Turkey, al-Sadr and Leaving Iraq

In his WPR opinion briefing yesterday, Michael Wahid Hanna pointed out how the refusal by Sunni Arab states — and in particular Saudi Arabia — to get off the sidelines in Iraq is compromising U.S. efforts to create a diplomatic framework to stabilize the country and balance Iranian influence in anticipation of troop drawdowns.

Interestingly enough, Turkey seems to have checked in at the scorer’s table and is getting ready to get in the game. And its objectives in Iraq — i.e., a non-federal state with a strong central government to prevent an independent Kurdistan, and plenty of economic development for Turkish businesses to take advantage of — correspond pretty closely to what the Obama administration (minus Joe Biden) would like to see.

Of course, the main political actor in Iraq espousing that agenda, outside of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is Moqtada al-Sadr. But as this Today’s Zaman analysis of al-Sadr’s recent stopover in Ankara makes clear, Turkey was able to extract some concessions from al-Sadr — getting him to tone down his anti-American rhetoric — in return for hosting the Sadrists’ convention. In some ways, al-Sadr represents a paradox for U.S. objectives in Iraq, in the sense that his fierce Iraqi nationalism would best prepare the way for us to leave. But that same fierce Iraqi nationalism results in an intransigence that leaves no room for dialogue or cooperation so long as we haven’t yet done so. Turkey could very turn out to be the interlocking piece that solves this failure to communicate.

This is another example of how Turkey is poised to play a significant role in the Obama administration’s regional plans. But it also illustrates one of the advantages democracies have in the foreign policy arena. This kind of cooperation would have been just as mutually beneficial under the Bush administration. Instead, resolving differences and ill will over the initial invasion and subsequent Turkish security concerns over the PKK took up most of the last five years.

The Turkish leadership still probably believes the invasion was a mistake that seriously roiled up their neighborhood. But they don’t blame the current administration for that. And some folks in the Obama administration still might be mistrustful of Turkey following Ankara’s refusal to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish territory as a launching ground for the Iraq invasion. But I doubt they take it personally. The regular change of administrations creates a certain amount of instability, but it also effectively wipes the slate clean on a regular basis.