Reflections on Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Visit to Iraq

Having visited Iraq on 20-21 November 2014, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has taken steps for a new period in Turkey-Iraq relations with his talks in Baghdad and Arbil. First of all, the foremost characteristic of the visit is that it is the first time that a Turkish statesman visited both Arbil and Baghdad, after former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit in March 2011. It has a political character as well as a symbolic meaning. Yet it was either Baghdad or Arbil that Turkish officials visited after 2011. As a matter of fact, the last high-level visit to Iraq was again realized by Ahmet Davutoğlu, in November 2013, during his tenure as Foreign Minister. In this period, Turkey had developed its relations with Arbil. Davutoğlu’s latest visit has served to maintain the balance with Iraq once again. While building bridges with Baghdad, Turkey has cast away the doubts about excluding the Kurds, with the visit to Arbil. As it is well known, Turkey’s policy toward Iraq includes two different dimensions after 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, Turkey’s relations with Arbil suffered, while its relations with Baghdad reached high levels. Between 2010 and 2014, the situation was reversed. Davutoğlu’s latest visit has removed this understanding. For Turkey, a new period has started in which the relations with Baghdad and Arbil will be conducted simultaneously and will not be seen as an alternative to one another. As a matter of fact, Massoud Barzani has uttered the terms, “new process, new circumstances”, in his speech after meeting with Davutoğlu. It is expected that the period ahead will involve possibilities for reconciliation and cooperation in every field from economy to politics, and bilateral and multilateral agreement and mechanisms.

The discourse analysis of the visit suggests that Turkey has, “for the time being”, satisfied Baghdad and Arbil’s expectations. Turkey’s approach toward Baghdad meets the expectations of the latter. Davutoğlu defined a common threat by emphasizing that “A threat to Iraq is a threat towards Turkey as well”. Yet, here is a specific detail. Davutoğlu stressed that the ISIS and PKK are included in the same threat definition. It means that Turkey expects Iraq to adopt a similar approach toward the PKK. It is also remarkable that Davutoğlu did not emphasize the “Sunni identity”, during his visit to Baghdad. That is the foremost among Baghdad’s concrete expectations from Turkey. It is with no doubt that behind closed doors, the parties discussed the integration of the Sunnis to politics for weakening and annihilating the ISIS. For Baghdad, it is important that this issue was not overtly expressed. It is seen that the two countries regard this issue on the basis of the integrity and stability of Iraq. For Turkey, it is crucial to cast away the impression that Turkey is supporting the ISIS, which the Iraqi public opinion upholds partially due to the manipulation of the Western media. Therefore, the obstacles for the development of bilateral relations will be removed. It is not difficult to claim that in the new period in Turkey-Iraq relations, issues of reconciliation will emerge, rather than conflicts. It will further be enhanced by the participation of Arbil as well. Barzani’s statement after his meeting with Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Iraq will be strengthened”, is a clear signal toward this. It is a crucial issue not only for Arbil-Baghdad relations, but also for reinforcing domestic political structure and stability of Iraq. Since the Kurdish politicians were reluctant in the government forming process by Haider al Abadi, Turkey’s moves for keeping Kurds within Iraqi politics are influential. Turkey has been continuing its policy for “preserving political unity and territorial integrity of Iraq” since 2003. Even though Iraq strongly opposed Turkey’s developing relations with the KRG, it was helpful in keeping Kurds within the central Iraqi politics. Turkey actually played a facilitator role between Baghdad and Arbil. From this point on, Turkey’s relations with Baghdad will likely strengthen the relations between Arbil and Baghdad.

It is needed to touch upon an issue at this point. Regional and domestic political developments make it essential for Iraq to develop its relations with Arbil and Turkey. Two issues stand out: the regional and international struggle against the ISIS, and the de facto situation about the KRG’s oil sales. It is obvious that Iraq will not reach a solution in the struggle against the ISIS on its own. For this reason, Iraq needs to initiate cooperation in both regional and international levels. Iraq’s cooperation with Turkey is important for all regional countries including Iraq, especially when the Syrian conflict is considered. For the domestic politics, the Arbil-Baghdad cooperation is crucial for the fight against the ISIS. It is a necessity for Arbil as well. The events in Sinjar and Mahmur showed that Arbil is unable to counter the ISIS on its own as well. The explosion in Arbil just two days before the visit by Ahmet Davutoğlu should also be considered within this context.

Besides, the continuity of the de facto situation in Arbil’s oil exports, regardless of the USA’s and Baghdad’s objections, make cooperation a necessity for Baghdad. Baghdad seems to understand that it is “better to lose the saddle than the horse, therefore it should seek to get involved in the process rather than getting excluded. It is tough to reverse the oil export situation for the moment, except an extraordinary “ISIS invasion of Arbil”. Therefore, Baghdad seeks to catch up with the situation. It is seen in the agreement between Arbil and Baghdad on November 13. At this point Baghdad seems to relinquish its resistance against the energy relationship between Arbil and Turkey. It is obvious in the decision by Haider al Abadi to visit Turkey at the end of December and attend a joint cabinet meeting. This meeting will be a follow-up for the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council meetings.     

The United States of America also supports Turkey’s developing relations with Baghdad. It is important for the USA that Turkey implemented the US suggestions for the KRG to participate in the Iraqi politics. It is further reinforced by the statement that Turkey and the US is in agreement regarding Iraq and Syria, which is made in the talks between Ahmet Davutoğlu and US Vice President Joe Biden, following the visit to Iraq. It is needed to consider Iran’s position at this point. Even though Iran will not be pleased with Turkey’s role, which limits and balances its influence in Iraq, for the sake of the Syrian conflict and the nuclear negotiations, it has to adopt a favorable position toward Turkey’s developing relations with Iraq. Similarly, Iran has been emphasizing Iraq’s territorial integrity lately. If Iran opposes the latest cooperation process, it might lose support in Iraq. Therefore, Iran will not support the cooperation process, but also it will not hinder it.

The original analysis was published in Al Jazeera Turkish website.