The last year has not been kind to Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Relations with Syria plummeted once Ankara -- after some initial delaying -- came out resolutely against the Assad regime. Ties with Iran, though still cordial on the surface, are suffering their own strains because of Ankara and Tehran's differing policies regarding the situation in Syria and Turkey's frustration with Iran over several other political and economic issues.Now Iraq can be officially added to the list of neighbors that Turkey has problems with. In late April, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki labeled Turkey an "enemy state" bent on interfering in his country's internal affairs. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Iraqi counterpart -- leader of a Shiite party -- lacks an understanding of democracy and is fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. The exchange of words led to ambassadors being summoned in both capitals.
More pointedly, Turkey is now playing host to fugitive Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni who is currently wanted in Iraq on charges of running death squads in the country. The issue of the VP's fate will likely only further strain Turkey-Iraq relations now that Interpol has issued a "red notice" that asks for help in the capture of Hashimi, who says the charges against him are politically motivated.To a certain extent, the breakdown in Turkey-Iraq relations is surprising. After the European Union, Iraq is the most important market for Turkish exports. The two countries also have long-established energy ties. So what went wrong? Turkey expert Henri Barkey, writing for the Al-Monitor website, explains:
From a Turkish point of view, there are two primary reasons for the loss of confidence in Maliki’s government. To be fair, Maliki was never Ankara’s preferred choice for the post of prime minister. Following the 2010 Iraqi elections and the interminable delay over the formation of the new government, Ankara and Washington had sided with Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite former prime minister who led a largely Sunni coalition. Far more telling was the very close and supportive links Ankara had forged with the current — and fugitive — Iraqi vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
Still, the Turks, whose primary goal is to ensure Iraq maintains its territorial unity, have viewed themselves as balancers of sorts among Iraq’s ethnic mosaic. Following its convincing 2007 electoral success, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party overhauled its Iraq policy and replaced its largely antagonistic relations toward the KRG with an attitude of cooperation. Ankara even opened a consulate in Erbil, which not only signaled a de facto recognition of the KRG as a federal entity in Iraq but also opened the floodgates for cross-border trade.
Ankara has become persuaded that Maliki’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian style of governance is endangering the fragile make-up of Iraqi politics and encouraging secessionist impulses. Maliki, according to the Turks, has acted more as a sectarian leader than a national one, alienating first and foremost the Sunni community.
Maliki clearly has his own grievances against Turkey. Ankara's growing closeness with Massoud Barzani, leader of the autonomy-minded Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq is clearly not sitting well the Iraqi PM, who is intent on consolidating power in Baghdad. But Maliki (like the Iranians) is also alarmed by Ankara's regional ambitions. In a recent speech in parliament, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu -- the architect of Turkey's "zero problems" policy -- laid out Ankara's vision for the "new Middle East." “We will continue to be the master, the leader and the servant of this new Middle East," he said. "In the new Middle East the aspirations of the people and justice will rule; not tyranny, oppression and dictatorships. And we will be strong defender of this voice. And a new zone of peace, stability and prosperity will emerge around Turkey.”
It's an ambitious vision, but, as Barkey points out, one that also contains the seeds for future conflict with neighbors. "If Turkey is to succeed in shaping the changing nature of the Middle East, it will have to increasingly interfere and intervene in the politics of its neighbors," he writes. "This is deeply disturbing to states such as Iraq at the cusp of the region’s sectarian and ethnic cleavages."