Yaşar Yakış
Oct 31 2017

Turkey's prospects for cooperation with Iraq

The over-ambitious designs of President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) resulted in a debacle for northern Iraq's Kurds. The initiative to hold a referendum in the KRG complicated a lot of paradigms in the region, but it has also created a suitable environment to reanimate the old friendships.

One of these opportunities is the future of Turkish-Iraqi bilateral relations. Reciprocal recriminations had caused in the recent past serious erosion of mutual trust between the leaders of these two countries. In a sense, the referendum crisis and its fall-out came as a tremor that helped turn the page. In the new page, the two countries may leave aside many unfortunate exchanges of blame. Some of them may have left indelible scars, but when the national interests so require such scars have to be ignored. 

Another critical issue is to adapt the close relations that existed in the pre-crisis era between Turkey and the KRG to the new reality in the field. The KRG authorities had released in June 2013 a document on the shares that had been given to a state-owned Turkish company in six areas. Turkish authorities refused to comment on this subject, which implies that they did not want to discuss the subject publicly, but Baghdad may raise this question when it feels the circumstances warrant it.

Again in the field of the oil-related deals, according to a Reuters report of Nov. 24, 2015, the KRG Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami explained how the KRG circumvented Baghdad’s detection of its oil exports: “Oil is funnelled through Israel, transferred directly between ships off the coast of Malta, and decoy ships used to make it harder for Baghdad to track” he said.   

Turkish daily Dünya reported that the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara Hisham al-Alawi said on Oct. 6, 2017, that hos government was planning to find a solution to the oil money that is deposited in Halkbank, a state-owned Turkish bank. Baghdad expects this money to be transferred to the Iraqi government account. The ambassador added: “Turkish authorities told us that they are not part of the sale of oil from Kirkuk or from the region”. It appears that Turkey has taken measures by not depositing the money in KRG’s account. It has to be congratulated for this cautious approach. 

Negotiations between Baghdad and the KRG are a domestic issue, nonetheless they are very important for Turkey as well. If, after these negotiations, the KRG is reduced to a powerless administration, Turkey’s fight against the PKK may be negatively affected, because the terrorists are mainly nestled in the Qandil Mountains, in the KRG area. Thanks to good relations between Turkey and the KRG, Barzani was doing his best to meet Turkey’s requests to keep the PKK in check. He could not fulfil all that Turkey asked, because he was also under pressure from his own electorate. But a weakened KRG may become even less amenable to check the movements of the PKK on its soil. 

The deployment of a Turkish military detachment in Bashiqa is another subject that has soured Ankara-Baghdad relations for a long time. This issue will have to be solved at some stage. When Baghdad vociferously opposed the presence of this detachment on Iraqi soil, Turkish authorities tried to justify it by emphasising that the Turkish soldiers are there to train Peshmerga fighters to fight against the ISIL. The Iraqi ambassador in Ankara told the Turkish press on Oct. 6 that Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım promised him that the Turkish soldiers will be withdrawn when Mosul was liberated from Islamic State. This issue is put in the back-burner during Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Ankara on Oct 27, but there is no guarantee that it will not be brought up again by the Iraqi authorities in due time.

Turkey will need a lot of diplomatic skill to make Iraq forget the recent past, but if wisdom prevails on both sides, the atmosphere is suitable for an entirely fresh start.