Turkey and Iraq both occupy a prominent position in the Middle East, and much – not least the stability and peace of the region – depends on their foreign policies. This was amply demonstrated by the recent tense diplomatic talks between Ankara and Baghdad, which were accompanied by an exchange of ministerial visits, and which are likely to usher in important changes in relations between Turkey and Iraq. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, formerly head of the National Intelligence Agency, visited Baghdad and Erbil for the first time since he took office. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Oil Minister, Hayan Abdel-Ghani, visited Ankara on a two-day trip to discuss a number of issues that are key to relations between the two countries.
Historically, due to a number of unresolved issues, relations between Turkey and Iraq have had their ups and downs. In terms of its relations with Iraq, Turkey’s approach is governed by three key factors: the policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the so-called terrorist activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Iran’s influence over the Iraq’s current government. As for Iraq, its relations with Turkey are also dependent on three key factors: cross-border water resources, the problem of oil exports, and Ankara’s economic support for Iraq’s reconstruction. Various combinations of these problems have dogged the frequently chaotic relations between Turkey and Iraq for years.
Will Hakan Fidan’s visit pave the way for the adoption of a new policy towards Iraq, under which Ankara will be able to seek a joint solution to its problems with Baghdad to the mutual benefit of both countries? Many experts are inclined to answer this question in the affirmative, but this appears largely to be the result of a new approach to relations between the two countries, one which prioritizes economic rather than political issues. Hakan Fidan’s visit to Erbil is evidence of Turkey’s wish to observe an evenhanded policy in its dealings with the KRG and the central government in Baghdad, thus maintaining a delicate balance between Baghdad and Erbil. However, this policy was severely tested when Iraq was dragged by into years of civil war, terrorism and political conflict following the West’s invasion of the country in 2003. The relationship between the two countries deteriorated, especially as a result of Iraq’s political turmoil, with a succession of pro-American prime ministers coming to power after the brazen, unprovoked and brutal US invasion.
In response to the fluctuations in relations between Turkey and Iraq caused by Washington’s occupation of the country, Ankara sought to play Baghdad and Erbil off against each other, which entailed forging closer political and trading relations with the latter. However, following the unsuccessful Kurdish independence referendum in 2017, Turkey changed its approach to Erbil and Baghdad, and aimed to treat both equally rather than favoring either of them over the other.
The problem of the so-called terrorist activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has been a challenge for Ankara in its relations with both Erbil and Baghdad. As far as Kurdistan is concerned, Ankara has sought to develop ties with the two main political groups in the region, the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP, which maintains close political and economic links with Ankara, and the PKK differ in terms of their ideological and political orientation, and there is an ongoing conflict between the two groups. The PUK has no more ties with Ankara, but maintains close relations with Iran, and Turkey views it with suspicion because of its alleged links with the PKK. But Ankara is now trying to mend its relations with the PUK and hopes that it will be able to deal with the PKK problem in the same way as the PDK is dealing with it.
Turkey’s military operations, and the issue of its military base in Iraq, have long been a sore point in its relationship with Baghdad. But in recent years Baghdad has managed to avoid any conflict with Ankara, and aims to preserve a working relationship, especially when it comes to economic cooperation. During his trip to Baghdad, Hakan Fidan “requested” the Iraqi leadership to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. As a former intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan was one of the key architects of Turkey’s Iraq policy, and he has contacts with Kurdish political figures inside the country. His appointment as foreign minister could lead to a significant paradigm shift in Turkey’s Iraq policy, and usher in a new approach in which diplomatic initiatives are integrated with security and economic objectives.
Various other factors are also contributing to Turkey’s increased involvement in Iraq. Geopolitically, Iraq is an important country for Iran as well as for Turkey, and thus it is key to these two countries’ rivalry for regional influence. This rivalry between Turkey and Iran is also a major factor in the Iraqi political scene, which plays an important role in Turkish politics. As for Iraq, its relations with Turkey are largely determined by trade and energy-related factors. There is a long-standing dispute between the two countries over the sharing of water resources from the Tigris and Euphrates, an issue which periodically causes heightened tensions between Ankara and Baghdad. During Hakan Fidan’s trip, Iraq and Turkey agreed to establish a permanent joint committee to address issues related to the allocation of water from the two rivers. This is an ideal opportunity to turn into a dispute about water resources into an area where the two countries can cooperate, rather than a bone of contention.
And then there is the oil issue. Iraq’s oil minister recently went to Turkey to discuss the possibility of the KRG’s resuming oil exports through the Turkey’s Ceyhan terminal, which have been suspended for more than five months. However, the two countries have as yet been unable to agree on the resumption of oil exports. Turkey has also halted oil shipments through an Iraqi-Turkish pipeline, in response to a ruling by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) on a nine-year legal dispute between the two countries. While discussions to restart the pipeline are currently under way, the negative economic, political and legal impacts of the oil dispute are mounting, and millions of barrels of oil remain stuck in ports in spite of Hakan Fidan’s recent visit to Baghdad. In fact, in his public statements the Turkish foreign minister failed to bring up the subject of the oil blockade.
The dispute concerns the issue of whether Turkey violated a 50-year-old pipeline transit agreement by allowing the export of oil from fields in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government without the consent of Baghdad. But the Paris arbitration court awarded Iraq $1.5 billion in compensation, and since then Turkey has simply blocked the supply of some 500 000 barrels of oil a day from Kurdistan to world markets through its Ceyhan terminal, sending shockwaves through the oil sector and triggering regional and even global repercussions.
Naturally, Recep Erdoğan blamed both the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government. But officials in both Iraq and Kurdistan insist that Turkey is to blame. While Ankara initially claimed it was simply complying with an International Criminal Court ruling, it soon became clear that it was trying to negotiate in relation to the payment of the $1.5 billion compensation award, and also resolve a second arbitration with Iraq over unauthorized oil flows since 2018. And there are, as yet, no signs that Turkey plans to allow the resumption of oil flows in the foreseeable future.
Another issue is Turkey’s support for Iraq’s reconstruction. At the beginning of 2018 Turkey was ready to provide Iraq with $5 billion in credit for this purpose. Baghdad hopes to obtain Ankara’s support for the construction of a large-scale development corridor known as the Dry Canal project, which will consist of a road and rail link from the southern Iraqi city of Basra to Turkey. This project is an important area of cooperation between Iraq and Turkey.
By adopting a new format to address the various bones of contention between the two countries, including the PKK, water resources and oil flows, Turkey and Iraq will be give their relations a new impetus and conclude a number of agreements on various issues.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”