Turkey-Iraq Relations in the Wake of Jafari’s Visit: Towards Reconciliation and Cooperation
Turkey-Iraq relations that have been going uphill and downhill after 2003 will likely enter a new phase. Having started to deteriorate in 2009, Turkey-Iraq relations worsened further with different positions that the countries adopted toward Syria after the events in 2011 and did not show signs of rapprochement due to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s attitude in foreign and domestic politics. The expectations for a period of good relations between Iraq and Turkey after former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit on November 2013 to Baghdad, Najaf and Kerbela, were thwarted due to the indifference of Iraq and tense relations between the two countries continued. After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) advance in Iraq in June 2014, Turkey-Iraq relations were still tense. In this period, signs were transformation in Iraqi foreign and domestic politics emerged after a new government was formed by Haider al Abadi, as a result of 30 April 2014 Parliamentary Elections, when al Maliki abandoned his insistence on the post of the Prime Minister for the third term. The expectations for good relations soared after İbrahim al Jafari, who is known for his rational and balanced attitude, high approval ratings from all political groups and preference for good relations with Turkey, has been appointed Foreign Minister. He took a concrete step toward developing Turkey-Iraq relations and visited Turkey between 5 and 7 November 2014. He also implied that mutual visits will continue by stating that he invited Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to visit Iraq and received a positive response. It is expected that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi will visit Turkey a short time after Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to Iraq.
In addition, it is possible that concrete steps will be taken beside mutual visits, in order to improve relations. Yet, in the first day of the visit, it was announced that the visa requirement for diplomatic, service and private passports between Iraq and Turkey has been abolished in the talks between Mr. Jafari and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Even this development shows that further steps will be taken in order to attain quick results. At this point, several questions cross one’s mind. Primarily, it is needed to answer the question about the basic motivation beneath these fast-paced steps in the bilateral relations. Considering Mr. Jafari’s statements during his visit, both countries’ officials seem to uphold the idea that the 4-5 years of bad relations constitute a loss for the bilateral relations. It is a fact that the ISIS advances in the region and its impact on the Iraqi domestic politics create the need for accomplishing quick outcomes in Turkey-Iraq relations. Regional cooperation is needed in the context of the ISIS’s position as a regional and global threat, not just a threat toward Syria and Iraq, and the United States’ efforts for developing an international counter-terrorism concept with its coalition against the ISIS. Considering Syria’s current situation, it is obvious that Iraq is in need of Turkey’s active support in its struggle against the ISIS. Thus, security and the fight against the ISIS were particularly underlined by Mr. Jafari and “regional security” was determined as a common objective for Turkey and Iraq. In this period it is possible to reactivate the “High Level Strategic Cooperation Council”, formed in 2009 between Turkey and Iraq. Iraq will have concrete expectations from Turkey. Strongly emphasizing that they want no foreign troops in Iraq, Mr. Jafari stated clearly that they need logistical and intelligence support. Intelligence sharing between the two countries is important for Turkey in its fight against the PKK as well as the fight against the ISIS.
Having stressed Turkey’s regional role, Mr. Jafari puts forward that their expectations from Turkey in the fight against the ISIS are in the regional level. Basically, Iraq may have two expectations from Turkey:
1- Disrupting the support toward the ISIS by influencing those states, which are allegedly providing material aid and recruits to the ISIS, in order to constitute regional pressure.
2- Establishing a regional struggle capacity against ISIS, which includes the countries, which the ISIS is active or has a potential to be active.
It is particularly expected that the countries that have Sunni majority will be the focus for acting. Even though Mr. Jafari stated that this is not a Shia-Sunni war, the reason for his focus on Turkey’s regional role is a potential for influence on the region’s Sunni countries.
In addition, it is remarkable the announcements after the talks stated that regional developments were evaluated and did not touch upon the Syrian crisis. It seems that third party factors will be cut off from the bilateral relations, which will only include the issues that concern both countries.
Nevertheless, it is important not to overlook an internal factor that directly affects the bilateral relations. Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is one of the main factors determining Turkey-Iraq relations after 2009. Yet, as Turkey deepened its relations with the KRG, its relations with the Iraqi central government suffered. It is possible that a reverse situation might worsen Turkey’s relations with the KRG. It is an issue that Kurdish politicians might worry about. In the period ahead, Turkey will most likely act in a rational manner and avoid making a preference. It is expected that Turkey will consider its relations with the KRG and the Iraqi central government complementary not contradictory. It is probable that Turkey’s enhanced relations with the Iraqi central government will affect the resolution of problems between the KRG and the Iraqi central government. A new mechanism for the transit of Iraqi oil and gas reserves through Turkey as well as bilateral commercial relations is likely to emerge. Therefore, the period ahead will witness the issues related to cooperation and reconciliation will come to the forefront rather than the conflicting issues between the two countries. It is not wrong to suggest that Turkey-Iraq relations will be built on those issues of cooperation and reconciliation in this following period.
The original analysis was published in Al Jazeera Turkish website on 8 November 2014