• Throughout the 1990s, Turkey was the anchor in the containment of Saddam Hussein's Iraq by the United States. The unpredictable set of events unleashed by Operation Iraqi Freedom has unnerved both Turkish decision makers and the public alike.
  • The U.S.-led coalition's operation in Iraq has also upended Turkey's fundamental interests in Iraq, which are fourfold:
    1. Prevent the division of Iraq along sectarian or ethnic lines that would give rise to an independent or confederal Kurdish state (with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as its capital), thus supporting aspirations for a similar entity from Turkey's own extensive Kurdish population.
    2. Protect the Turkish-speaking Turkmen minority, which resides primarily in northern Iraq.
    3. Eliminate the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Turkish Kurdish insurgent movement, which has sought refuge in the northeast of Iraq following its defeat in 1999.
    4. Prevent the emergence of a potentially hostile nondemocratic fundamentalist Iraqi state.
  • Turkish concerns reflect the deep anxiety it harbors regarding the demonstration effect Kurdish independence or robust autonomy in Iraq would have on its own domestic Kurdish population. Having turned down a U.S. request to open up a second front against Iraq, Turkey has found itself with limited influence in Iraq and is at a loss as to how to shape the future course of events. Turks perceive that Iraqi Kurds have achieved a position of privilege as a result of their unconditional support for the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the occupation of the country by coalition forces.
  • Turkish attitudes and foreign policy toward Iraq are complicated by the uneasy relationship between Ankara's ruling Justice and Development Party government and the traditional secularist elites, military and civilian. The latter's suspicions of the ruling party are driven mainly by the "concessions" made to obtain an invitation this past December from the European Union to open accession negotiations. One of the "concessions" was to adopt a tempered policy toward Iraq; hence, success in Iraq has become a litmus test of sorts for the government.
  • With uncertainty in Iraq and Turkish anxieties mounting, U.S.-Turkish relations have suffered, despite their mutual desire for a unified, prosperous, and democratic Iraqi state that can become a counterweight to Iran in the future. What divides the United States and Turkey most of all is the lack of accord over future contingencies in Iraq, especially in the event of a U.S. failure in that country. Thus, it is crucial for the United States and Turkey to engage in extensive—preferably back-channel— negotiations and, later, to include the Iraqi government and representatives from Iraqi Kurdish factions in the negotiations in order to rebuild confidence in the U.S.-Turkish relationship.

About the Report

Iraq's neighbors are playing a major role—both positive and negative—in the stabilization and reconstruction of "the new Iraq." As part of the Institute's "Iraq and Its Neighbors" project, a group of leading specialists on the geopolitics of the region and on the domestic politics of the individual countries is assessing the interests and influence of the countries surrounding Iraq.

In addition, these specialists are examining how the situation in Iraq is impacting U.S. bilateral relations with these countries. Henri Barkey's report on Turkey is the first in a series of USIP special reports on "Iraq and Its Neighbors" to be published over the next few months. Next in the series will be a study on Iran by Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center. The "Iraq and Its Neighbors" project is directed by Scott Lasensky of the Institute's Research and Studies Program. For an overview of the topic, see Phebe Marr and Scott Lasensky, "An Opening at Sharm el-Sheikh," Beirut Daily Star, November 20, 2004.

Henri J. Barkey is the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He served as a member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff (1998–2000), working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and intelligence matters. He has authored, co-authored, or edited many articles and books on Turkey's domestic politics and foreign policy, most recently (with Graham Fuller) Turkey's Kurdish Question. Kerem Levitas, program assistant in the Institute's Research and Studies Program, provided additional research and writing for this special report.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

Related Publications

How Iraqis Can Rebuild Community Relations and Repair Democracy After ISIS

How Iraqis Can Rebuild Community Relations and Repair Democracy After ISIS

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

By: Joshua Levkowitz; Lana Khalid

From nationwide anti-government protests, to U.S.-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil, to a protracted government formation crisis, 2020 has been a tough year for Iraq. The pandemic has only deepened the country’s challenges, including distrust of the political class and inter-communal tensions. On top of this, Iraq is experiencing one of its worst economic situations since the country’s formation. Understandably, there is a crisis of confidence. Almost everything ailing Iraq stems from the lack of trust between the government and its citizens. Only by working together as partners can faith be restored. Iraq’s citizens must be given a bigger role in the decision-making process about the future of the country, starting with a say in next year’s budget.

Type: Blog

Democracy & Governance; Reconciliation

Iraqi-U.S. Ties are ‘Restarting,’ Iraqi Foreign Minister Says

Iraqi-U.S. Ties are ‘Restarting,’ Iraqi Foreign Minister Says

Friday, August 21, 2020

By: USIP Staff

Iraq and the United States have launched a reset in relations, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussain said in a USIP forum August 20. Following at least a year of strain in bilateral ties, this week’s negotiations in Washington will produce a broader relationship than previously, “not only limited to security matters,” Hussain said during an official visit alongside Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi just 15 weeks after he and his government took office. Their talks at the White House, State Department and with other officials will be vital in setting the next chapter of U.S-Iraq relations.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

The Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq over a year ago, is determined to regain territory in the region. It will take a combination of military and financial pressure, attention to public grievances, and the repatriation and rehabilitation of people who lived or fought with ISIS—as well as those who were subjugated by them—to foil the militant group’s ambitions, according to senior U.S. officials. This already tall ask has been made even more challenging by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

View All Publications