The Conflict on Syria's Outskirts: Iraq Before Lebanon? |
Al Hayat - 01 May, 2012
Author: George Semaan
The meeting held in Irbil on Saturday between Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani, Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Kurdistan province Massoud Barzani, Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujeifi and leader of the Iraqi List Iyad Allawi, might not turn the page of the promised national conference in the province’s capital to resolve the disputes. It might even threaten the entire political process in the country and bury whatever is left of the Irbil agreement sealed before the end of 2010 to facilitate the formation of the current government after a labor that lasted eight months. The meeting included the opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose presence would have pointed to the beginning of the settlement of many pending issues among the blocs, but also between the sectarian and ethnic components, from the case of Vice President Tarek al-Hashimi to the distribution of the oil revenues and the continuation of the implementation of the Cabinet formation agreement. There are also issues that have turned into a daily chorus, namely the discussion of the ways to defuse the crisis, enhance the democratic process and activate its mechanisms.
Irbil has become very distant from Baghdad politically and geographically and Muqtada al-Sadr will not be able to mediate or see his mediation succeed easily. The Iraqis have pushed their conflict across the border, and the inclusion of their neighbors in their crises will only deepen and complicate them and add elements that will further enhance the divisions instead of facilitating the solutions. Al-Maliki’s response was not late, as he crossed the border into Iran, whose President, Ahmadinejad, believes that an alliance with Baghdad would constitute an element of strength, in light of which there will be no room for the two countries’ enemies in the region. At this level, the enemies of the Islamic Republic are known. They are the same as Nouri al-Maliki’s among the domestic actors and the neighbors that boycotted the Baghdad summit or did not give any importance to it, received Al-Hashimi during his Saudi-Qatari-Turkish tour and received Barzani in Washington and Ankara where he threatened that Kurdistan’s independence was undoubtedly coming and that the referendum over it might be held at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not hesitate to accuse his Iraqi counterpart of “fueling the sectarian and denominational tensions among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds.”
Al-Maliki did not visit Tehran to express his support in favor of President Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Island of Abu Musa and his fueling of the Arab and Gulf states’ anger. Al-Maliki did not visit Tehran to discuss the Iranian nuclear file which is purely Iranian, and might have settled for reaching an understanding over the ways to manage the talks that will be hosted by Baghdad in two weeks. Rather, he visited the Iranian capital to discuss the ways to confront the new bloc that was hosted by Irbil two days ago, as well as all the opponents that support this bloc, especially Turkey. Just like all the Iraqi leaders, the head of the State of Law Coalition is watching how the Syrian crisis has started to cross the outskirts and the borders, at a time when Iraq and its political crisis might be – before Lebanon and even better than it – a parallel arena for the ongoing confrontation in the Syrian cities and rural areas. He is aware, along with his allies domestically and abroad, that the collapse of the regime in Damascus will place Iraq’s fate at stake and turn it into a major arena for the duel between two projects in the region, between two regional Arab and Iranian blocs and between the West on one hand and Russia and its allies on the other.
For their part, and while watching their leaders moving between Ankara, Tehran and other capitals, the Iraqis are growing more aware of the fact that the tensions among their sects, denominations and components are increasingly becoming part of the growing tensions between Turkey and Iran and pushing toward further sectarian alignment throughout the region, from South Yemen to Kurdistan and the states surrounding occupied Palestine. It is a polarization that is also taking shape on the international level. Indeed, while the United States and its Western partners are trying to adjust to the wave of change in the Arab world and to fall in line with the Sunni Islamic movements, Russia chose to stand on the opposite side with what some Arabs dubbed the Shiite Crescent, extending from Iran to Lebanon, going through Syria and Iraq.
Nowadays, and as it is watching the Iranian action in southern and northern Yemen, in Bahrain, among some blocs and Gulf islands, in Syria and in Lebanon, Turkey can sense that it might lose its role in the Middle East if change is not introduced in Syria and if Iraq becomes affiliated with Iran, as well as with Syria as it is now being seen. Therefore, it is currently facing a difficult test revealed by Erdogan’s confusion and threats which he is spreading left and right. Ankara is not concealing its fears over Syria’s possible division or slide toward long-term civil war and anarchy, considering that its domestic situation will not be spared by the repercussions of such a development and drastic transformation at the level of the Syrian crisis. Moreover, the support it is offering to the Sunni and Kurdish blocs in Iraq falls short from establishing an efficient balance in the face of Iranian influence, unless the required change is seen in Damascus.
Turkey also feels that Iraq is becoming – day after day – its opponent in the region, at a time when its policies in this region are facing obstacles and hindrances caused by the developments affecting the Syrian crisis. It thus fears that this might undermine all that was achieved by Ahmet Davutoglu’s diplomacy in terms of accomplishments during the past years. On the other hand, its diplomacy excessively focused on the economic facet and allowed it to prevail over the ideological one in building the zero-problem policy with its neighbors. It consequently rushed to reestablish its relations with its surrounding to support its position, commerce and political goals as a necessary actor in the region from the Balkans to Central Asia, even in North Africa and deep within the Arab Peninsula. However, it discovered that at the peak of the sectarian conflict, ideology has the upper hand in determining the course of the game in the region, which is why it finally remembered its membership in NATO and rushed to seek its help on one hand, and seek the help of the Sunni camp on the other. It discovered there was no room for common denominators in times of major shifts and transformations, and no way of merging the membership in NATO and the membership in the rejectionist axis to which Tehran wanted to lead it.
In the face of Baghdad’s, Tehran’s and Damascus’ barrier, the Iraqi Kurdistan province might be the only door left for Ankara. Al-Maliki is enhancing the ties with two states being subjected to the harshest sanctions and so far, the way he has been accommodating his policy to that of Iran and Syria has been acceptable. But what might constitute an undesirable risk would be to link Iraq’s economy to two faltering economies due to the blockade, as this might subject his country to pressures and even sanctions, especially if the talks over the nuclear file were to fail and if Kofi Annan’s mission in Syria is obstructed. But in case the Islamic Republic - which has successfully contained the repercussions of two American wars on the region - is able to tighten its grip around Iraq to allow their alliance to surpass politics and reach the oil sector, this will constitute the greatest challenge not only for the Arab system but also for Turkey’s position and role in the New Middle East. Indeed, in three or four years, Iraq will be able to export around six million barrels per day, and if this number is added to Iran’s production – which is the second largest exporter after Saudi Arabic in OPEC – one can only imagine the size of this oil power and its ability to engage in compromises and exert pressures.
Even now, Turkey is politically relying on what was and will be produced by the Arab spring, and on Russia and Iran for oil. So will it risk destroying the bridges with both Baghdad and Tehran by heading toward Kurdistan on the political and oil levels? It is known there is a dispute over the oil law and the allocation of the revenues between Al-Maliki’s government and the Kurdistan government, and that the Kurds went far in building an independent oil policy on which they had been working for years. But their major problem is their constant need for Baghdad’s approval of their networks and authorization to export through those networks. It is also known that two years ago, Barzani preferred to ally with the Shiite blocs which did not want to renew Al-Maliki’s term, but definitely did not want to see Iyad Allawi assuming the premiership for numerous and known reasons, namely to keep the country’s command in the Shiite house. However, the excessive enhancement of political, military and economic centralization by the leader of the State of Law Coalition provoked the fears of the Kurds who can still vividly remember all the painful images of the centralized policies and their oppression. Moreover, the president of the Kurdistan province might have seized the opportunity of the dismantlement of the region in order to secure further progress at the level of the Kurdish cause toward the achievement of more autonomy.
Now the question is: Will Turkey go far in its alliance with Barzani? Will it support the establishment of an independent Kurdish entity if this entity can help it dissolve the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the context of a deal or a trade off? And will this help it contain the aspirations of Syria’s Kurds who were not involved in the domestic action and want the recognition of their right to establish an independent entity which might exceed the point of self-determination if the authority in Damascus were to collapse, knowing they were the real protectors of the PKK and the party’s human reservoir in politics and in combat? Will it engage, alongside Barzani, in a temporary battle to prevent Iran from controlling the Iraqi card? And can it change its old policy toward the Kurdish cause which was behind its rapprochement with Syria and Iran – i.e. to contain the Kurds’ aspirations – and ensure the sustainment of its unity and stability?