For 400 of the past 500 years, Turkey has dominated Mesopotamia and struggled for power and riches with Iran, which could never quite push the Ottomans out of the Fertile Crescent. This same struggle continues today:
Turkey opposed the U.S.-led invasion[of Iraq], and then paid the price when the occupation government hamstrung Turkish trade and favored companies from more cooperative allies. Turkey, too, initially recoiled from the new Iraq, anxious about regional instability and a quasi-independent Kurdish region on its border.One result: Iran, the other big regional power bordering Iraq, dramatically expanded its influence, building on historic ties with Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims.Today, however, Turkish television shows fill Iraqi airwaves. Baghdad’s biggest shopping mall is owned and operated by Turks. And here in Basra—which until 2008 was controlled by Iranian-backed militias—the Turkish consulate is so eager to boost trade it has been known to issue visas even in the middle of the night to help local businessmen traveling to Turkey on short notice. The Turkish consul, Faruk Kaymakci, says he has a motto: “European quality at Middle East prices.”
Turkish economic power is the most important weapon of the Turkish pushback.
Turkish trade with Iraq climbed to $8.3 billion in 2011 from $2.8 billion in 2007, according to Turkish government statistics. Almost 600 Turkish construction companies are working in Iraq, according to the Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board.
However, the sectarian divide between Iraq’s Shiite government and moderately Sunni Turkey is a big obstacle to the expansion of Turkish influence in Iraq. Turkey, for instance, issued a residence permit to Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni and a former Iraqi VP who is wanted by the Iraqi government (and by Interpol). What’s more,
[d]espite efforts to cultivate relations with all of Iraq’s mainstream political and sectarian factions, “Turkey increasingly is seen as nurturing the Sunnis,” said Sinan Ulgen, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels.The spat led to protests, the torching of a few Turkish flags and a flurry of anti-Turkish rhetoric, including a call by Basra’s mayor for companies from other countries to step up and compete against Turkish companies. The Iraqi government suddenly passed over Turkish companies for some lucrative contracts, both Iraqi officials and Turkish executives say.
Now facing economic sanctions, Iran is having a hard time keeping up with its historical Turkish rivals. Turkish companies can often offer better products at better prices, and the Iranian banking system is hobbled by international sanctions.The Turkish businesses that benefit most from the newly opened Iraqi market are Anatolian businesses, many of which are allied with the ruling moderate Islamists in Ankara. The big businesses based in Istanbul are primarily linked to Western and European markets. They aren’t benefiting as much from Iraqi ties as their Anatolian counterparts — something that only confirms Turkey’s Islamist politicians in their belief that Turkey’s prosperity should be sought in its old Ottoman-era provinces to the south and east.Neo-Ottoman Turks can now foresee a time when Syria and Iraq, once key Ottoman provinces, once again come into a Turkish sphere of influence. For other countries in the region, that isn’t good news. Look for Saudi Arabia to start worrying about Turkey in much the same way it now worries about Iran. Egypt, too, isn’t sure it wants to see Turkey take its place as the dominant player in the Middle East.The Mesopotamian Game of Thrones continues — much as it has for the last 6000 years.