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Iraq's road ahead: regional and international implications

25/09/2013, Rome

As sectarianism continues to spread through Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, Turkey’s relations with Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), its position in the Syrian conflict, as well as its peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party remain center stage. To discuss the future of Iraq, regional and international implications, the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in cooperation with the Turkish Embassy to Italy organized a seminar on 25 September 2013 with Murat Özçelik, former Turkish Ambassador to Iraq.

Murat Özçelik started his assessment with the US invasion in Iraq which set a new stage for the region. The territorial integrity of Iraq deteriorated and the US – upset with Ankara’s refusal to use airbases in Turkey for the invasion - started to see the Kurds rather than Turkey as a privileged partner. Turkey at the time still perceived the KRG as a hostile entity, but several issues necessitated a change of thought. The PKK was operating from KRG areas and if Ankara had to send a message to the PKK, it had to go through Washington or Baghdad, while it would have made far more sense to engage directly with the KRG. Furthermore, opening a dialogue with the Kurds was important to maintain the territorial integrity of both Turkey and Iraq, and advantageous for energy interests, as well.

Turning to Turkish foreign policy towards Iraq at large, the Former Ambassador highlighted that Turkey maintained an equal distance to Shiites and Sunnis and was respected by both segments of the society for this pluralist policy. After 2011, relations between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, did not pick up and Turkey’s attempt to act as a pluralist soft power in the region collapsed as a result of internal, as well as regional developments. Internally, the AKP has held on to a majority-based understanding of democracy and an iron fist approach. Regionally, the civil war in Syria led to the deterioration of principles of foreign policy and the growth of a more sectarian Turkish foreign policy.

At the same time, the civil war in Syria also triggered the peace process with the PKK. In face of the territorial integrity of Syria fading and learning from its experience with the KRG, the Turkish government understood that it is preferable to have a pan-Kurdish movement evolving under rather than outside of its control. Murat Özçelik highlighted that the peace process needs to be anchored in the parliament through elected Kurdish representatives. The struggle would then move from the military to the political arena. Dealing with an array of elected representatives could potentially also account for rifts simmering among the Kurds and endangering the process.

Finally, regarding Turkey’s relations with Iran, the Former Ambassador highlighted that these deteriorated in light of the Syrian crisis. Turkey should comply with the Western policy on Iran in order to make it effective. At the same time, the West should take Turkey on board. Before the Syrian civil war, Turkey could deliver on the nuclear file, but the US failed to take this opportunity. The EU, specifically, should have integrated Turkey more closely on this foreign policy issue. Even though Turkey’s potential to act as an interlocutor with Iran has declined now, Turkey’s strategic depth in the East is still an important asset for the EU, while its strategic depth in the West bodes well for Turkish soft power in the region.