Iraqi President Barham Salih. Photo: Wikipedia
Iraqi President Barham Salih. Photo: Wikipedia

Iraq’s recently installed president, Barham Salih, has set out his vision of post-invasion, post-ISIS Iraq. “We need a new political order,” he said, “in which Iraq must be an important pillar.” For decades Iraq “was the domain in which everybody pursued their agenda at the expense of the Iraqi people”; that had to change, and Iraq would no longer be caught in regional disputes.

This political vision was interpreted as “Iraq First” by US media outlets, based on Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan. Yet what Salih was saying sounded much more like Turkey’s late-2000s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

The risks for Iraq’s policy are the same as they were for Turkey’s, and ultimately the reason Ankara’s policy collapsed: No one told the neighbors.

Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy was the brainchild of former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, back when he was an adviser to the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the mid-2000s.

At the time, it meant a significant shift: Ankara sought compromise and normalization with Cyprus and Armenia, both long-running political problems, opened the door to deals and investments with Russia, and even sought to mediate between Syria and Israel. Reducing conflicts in its near-abroad allowed Turkey to focus on domestic issues, calmed foreign investors, and raised the country’s international standing.

By early 2011, the Zero Problems policy collapsed, in large part because of the impact of the Arab Spring.

Certainly, it wasn’t merely the revolutions that broke the policy, but the way Turkey’s leadership made specific political decisions, in particular its forthright stance in favor of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Disputes beyond Ankara’s control pushed the country into taking particular political postures. Once the Arab Spring revolutions started, it was hard for Turkey not to take sides. A similar dynamic is likely to play out with Iraq

But the broader point is that disputes beyond Ankara’s control pushed the country into taking particular political postures. Once the revolutions started, it was hard for Turkey not to take sides. A similar dynamic is likely to play out with Iraq.

Salih’s comments were building on a theme first expressed by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in a speech in Cairo last month, where he rejected “the [political] axes and war that destroyed our countries and peoples.” Abdul-Mahdi was there for a tripartite summit with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah – both themselves part of a group, along with Saudi Arabia, seeking to create a centrist or “middle” position in the Arab world.

Trying to stay out of regional conflicts is admirable, but treading this political line will not be easy. Conflicts in the region have a way of dragging everyone in.

Iraq is fortunate in that its geographical position and social make-up give it commonalities with countries all across the Middle East: It is a republic, like Syria and Egypt; it has a Shiite majority, like Iran; and its oil reserves and the industry of its south make it similar to some of the Arab Gulf states. Salih has said he imagines Iraq’s future role as a bridge between Turkey on one side and the Gulf on the other; and between Iran on one side and the wider Arab world on the other.

But these commonalities also contain risks. A Zero Problems policy will hold, as Turkey’s did, only as long as other countries do not force Iraq to choose. But they might.

For a start, the Trump administration’s attacks on Iran are far from over. Donald Trump may have taken the US out of the nuclear deal with Iran, but as recently as last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was warning that the US would “continue to ratchet up the pressure” on Iran.

Iraq’s leaders have taken the view that they cannot tilt too closely to Iran nor too close to the United States. With a long border with Iran, geography dictates that the two must remain at least cordial. Last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Iraq for his first official visit and inked deals across a range of industries. At the same time, however, US forces are still stationed in Iraq, and Salih has said he expects them to remain.

Maintaining a balance between the two is therefore not easy at the moment. It could yet get much harder. If Trump wins a second term, he may be emboldened to take further steps against Iran. Any economic or military pressure on Tehran may make retaliation against US forces inside Iraq too tempting, putting Iraq squarely in the middle.

Or look at Turkey’s continuing air strikes against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in the mountainous areas on the Iraqi side of the border. These air strikes are conducted with the acceptance of the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities in Erbil, but provoke occasional violence from Kurds in the area. The latest such incident came as recently as the end of January, when a Kurdish crowd stormed a Turkish military base inside Iraq. These complicated conflicts could easily escalate, perhaps pitting Erbil against Ankara, pulling Baghdad in and jeopardizing links to both.

Syria, of course, on the western flank of Iraq could still be a source of conflict. An isolated Syria could seek to foment regional conflicts, perhaps in the Sunni-majority west of Iraq, to gain leverage.

Any or all of these, or many other possible scenarios, would severely test Iraq’s policy. And that is the heart of the dilemma for Iraq. The interconnectedness of the country with its neighbors is a positive thing, as it has been at points for Turkey, allowing it cultural, economic and political influence. At the same time, this connectedness means that problems – whether accidentally or deliberately caused – can easily affect it.

Keeping Iraq out of regional conflicts will take political skill, but also a degree of luck. Having zero problems with neighbors depends significantly on your neighbors not creating problems for you.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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