A New Period in Turkey-Iraq Relations: The Prime Minister’s Visits to Baghdad and Arbil

Following the official visit by Iraqi Foreign Minister İbrahim al Jafari to Turkey on 5-7 November 2014, it is announced that Prime Minister Davutoğlu will visit Iraq on 20-21 November. During his visit, Davutoğlu will go to Baghdad and then Arbil. The Turkish officials’ visits to Iraq after 2010 has included either Arbil or Baghdad except former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Arbil and Baghdad in March 2011. For the first time after four years, Davutoğlu will make a visit to both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Regional Government. Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit is also important for the reason that Erdoğan’s visit to Iraq in March 2011 was the last visit on Prime Ministerial level. During his term as Foreign Minister, he visited Baghdad, Najaf and Kerbela in November 2013, showing Turkey’s perspective regarding Iraq. The fact that this visit takes place in the month of Moharram, which is sacred for the Shiites, stands as a clear response to the criticisms that Turkey pursues a sectarian policy toward Iraq. There are expectations that the period ahead will bring about bilateral and multilateral agreements and cooperation possibilities in every field from economics to politics.

Beside its distinct features, the content of the visit will also be rich, considering the bilateral relations and regional developments. At this point, this article touches upon several issues that come to the forefront in Turkey’s relations with Baghdad and the KRG.

The Fight against the ISIS and Syria: The ISIS, moving beyond Iraq and Syria, has become a regional and international threat. It is for this reason that a coalition under the US leadership has been formed, air strikes have been carried out in Iraq and Syria, and a strategy has been formed for aiding the groups fighting the ISIS. Turkey has specific reservations about military aids, however adopts a clear approach toward providing every kind of support for Iraq against the ISIS. Even if Turkey and Iraq have some differences in the issue of the fight against the ISIS, they agree on the issue of foreign ground troops. However, considering Iran’s military presence, Turkey expects a similar attitude from the regional countries. As it is well known, several photographs that show the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qasim Suleimani training, organizing and commanding the militias in Iraq, has been surfaced. In addition, it is possible that the Trilateral Mechanism, which was formed in 2008 against the PKK between Iraq, Turkey and the US, may be reactivated and utilized against the ISIS. Intelligence sharing is a crucial issue in the fight against the ISIS. The developments in Syria are important for this issue as well. Turkey and Iraq’s different stance toward Syria may hinder the success of the fight against the ISIS. Besides, the civil war in Syria affects Iraq negatively and the conflicts spread to Iraq. For this reason, steps toward emphasizing the issues of cooperation and reconciliation between Iraq and Turkey, including the Syria problem, are of great importance. Therefore, Davutoğlu’s visit will be significant not only for the bilateral relations, but also for the Syrian crisis.

Building Internal Political Balance in Iraq: As it is well known, Turkey was the first country to officially congratulate Haider al Abadi’s government. Turkey has adopted a clear approach in favor of political unity, national reconciliation and the preservation of territorial integrity in Iraq. Turkey favors the inclusion of the Sunnis to the Iraqi politics for severing the ISIS activity. Turkey promotes a comprehensive approach in Iraq which will have constitutional guarantees that protects a working federalism and manages the cultural and political diversity in Iraq. Turkey also attaches importance to the protection of the Turkmen’s and minorities’ rights and the inclusion of the KRG within the federal structure. It is observed that the developing relations between the KRG and Turkey after 2009 have lessened the secessionist stance of the KRG and contributed to the political unity and territorial integrity of Iraq. In this period, Turkey has influenced the Kurds to remain within the Iraqi politics, as a result of various visits between Turkey and the KRG. Since Turkey has not changed its approach toward Iraq, it will support the Sunnis’ integration to the politics, the protection of Turkmen rights and territories, and the reconciliation between the central government and the KRG. Even though Turkey’s relations with Baghdad and Arbil have different natures, Turkey does not consider them as alternatives to each other and will not prefer one certain group against others. Therefore, it will contribute to the process of reconciliation between Arbil and Baghdad, which coincides with Davutoğlu’s visit to Iraq. It might have a facilitator role between the KRG and the central government, since it has developing relations with both parties.

Energy and Cooperation in Trade: Even though the former Iraqi government under Nouri al Maliki has sharply objected to the agreements between the KRG and Turkey, Turkey has considered the disagreement between Arbil and Baghdad as a domestic problem of Iraq and handled its relations with the central government and the KRG distinct from each other. There is a possibility of energy cooperation between Iraq, Turkey and the KRG, since Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit takes place just after the Baghdad-Arbil agreement on November 13. Despite the possibility of coincidence, in the last day of Ibrahim al Jafari’s visit (7 November 2014) the KRG Ministry of Natural Resources declared that the KRG sent 185,000 barrels of crude oil to Turkey daily in August, and with 300,000 barrels a day in November there is a sixty percent increase in the last four months. There were interpretations of this statement as the Iraqi central government consents the energy cooperation between Iraq and Turkey. A week later, Baghdad and Arbil have agreed on the sales of 150,000 barrels of the KRG’s crude oil a day through Baghdad. This agreement and latest developments bring about the possibility that Turkey, Iraq and the KRG might have a trilateral energy cooperation. In addition, the Iraqi government has limited Turkey’s energy investments in Iraq and excluded Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) from the southern oil exploration agreement that TPAO and Dragon Oil of the UAE initiated within a consortium. With the developing relations between Turkey and Iraq, and the agreement between Arbil and Baghdad, Turkish firms may once again enter Iraq. In addition, there are over 1,800 Turkish companies investing in Iraq. Most of these companies operate within the KRG territory, while several of them invest in the south of Iraq. When Turkey-Iraq relations worsened, these firms had difficulty operating, their licenses were abolished and Turkish commodities were banned in the southern provinces. However, Turkish companies’ investments, particularly in the construction sector after 2003 and improving relations between the two countries will possibly make Iraq available to Turkish firms once again. The mutual abolition of visas for diplomatic, service and private passports, which was agreed on during Jafari’s visit to Turkey, will hasten the development of the relations. In addition, new border gates, which will be opened in Üzümlü and Derecik towns of the province of Hakkari and in the town of Ortasu in the Uludere district of the province of Şırnak, will boost economic relations.

In conclusion, having significance in terms of timing, the mutual visits between Turkey and Iraq carries the potential to bring about positive developments in the domestic politics of the countries, and solution to regional problems. It is crucial that existing balance will not be altered while new balances are established and the issues of reconciliation and cooperation will be brought to the fore.