Iraq's parliament was thrown into uncertainty on Tuesday after dozens of parties failed to create a coalition government and couldn't agree on a speaker or other parliamentary roles. Three months after the country elected its new parliament the country is as divided and ungovernable as ever, with pro-Iranian parties feuding with Washington's allies and Kurds seeking to regain their rights in Kirkuk.
Over the weekend, Iraq's leading political parties had announced the formation of the "largest coalition" that would form the next government. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had formed a giant coalition of 184 MPs (56%), out of the 329 who were elected to parliament on May 12. Some in Iraq breathed a sigh of relief: there would be a new government, finally. In the West, others celebrated. Abadi, the ally of the US, had brought together Muqtada al-Sadr and a bunch of other parties that might give the pro-Iranian parties the cold shoulder.
Just hours after Abadi's allies were whispering to media about forming the next government, his rivals said they had also formed the largest parliamentary bloc. Fatah alliance leader Hadi al-Amiri, and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law coalition said they had found 145 supporters. The two large groups are still vying to govern Baghdad.
Abadi never thought he'd have to face this kind of a challenge. Last year he was the victorious Iraqi leader who had defeated ISIS in Mosul. In September he also opposed the Kurdistan referendum and sent his US-trained army to grab Kirkuk from the Kurdish parties that had controlled it. Abadi seems to be saying "I will show the Kurds who is in charge." He also patched up relations with Saudi Arabia after decades and was able to position Iraq as sitting astride the region's fault line between Iran and the Sunni states. But in May Abadi's inaptly named "victory" list came in third. Sadr, the Shi'ite cleric who once fought the US came in first; Amiri, the pro-Iranian former leader of the Badr Brigades, came in second.
Since May, the US and Iran have both struggled to put their allies in the seat of power in Baghdad. Although Abadi and Sadr were not ideal candidates for US allies in Baghdad, the former having been close to Iran in the past and the latter, having fought the Americans, were seen as the lesser of two bad choices in Washington as the Trump administration maneuvered to isolate Iran.
In June it looked like an Abadi-Sadr coalition would be formed. But then nothing happened. ISIS stepped up attacks, and economic protests swept southern Iraq. Despite sitting on a sea of oil, the Iraqi government has squandered resources over the years and is recovering from the war on ISIS. It needs billions to rebuild. In the South, protesters say oil wealth is being siphoned off by Iran, with Iraq paying electric bills to them and water shortages a common occurrence. In July, Iran even cut power exports to parts of Iraq.
It took until August 9 for recounts of the ballots to be completed, and the Iraqi Supreme Court ratified the results on August 19. Now the parties had 90 days to create a coalition government. Pressure mounted in Baghdad to come up with a coalition. US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk flew to Erbil and Baghdad in what appeared to be a US orchestrated effort to influence an Abadi-run coalition.
Amiri was outraged, saying the US had crossed "all democratic lines, putting pressure on us here and threatening us there." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Abadi and the secular party leader Ayad Allawi on September 2, "emphasizing the importance of safeguarding Iraq's sovereignty during this critical time."
At 11 a.m. on Tuesday parliament reconvened but chaos soon ensued. The parties couldn't settle on a speaker of parliament. The parliament was then postponed until September 15.
There are three main problems facing Baghdad today. In southern Iraq a protester was killed over the weekend as activists in Basra continue to demand basic government services. Abadi has sought to strong-arm the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of Shi'ite militias that are loyal to Amiri. These militias are an official part of the government structure but the Fatah Alliance seems to have been trading their role for votes, promising to take them out of cities in Nineveh to secure Sunni support.
A new report over the weekend leaked to Reuters, likely designed to embarrass the PMF, claimed they have Iranian missiles. Abadi has denied the presence of the missiles. But this brings tensions with Israel into the political story as it has opposed the Iranian influence and weapons transfers from Iran via Iraq to Syria.
The Kurds in Iraq are also central to the negotiations. Kurdish parties feel they were betrayed in 2017 after their independence referendum. The US turned its back on Kurdish allies as US-supplied tanks rolled into Kirkuk alongside Amiri's Shi'ite militias. Now Kurdish parties like the Kurdistan Democratic Party want guarantees for them to support the new coalition. But some of the smaller Kurdish parties have already signed on with Abadi's bloc – and his own party appears to be at risk from within as some of his members have sat down with Maliki, Abadi's former ally, to talk politics. Al-Sumaria TV had a salacious story about one parliamentarian who was offered millions of dollars to join one of the coalitions.
Iraq's coalition-building is important. First, it shows that the country is a democracy, whatever its faults. Second, it illustrates how the country is on the fault-line between the US and Iran and how this competition is pulling the country in two directions. Third, it reveals how the Kurdish political leaders have sought to demand that their rights be respected in any coalition agreement.
For years Kurdish demands, such as their constitutional rights to Kirkuk, have been ignored as the US has sought to ally with Baghdad's Shi'ite-majority government. This is because Washington wants to back a "strongman" in Baghdad with the hope that this would bring stability to Iraq. Kurdish demands are seen as getting in the way, even though the Kurdish region has been a close US ally and free from the extremism and many of the problems that the rest of Iraq has.
Now Baghdad faces another problem. Abadi spent 2016 and 2017 incorporating the Shi'ite militias into the government even though he was warned not to let these sectarian groups, accused of human rights abuses, get the imprimatur of government authority. Now he finds himself at odds with the militias and wants to assert his authority.
Meanwhile, southern Iraq is on fire with protests that have revealed the degree of government mismanagement, corruption and infrastructure failures. Iraq looks to be as ungovernable and unstable as in the past. This is good news for Iran, which likes to work in the shadows with local proxies. But it's bad news for America that wants an ally in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
The current Turkish-American diplomatic crisis is fundamentally different from other such crises in 1964 or 1975. Turkish public sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s was largely pro-American (and anti-Soviet). Today, 79% of Turks have an unfavorable opinion of the US. Also, the earlier Turkish-American crises were largely single-case issues, whereas the current one is multi-dimensional — and more difficult to resolve.
Officially speaking, Turkey and the US are NATO allies and strategic partners. But these days, their relationship looks like anything but an alliance or a partnership. This has not happened overnight.
In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson cautioned Turkey against rash military moves that it might be planning in Cyprus. The famous "Johnson letter" prompted Turkish PM Ismet Inönü to convene his cabinet in an emergency session. That was the first serious crack between America and its southeast European ally, a country that guarded one of the West's Soviet frontiers. The Johnson letter was also the first incident to spark (largely left-wing) anti-Americanism in Turkey.
President Johnson's warning may have played a role in keeping the Turkish military at its barracks while inter-communal strife on Cyprus worsened in the late 1960s. But in 1974, the Turkish army invaded the northern third of the island in response to a short-lived coup aimed at annexing Cyprus to Greece. In 1975, a Congressional arms embargo on Turkey was instituted — despite objections from the Ford administration — after Ankara refused to relinquish any of the territory it had seized the year before.
In 2018, 43 years later, Congress took a step towards banning the delivery of the F-35 stealth fighter jet to Turkey after the House and Senate agreed on compromised text for a defense spending bill. The two chambers agreed to delay delivery until the Pentagon submitted a plan that assessed the impact of expelling Turkey from the Joint Strike Fighter program in which it is a partner (the assessment should come within 90 days of the text becoming law).
Today is not 1964 or 1975. First of all, anti-Americanism then was "a thing of the ultra-left." In 2017, however, according to the Pew Research Center, 79% of Turks polled said they had an unfavorable opinion of the US, compared to the global median of 39%. Anti-Americanism in Turkey was stronger than in Venezuela, Lebanon, Tunisia, Indonesia, and even Russia.
Secondly, the previous Turkish-American crises were largely single-case issues whereas the current one is multi-dimensional, and therefore more difficult to resolve.
The issues plaguing the relationship now include:
- The Turks have accused the Trump administration — as they did the Obama administration before it — of arming and supporting "Kurdish terrorists" in northern Syria. Turkey's "terrorists" are the US military's primary ground force in the global fight against the Islamic State. Ankara and Washington compromised on a formula earlier this year on the Syrian Kurds and the administration of the key Syrian town of Manbij, but that deal looks fragile in the long term.
- Ankara faults the US administration for harboring Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric and the alleged mastermind behind the failed coup of July 2016.
- Persistently ignoring Western and NATO warnings, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears determined to deploy the Russian-made S-400 air- and anti-missile defense system on Turkish soil. Turkey will thus become the first NATO country to deploy the S-400 system. As Washington continues to reiterate, the S-400s would expose NATO assets, in particular the F-35, to the risk of Russian surveillance. Ankara is privately discussing further Russian arms acquisitions.
- A state-owned Turkish lender, Türkiye Halk Bankası AŞ (Halkbank), is under criminal investigation in New York's southern district on charges of helping Iran evade sanctions. The bank's deputy general manager, Hakan Atilla, was jailed by a US court in May on these charges. Observers see Halkbank as a likely target of penalties as a result of the investigation.
- In May, President Trump announced that the US was pulling out of an international accord over Iran's nuclear program and would reimpose sanctions on Tehran. His administration also threatened other countries with sanctions if they do not halt oil imports from Iran (despite a 20% decrease, Iran remained Turkey's biggest crude oil supplier in the first quarter of 2018). On July 24, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey will not implement the US sanctions on Iran. Earlier, Ankara had conveyed the same message to a visiting US Treasury delegation. And on July 25, Erdoğan called Iran "a neighbor and a strategic partner."
- At the center of the US-Turkish diplomatic crisis is Pastor Andrew Brunson, a US citizen who had been living in Izmir, Turkey for the past 23 years. Erdoğan's government arrested Brunson in 2016 and indicted him last year on charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the state. Brunson's activities were linked by Turkish law enforcement authorities to both Gülen and Kurdish militants, an unusual dual mission. After a year-and-a-half in jail, Brunson was released to house arrest, but for Washington it was too little, too late. Pastor Brunson is the most visible example of what some call Turkey's "hostage diplomacy." Turkey has detained 20 American citizens including Brunson and three employees of American consulates in Turkey.
Diplomatic sniping has accelerated between the two countries. President Trump threatened "large sanctions" on Turkey, to which Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu replied, "We will never tolerate threats from anyone." The US sanctioned the Turkish interior and justice ministers by freezing their US bank accounts, something of an empty gesture as these accounts do not exist. On August 4, Erdoğan ordered reciprocal sanctions against the US interior and justice secretaries, escalating the diplomatic row. (The Americans did not have bank accounts in Turkey either.)
Erdoğan, who just emerged victorious from a crucial presidential election on June 24, keeps playing to generally xenophobic and specifically anti-American Turkish sentiment. "Those who think that they can make Turkey take a step back with ridiculous sanctions have never known this country or this nation," he said. "We have never bowed our heads to such pressure and will never do so."
Erdoğan, usually a master of confrontational politics, has so far carefully avoided a personal duel of words with Trump. Instead, he is trying to foment imagined divisions within the US administration. In a speech, Erdoğan said that Trump is being "deceived" and cast the US sanctions as an imperial plot. He used familiar rhetoric to make this point: "This is the manifestation of only an evangelist and Zionist approach."
So far the only winner from the US-Turkish wrangle has been Moscow (and to a lesser degree Beijing). The row will not lead to war between NATO's two biggest armies, but it will push Turkey further into the non-Western orbit. So what is to be done?
There are ideological and geo-strategic limits to Turkey's appetite to offend and push away NATO. Turkey is simply not welcome in the Eurasian bloc as an ally except for its occasional value as a tool to divide the Western alliance to which it theoretically belongs. The Western impulse to go soft on Turkey in order to stop it from pushing further into Eurasia is ill-advised.
The US administration should not repeat the mistakes that the Western bloc has made about Erdoğan since he came to power in 2002. Going soft on Turkey has not anchored Turkey to the West. On the contrary: it has encouraged Erdoğan to abuse Turkey's "nuisance value" and turned Ankara into a part-time partner with a strong taste for blackmail.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is also a founder of, and associate editor at, the Ankara-based think tank Sigma.