkey. Their strong push will help Ankara realize Plan B in bringing Sunni Arabs and Kurds together against the Shiite bloc. The KRG’s refusal to hand Hashemi over to Baghdad is a strong indicator in that sense.
The fact that Sunni-majority areas of Iraq have already been showing an interest in self-rule, autonomy or even separation reinforces the partition scenarios as well. Maliki’s dream of an absolute Shiite monopoly is serving as a catalyst for such an unprecedented development. In Sunni-majority Salahuddin province, for example, initial steps were taken to grant the province some kind of autonomy. The Salahuddin governorate council established Salahuddin “as an administrative and economic region within a unified Iraq” in October of last year. Now it is planning to hold a referendum on greater self-rule, a precursor to a federative solution or complete secession.
In his quest as strongman of Iraq and a prominent national figure, Maliki may have unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box for Iraq as calls for federal governance in Sunni-majority provinces may very well trigger similar calls in Shiite-dominated provinces. Several provinces in the Shiite-dominated region south of Baghdad, including Basra, have already attempted to create federal zones but were thwarted by Maliki himself. If Sunni areas move towards self-rule or separation, it would be difficult for Maliki to resist similar temptations in the Shiite areas. Iran would be more than happy to see that Arab identity is in tatters while the Shiite parts of Iraq will eventually be at the mercy of the mullah regime in Tehran.
While all hell breaks loose in Iraq amid sectarian clashes, Erdoğan vowed that Turkey would not sit idly by and watch the developments unfold from afar. In a speech delivered on Jan. 24, 2012, to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) parliamentary group, he signaled for the first time the shift in policy regarding Iraq. “Mr. Maliki should know this: If you engage in a violent process amid a sectarian conflict in Iraq, it will not be possible for us to keep silent about that,” he said. In a very clear reference to an arrest order for al-Hashemi, Erdoğan emphasized that he was not optimistic about the future of Iraq after “seeing an attitude in Iraqi politics that lays siege to its own coalition partners’ house with tanks, with armed vehicles.”
The contingency planning for the partition of Iraq may soon turn into a Turkish government policy if Maliki continues to stoke tensions with Sunni Arabs and Kurds that will trigger a fresh cycle of violence in Iraq. This issue was also discussed during the nearly one-and-a-half-hour-long meeting Erdoğan had with US President Barack Obama in Seoul on Sunday ahead of an international nuclear meeting.
I guess it would be such a shame for an Arab politician, Maliki, to sacrifice the beautiful country of Iraq to Persian-style tricky politics of divide-and-rule, although he may have secured the consolidation of Shiite majority rule in the short term. Officials in Ankara say Turkey will be left with no choice but to support partition on its own terms.