Iraq Summit Strategies: Ministerial Meeting in Istanbul Requires Tangible Outcomes

The ministerial summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Istanbul this weekend comes at a crucial moment. Political and security tensions remain high across Iraq’s borders. A string of attacks by Kurdish rebels prompted Turkey’s parliament to approve cross-border military operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla group hiding out in northern Iraq. Iraqi refugees continue to flow steadily out of the country, with Syria imposing restrictions on refugees last month that could send some Iraqis back home. And Washington and Tehran continue to argue acrimoniously about the role of Iran in Iraq’s internal conflicts.

Despite these high stakes, the Istanbul summit is not likely to achieve much progress, for two key reasons. First, the unresolved PKK problem is likely to dominate discussions. Despite pleas from Iraqi leaders to focus on broader issues such as support for Iraq’s reconstruction and stronger control over all of Iraq’s borders, all signs point to little forward progress on this level because of the continued crisis with the PKK.

Second, the failure to address the simmering PKK issue through earlier regional conferences is emblematic of a broader inability to produce substantive achievements out of important diplomatic meetings. As is the case across the Middle East these days, crisis management rather than concrete steps to building enduring collective regional security cooperation will likely dominate the Istanbul summit.

To escape this crisis-management trap, the United States needs to be more proactive in addressing potential regional problems arising in and around Iraq rather than simply waiting for them to boil over. For the past five years, the United States has rushed from crisis to crisis in the Middle East, allowing events to shape its actions rather than developing a realistic strategy that shapes events. We need to do our part to set the agenda and air uncomfortable issues across the Middle East, rather than letting events set the agenda for us.

A big part of the problem is an incoherent U.S. approach to the entire region—one that fails to balance competing interests and priorities. As retired Gen. John Sheehan noted earlier this year when he turned down the Bush administration’s offer to serve as the White House “czar” for Iraq and Afghanistan, “What I found in discussions with current and former members of this administration is there is no agreed-upon strategic view of the Iraq problem or the region … the current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region and how the parts fit together strategically.”

This strategic incoherence is a key factor impeding progress on several key fronts in the Middle East—Iraq, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. All of these issues to a large extent are interconnected, but the United States has not developed a strategy that properly balances the competing interests on these different tracks. As a result, conferences like this weekend’s Istanbul summit and the Annapolis conference later this month on the Arab-Israeli conflict are unlikely to be little more than gab fests that have only a little potential for producing even small gains.

What needs to be done to ensure this weekend’s meeting and future high-level meetings are productive?

This weekend, there will be no getting around the PKK issue—the meeting is being held in Turkey, and the ongoing crisis is the most current and vivid example of the potential regional problems arising out of Iraq’s conflicts. Both Iran and Turkey are facing Kurdish guerrillas, and can be expected to agree on the need for a crackdown on separatists.

Friday’s statement by Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, condemning the PKK attacks, sets the right tone for dealing with this issue. One result that the representatives should work toward is an agreement by Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria to work jointly to address the problem of Kurdish rebels, with support from the United States and other outside actors. This means that the United States should also strongly condemn the activities of Kurdish rebels that have been causing instability in Iran, as well as Turkey.

Second, the United States and other outside powers should quietly encourage the countries in the region to convert the committees formed at the first ministerial conference held earlier this year, which are focused on the problems of border security, transnational fuel shipments, and refugees, into regular working groups that address these challenges day-to-day in attempt to achieve tangible progress. Regular continuous cooperation between lower-level contacts among countries in the region—outside the glare of high-level two-day summits—are the way to build a more stable security arrangement in this troubled part of the world. Where it is possible and constructive, the United States needs to be more involved in preventive efforts.

Retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, the former NATO commander, recently stepped down as a special envoy on the PKK issue in frustration over perceived American and Iraqi inaction. Ralston also said that Washington inaction and its failure to deliver on promises were “driving strategically the Turks and Iranians together.” American attention needs to be focused on using these regional conferences to defuse border crises before they explode—and the United States should appoint a full-time high-level envoy to deal with this crisis and work with the lower-level officials dealing with cross-border issues. The Bush administration should empower the envoy to take concrete steps toward resolving the tensions and not simply send this envoy on symbolic shuttle diplomacy.

Third, the international community needs to help enforce accountability mechanisms for agreements made at these summits. The most prominent accord produced out of the discussion in the first ministerial meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh this past spring—a pledge to halt the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq—has not been honored, according to the United States. Without some guarantee that agreed-upon action will be taken, regional summits amount to nothing more than talking shops.

In the end, ministerial meetings like this weekend’s Istanbul summit offer great potential for achieving progress toward greater stability in the region. But diplomacy is only as effective as the strategy behind it. On this score, the United States remains trapped in a crisis management mode without a longer-term realistic vision of what it wants to achieve and how it can manage the different tracks in this troubled region of the world. This is just unacceptable amid the grinding conflicts in Iraq. It is also exceedingly dangerous to the overall national security of our country.

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