Turkey Positions for US Military Withdrawal from Iraq


10/23/2011 by Richard Weitz

Now that all U.S. combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year, Iraq’s neighbors are positioning themselves.  These neighbors are maneuvering to manage the resulting transformation in their regional security environment.

The latest Weitz Report on Turkey Focuses Upon Changes in the Neighborhood Associated with the Iraq Dynamic Image Credit: Bigstock

And such re-configurations will have significant consequences for the United States, even while the domestic focus has been upon ending an era, rather than opening another one. The withdrawal is occurring in a time of fundamental upheaval in the Middle East associated with the Arab Spring and in North Africa with the Libyan implosion.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been the most active neighboring countries seeking to influence events there through various local allies, but Turkey’s influence in Iraq has grown considerably in recent years, as Turkish policy makers have adopted more inclusive policies and as economic and cultural intercourse between Iraqis and Turks have grown.

The nadir of Turkish influence in Iraq occurred in 2003, when the Turkish parliament voted not to join the British-U.S. invading coalition or even allow the United States to send troops across the Turkey-Iraq border. As a result, the U.S. had to reposition its troops in the south, while Ankara exerted minimal influence on the immediate post-Saddam security environment, which soon deteriorated into quasi-anarchy.

Since then, the application of the “zero problems” with neighbors policy of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has led Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and other Turkish policy makers to balance unilateral military action with the cultivation soft power means of influence in Iraq through deepening cultural, education, and business ties. This reorientation culminated in President Gul’s March 23-24, 2009, visit to Iraq, the first official Turkish visit to Iraq at the presidential level for 33 years.

Turkey has several core interests in Iraq: cultivating ties with the various Iraqi factions, preventing the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) from using northern Iraq as a base of operations; balancing the influence of Iran; securing access to Iraqi oil and other economic opportunities; and generally seeking to promote stability in a key neighboring region.

Turkish leaders have developed their most extensive ties with Iraq’s Sunni minority, which until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003 ruled over Iraq’s other minorities as well as its Shiite majority.

During Iraq’s March 2010 national elections, Turks generally supported the more secular Iraqi National Movement bloc led by Ayad Allawi rather than the Shiite-dominated State of Law Coalition, led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As revealed by WikiLeaks, Turkish officials view al-Maliki less as an Iranian puppet than as an ambitious strongman who has exploited the postwar weakness of competing Iraqi political and social institutions to accrue and exercise near dictatorial powers. But Turks’ support to al-Maliki’s opponents, financial and otherwise, was much less than that provided by the Persian Gulf states. And the pressure of Turkey, the United States, and other foreign governments during the coalition formation talks did succeed in inducing the rivals to form a multi-party government in which al-Maliki’s influence has been diluted.

In addition to reaching out to Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, the AKP has more recently tried to cultivate ties with Iraqi Shiites, including by reaching out to populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr by training lawmakers belonging to al-Sadr’s party in parliamentary protocol. Erdogan, though a devout Sunni Muslim, attended the Shiite commemoration of Ashura.

In addition, a Turkish consortium plans to participate in an $11-billion renovation project in Sadr City, Baghdad’s largest Shiite neighborhood. On March 28-29, 2011, Prime Minister Erdogan, a Sunni Muslim, became the first Turksih leader to visit Hz. Ali’s tomb in Najaf, one of the most important Shiite sites in Iraq.

Regardless of their religious affiliation, Iraqis appreciate that Turkey is one of their most important regional partners. Turkey is the most prosperous and industrialized of Iraq’s neighbors, offers routes to and from Western markets, and provides an exit to the Mediterranean Sea for Iraqi hydrocarbons.

Between 2003 and 2010, bilateral trade increased from $940 million to $6 billion, making Iraq Turkey’s fifth largest trade partner.   The trade between the two countries now approximates $10 billion, half of which will involve the KRG.  Turkish policy makers would like to increase this level to $25 billion in five years. In his March 2011 trip, Erdogan attended an Turkey-Iraq Business Forum, where he called for opening new border gates between the two countries. At present, there is only the Habur/Halil Ibrahim Kara border gate, which is already working at full capacity.

Turkey-Iraq Bilateral Financial Data Statistics








$ 829 M

$ 112 M

$ 941

$ 716 M


$ 1,820 B

$ 467 M

$ 2,288 B

$ 1,353 B


$ 2,750 B

$ 458 M

$ 3,208 B

$ 2,291 B


$ 2,589 B

$ 375 M

$ 2,965 B

$ 2,213 B


$ 2,811 B

$ 645 M

$ 3,456 B

$ 2,167 B


$ 3,912 B

$ 1,320 B

$ 5,233 B

$ 2,591 B


$ 5,126 B

$ 952 M

$ 6,078 B

$ 4,174 B


$ 6,042 B

$ 1,354 B

$ 7,396 B

$ 4,688 B

[SOURCE: “Turkey-Iraq Bilateral Financial Data Statistics,” Turkish Foreign Ministry official website]

Turkey sells Iraq various materials, machinery and construction products, basic food and cleaning materials, and electrical and electronic products. In contrast, almost all of Turkey’s import from Iraq is composed of oil and fuel oil. In particular, Turkey is helping bring Iraqi energy to European markets.  On August 7, 2007, Turkey and Iraq signed a memorandum of Understanding that Iraqi natural gas would be supplied to Turkey and via Turkey to Europe.  A major oil pipeline runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan in Turkey. It carries one quarter of Iraq’s crude oil exports. The flow assures both the authorities in both Kurdistan and beyond considerable revenue while helping secure Turkey’s position as major energy bridge between the Middle East and Europe. Turkey and Iraq now exchange oil at the rate of 450,000 to 500,000 barrels a day.

If Iraq doubles or triples its current level of daily oil exports of some two million barrels, then Turkey will benefit from both the revenues it earns as a transit country for Iraqi oil flowing to European markets as well as from the increased ability of Iraqis to purchase Turkish goods and strengthen their internal security.

Another future development that could have the same effect would be if the long-planned Nabucco gas pipeline is constructed. Turkey has agreed that the pipeline could traverse its territory as it conveys natural gas from Iraq and other Middle Eastern as well as Caspian Basin countries to Europe.

Meanwhile, Turkey is helping Iraq meet its own energy demands. Iraq relies on Turkey to provide 250 megawatts of electricity each day.  Turkey plans to increase the megawatts of electricity to Iraq to 1200 mw/h, providing one-quarter of the electricity requirements of Iraq.  The Electricity Ministry of Iraq contracted three Turkish companies at $900 million to install 20 gas turbines and increase Iraq’s power-generating capacity by 2,500 megawatts.

Turkey is Iraq’s largest commercial investor, excluding oil. Turkish firms have invested in hotels, housing, and the energy sector in Iraq. These companies provide manufactured goods and other products. In 2008, Turkish companies contracted 72 projects with a volume of $1.43 billion, focusing on infrastructure investments in Iraq.   More than 260 Turkish contractors are currently in Iraq working on approximately $11 billion worth of projects.

The Turkish government has made a vigorous effort to expand Turkish-Iraq economic ties. In addition to commercial considerations, Turkish officials have sought to make Iraq’s economic health depend more on its sustaining good relations with Turkey, which increases Ankara’s leverage over Baghdad’s policies. Furthermore, economic exchanges with Iraq especially benefit eastern Turkey, where the Turkey’s discontented Kurdish population lives. One means of reducing their dissatisfaction is to improve theoir standard of living.

The Iraqi Neighborhood is in Upheaval with Strategic Positioning by Its Neighbors Image Credit: Bigstock

Turkey has sought to exert influence in Iraq by means other than politics and economics. Turkey has been utilizing “soft power” and projecting an image of pop culture over its border.  In addition, Turkey helped double the number of out-of-country training opportunities that NATO could offer Iraqis in 2010 for internal security training.  In December 2005, Turkey encouraged efforts in Iraq to bring together the Sunni Arab Party representatives and U.S. ambassador in Istanbul. Turkey also hosted programs to train over 500 Iraqi politicians in democratization for all of Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian political parties.

Nonetheless, the current Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq, the subject of a future SLD piece, underscores that Turkey still relies on military power as its ultimate security guarantee in northern Iraq.

Some Turkish analysts have considered the option of aligning with Iran to promote Turkey’s interests in Iraq following a U.S. military withdrawal. Thanks to Iraq’s Shiite majority as well as the presence of prominent pro-Iranian leaders in Iraq’s government, armed forces, and economy, Tehran exerts substantial influence in Iraq.

The thrust of Iran’s strategy in Iraq has been to engineer and perpetuate domination of Iraq’s government by pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist movements that would, in Iran’s view, likely align Iraq’s foreign policy with that of Iran. Since both Turkey and Iran have large Kurdish minorities dissatisfied wth the policies of their central governments, they share a common interest in constraining Kurdish militarism and autonomy in Iraq. Despite their current differences over Syria, Ankara and Tehran have cooperated on many other issues. Even so, the Iranion option still lacks much support among Turks,

For this and other reasons, Western and some Arab governments have generally encouraged Turkey to expand its presence in Iraq. Not only does this presence help dilute Iranian influence, but Turkish business activities generate economic growth and jobs in Iraq, helping the country recover from decades of war and civil strife.

Furthermore, many Western leaders still see Turkey’s Islamic-influenced but essential secular political system as a model of the type of political and social system that could work well in Iraq, which its large Sunni minority and secular tradition, or at least as offering a superior alternative to that of an Iranian-style Shiite autocracy.

This trend is likely to continue as Western influence in Iraq declines further in coming years with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the natural deeper integration of Iraq into mainstream Middle East politics.

And by helping keep Iraq out of Tehran’s orbit and linking Baghdad to the West, Ankara increases its own regional influence and enhance its value as a strategic partner of Western and Persian Gulf governments.