Turkey and Iraq forge a path to renewed cooperation


Recent days have witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activity between Ankara and Baghdad, characterized by ministerial visits that suggest significant messages about the future trajectory of Turkish-Iraqi relations. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, the former head of intelligence, embarked on visits to Baghdad and Irbil, marking his first foray into such trips since assuming his post. Concurrently, Iraqi Oil Minister Hayan Abdel-Ghani visited Ankara for a two-day discussion aimed at shaping the bilateral relationship.

The history of Turkish-Iraqi relations has been a rollercoaster ride due to several unresolved issues. For Turkey, three key factors inform its approach toward Iraq: the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism, and Iranian influence. Conversely, Iraq’s perspective revolves around transboundary water disputes, oil export matters, and Ankara’s financial support for the country’s reconstruction. Over time, these intertwined issues have created a complex web, complicating Turkish-Iraqi ties.

Could Fidan’s recent visit signal the emergence of a novel Turkish policy towards Iraq, one that facilitates the compartmentalization of issues to serve both sides’ interests? It’s plausible, especially if the new approach prioritizes an economic agenda over political considerations, thus fostering improved bilateral relations.

Fidan’s visit to Irbil underscores Turkey’s desire for a balanced stance between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraq. Ankara aims to tread a delicate line between Baghdad and Irbil, though this strategy was tested during Iraq’s turbulent post-2003 period marked by civil strife, terrorism, and political turmoil. Iraq’s unstable political landscape, characterized by a revolving door of prime ministers since the US invasion, juxtaposes with Turkey’s more consistent leadership approach.

Fluctuations in Turkish-Iraqi relations led Ankara to exploit the rivalry between Baghdad and Irbil, fostering closer political and trade ties with the latter. Nevertheless, Turkey’s stance shifted after the failed 2017 Kurdish independence referendum, resulting in a more equitable approach to both Irbil and Baghdad, rather than favoring one over the other.

The PKK issue has proven challenging in Turkey’s dealings with both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraq. Ankara seeks connections with the KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. While the KDP maintains robust ties with Turkey, it opposes the PKK due to ideological differences. The PUK’s connections with Iran and alleged PKK affiliations raise Turkish suspicions. Ankara aims to engage with the PUK similarly to the KDP’s approach.

Turkey’s military operations and its presence in Iraq tested its relations with Baghdad. Recently, Baghdad opted to avoid disputes with Ankara, prioritizing relations, particularly from an economic perspective. During his Baghdad visit, Fidan urged Iraq to designate the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Given Fidan’s role in shaping Turkey’s Iraq policy during his tenure as a spy chief, his appointment as foreign minister suggests a potential paradigm shift. This shift could integrate diplomatic efforts with security and economic goals.

Geopolitically, Iraq holds significance for both Turkey and Iran, fueling rivalry between the two nations for regional influence. This competition also shapes Iraq’s political landscape, playing a role in Turkey’s strategic calculus.

From Iraq’s standpoint, trade and energy factors are influential in shaping the country’s approach to Turkey. Disputes over water resources from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have sparked occasional tensions between Ankara and Baghdad. During Fidan’s visit, Iraq and Turkey established a joint committee to address water-related issues, offering an avenue for cooperation.

The issue of oil is another prominent topic. The Iraqi oil minister’s visit to Turkey aimed to discuss the resumption of oil exports from the Kurdistan Regional Government via Turkey’s Ceyhan port, which had been suspended for several months. However, the two sides did not reach an agreement on the matter.

Turkey’s support for Iraq’s reconstruction is another aspect under discussion. In 2018, Turkey expressed interest in extending a $5 billion loan to facilitate Iraq’s rebuilding efforts. Baghdad seeks Ankara’s assistance for the ambitious Development Road project, commonly known as the Dry Canal—a highway and rail link connecting Basra in Iraq to Turkey. This project underscores the potential for Turkish-Iraqi cooperation.

Fidan’s visit lays the groundwork for a potential visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yet to be scheduled. It suggests Turkey’s inclination to prioritize economic ties, in line with its approach to other regional nations. This economic foundation could pave the way for collaboration across other sectors. Addressing contentious issues such as the PKK, water resources, and oil through separate channels could infuse the Turkish-Iraqi relationship with renewed dynamism.


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