The legal, political and military elements of the developments that are taking place in Iraq, in general, and in Mosul, in particular, are threatening stability in our immediate surroundings, including the prospects of bringing to the table the issue of redrawal of national borders in the region.  Turkey must be able to assess these developments with correct parameters, within the proper framework of “realpolitik”, and must take correct and sober policy stances that shall not jeopardise her national interest in this vital issue area.

Playing it to domestic politics

It is widely observed, however, that the authorities in the country approach the matters that are related to Iraq and Mosul much in the context of a consciously designed public perception scheme that is indexed to domestic politics.  While using a highly emotional discourse in addressing the issues at home, they, in the international arena, weaken Turkey’s legal and political position by laying out unrealistic and impossible policy objectives. On the contrary, we argue that among the fundamental conditions to ensure conclusive and sustainable policies in Iraq, we must first have a sound knowledge of the internal dynamics of the situation in Iraq while reading the international conjuncture correctly.

The tribal outlook in Iraq

In this respect, the composition of the tribal nature of the Iraqi society together with its ethnic, religious and sectarial elements in the country signifies a very complex socio-political structure to be reckoned with. As there exists an overwhelmingly large Muslim population with Sunni and Shiite backgrounds, let us also account for quite a significant population of religious minorities that belong to ancient Christian Arab churches and members of other religious groups like the Yezidis in this geography.  All these religious groups still maintain several holy premises that are scattered randomly all across the country and, in many cases, are physically located within one another.  Apart from religiously defined social groupings, the Iraqi society, though composed predominantly of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, maintains in it such diverse minorities like Assyrians, Shabeks and other smaller social groups.  As such, we have in Iraq a demographic structure that is neither religiously nor geographically homogeneous in its outlook in the region.

Same tribe, different religions

It is not at all uncommon in Iraq that while members of a large Muslim tribe in the North belong to the Sunni sect, the members of the very same tribe who live in the South would be Shiites.  By the same token, we know that while a 60 percent majority of one of the founding ethic groups of the state of Iraq, the Turkmens, are Shiites, the rest of this ethnic minority belong to the Sunni sect.  Another very important but less known fact about Iraq pertains to Iraqi Shiites and the Iranian Shiites.  The theological teachings of the mainstream Shiite sect in Iran, centered on Mashed and Qum, embrace a fundamentally different set of beliefs and commandments than those professed by the mainstream Shiite sect in Iraq, centered on Karbela and Nejef, known as the “Hawza” region in Iraq.

These differences, in turn, not only lead to serious differences of interpretations and to the emergence of competing religious ideologies between the Shiites in Iraq and the Shiites in Iran, but also create the conditions of distinctively different social systems in these two countries.  Consequently, a) if we look at Iraq and Iran based only on the idea that these two countries belong to the same sect; and, b) therefore, arrive at the conclusion that Iraq would be effectively under the political and social dominance of Iran; this viewpoint would not, at all, reflect a fair understanding of the deeply embedded forces of conflict within the much complicated web of relationships between these two societies.  On the other hand, arguing the opposite would either be a result of deficiency in knowledge about the region or stem from a conscious effort to manipulate public perception to a given direction.

Remembering the Iran-Iraq War

The most vivid example of this unique rivalry between the two countries is the war between Iraq and Iran that lasted for 8 years, between 1980 and 1988, whereby the Iraqi society got united against an enemy, Iran, with whom they had virtually no religious or ethnic differences. In fact, we have other evidence to indicate that the countries in the region act on pragmatic approaches that aim to secure their long-term foreign policy interests as opposed to blindly subscribing to ethnically driven or religious based ideological objectives.  A case being the position that Iran adopted in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus.  In this conflict, we see the predominantly Shiite Iran engaging in a strategic partnership with Armenia against Azerbaijan.  We also see Iran, constitutionally an “Islamic Republic,” getting in virtual collaboration with the Russian Federation in Northern Caucasus and around the Caspian Sea against radical Islamic factions in the region.  Finally, the relations between Iran and the United States (U.S.) reflect yet another example of the pragmatic grounds on which international diplomacy is conducted in the region.  Here, we see Iran with her heavy anti-U.S. rhetoric, calling the U.S.A. as the “Great Satan,” while conducting a policy of disguised cooperation with the U.S. in various other fields from Afghanistan through the Gulf Region, including the fight against ISIS.

The mistake regarding Mosul

The most notable mistake that the Turkish government has fallen into regarding the Mosul question has been the adoption of a policy whereby Turkey acted with a specifically highlighted Sunni identity.   This policy was, no doubt, rooted in Turkey’s general stance since the early stages of the conflicts that erupted in Iraq and Syria.  Turkey, during this period, has been quite persistent in playing the Sunni card so as to claim a position in the “table” in Mosul.  Even assuming that this position would yield a positive outcome in the short-run, it is not a realistic to expect that this position would create a long-term advantageous position for Turkey neither in the Arab world nor in the international arena.

We know that while Turkey has enjoyed a diplomatic position of respect and prestige in the region until recently, the country appears to have lost its influence over her neighbours in the recent years. Turkey’s secular foreign policy that was traditionally based on principle of laicism was, once, a powerful source of her diplomatic clout in the world.  Today, it appears that Turkey’s position of strength has eclipsed under the practice of overtly anti-Shia policies and the statements that pertain to neo-Ottoman aspirations, factors that have all but curtailed the ability of the country to maintain equal distance to other actors and ensure our influence in our region.  In case these policies persist, it becomes highly likely that Turkey will soon strain its relations with the people of pre-dominantly Shiite Azerbaijan with whom we have very close ties that is characterized in the oft-cited statement, “one nation, two states.”

Turkey has not severed her relations with the central authority in Baghdad since the adoption of the sectarian-based policy approach with her neighbours; Turkey has also cooled off her ties with Shiite Turkmens whose support could have provided significant political leverage for her in the Iraqi conflict.  This development has also affected the representative position of the Turkmens in the Iraqi parliament as it created internal strife within the Turkmen community in the country and caused the loss of seats traditionally held by the Turkmens in the parliament.  Until recently when Turkey practiced sectarian-blind policies, Sunni Turkmens and Shiite Turkmens were able to work together in the Parliament towards greater recognition of the Turkmen identity in the parliament.  The leaders of Shia Turkmens could just as frequently and as comfortably visit Turkey as the leadership of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and cooperate with each other in highlighting the Turkmen identity in Iraq, securing higher levels of protection for their people and forming a political platform to ensure the protection of their ethnic identity.  This political atmosphere was also instrumental in projecting a more reliable view of Turkey as far as the perceptions in the Iraqi parliament were concerned and in the eyes of the Iraqi public.  Had Turkey been able to preserve this position of reliability, the country would have been able to secure the necessary grounds and pursue her own independent policy stance on Iraq with respect of Iran’s actions in the area more effectively.  We must also note here that Turkey’s once supra-sectarian policies were the source of strength for the position of Sunni Turkmens and Sunni Arabs in the respective segments of the Iraqi society.

Territorial Claims

Another major mistake that Turkey has fallen into recently with respect to her Iraq and Mosul policies involves the area of territorial claims.  Statements by the highest Turkish authorities regarding the Lausanne Treaty, Misak-ı Milli -the National Pact,- national borders, the size of territorial holdings etc, appear to have provoked serious anxiety in the whole Arab World to the extent of getting them all against Turkey. They have also caused concerns in Iraq regarding prospects of territorial claims by Turkey in Iraq, and have created a perception of territorial aggression in the whole region by Turkey.  Also Supported by the highly emotional rhetoric of the media sources, the official tendency to escalate the dosage of the statements on territorial matters has led to a situation whereby regional actors continue to interpret Turkey’s position as aggression on the territory of a UN Member which, in turn, is increasingly becoming a reason to deny Turkey her due presence even in duly deserved international platforms.

We must remember that in this age of unrestricted and unlimited communications, even those statements that are tailored for domestic consumption are treated as concrete, real actions or intentions by the international public, by the outside world.  In this respect, Turkey must carefully refrain from official expressions such as “the geography in our heart” that have no operational meaning or place in international law and in international relations in general, and which, all in all, do nothing but great damage to Turkey’s position not only in the western world but in the Arab Street, also.

For the national interest

We must consider the position of Turkey, operating on the field with its current identity and outlook of wrong policies and practices since 2009 and assess its future on the prospects of possible destabilising consequences of these policies and their adverse effects on national unity.  It is only after such realistic assessment that we must evaluate the actions to be taken in the field in the short and medium terms.  Moreover, we must keep in mind that all of the actors in the field are deeply concerned about Turkey’s entry to the field with a heavily Sunni-identity and are surely considering all possible options to withstand and counter this development.

Having noted this, it is imperative that Turkey maintains her due position at all stages of negotiations, use whatever leverage and influence she can and secure her position in the “table” as part of its national interest and exert all necessary efforts to ensure Iraq’s political and territorial integrity and sovereignty through these testing times in history.  It is equally important that Turkey, in these difficult period in the region, resists and repels all efforts that would change the current national borders of Iraq as to be dictated by her long-term national interests.

The need to establish a dialogue

At some point in time, Turkey must devise ways of terminating the ‘tug of war’ with Baghdad and must develop ways of starting a mechanism of dialogue, if necessary, to be reinforced and aided by third parties.  In this atmosphere of dialogue, Turkey must also seek proper means of warning the Baghdad Administration which, itself, needs to rid its policies and stances of certain “bugs.”  We must identify the problematic issue areas between the countries in a bilateral process to be conducted with a matter-of-fact approach, in a realistic manner and with a common vision to minimise the conflict areas with goodwill.

A secular foreign policy

We are confident that Turkey is still not at a “point of no return” and that she has the means and the capacity to resolve the issues that she is facing in the region in her national interest and in the interest of the neighbouring nations.  The way to go about realising a peaceful resolution of the problems in the region is for Turkey to adopt a secular foreign policy outlook.  The country has a long and established tradition of foreign policy practices that have been the outcome of rational thinking, which has positively differentiated Turkey’s position from all others in the region.  The key to this policy position is the underlying principle of “Peace at Home, Peace Abroad,” ensuring that the country maintains equal distance in all facets of her relations with her neighbours in its foreign policy posture.  Should Turkey manage to re-adopt her position accordingly and achieve   coordinated action with Iraq, this would result in a much more effective and lasting resolution of the problems in Mosul than that of all the coalition members combined in their campaign against ISIS in the area.

Article written by:

Osman KORUTÜRK, Rtd. Ambassador (Oslo, Tehran, Berlin,Paris, Former Special Envoy to Iraq), member of the Advisory Board at Progressive Thought Institute-Istanbul

Selim KARAOSMANOĞLU, Rtd. Ambassador (Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, Tehran), member of the Advisory Board at Progressive Thought Institute-Istanbul