This article was published in Arab News on May 12, 2019.
Turkey lets go of the past with policy rethink on Iraq
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent visit to Iraq was both long overdue and a welcome opportunity to correct a series of policy blunders by Ankara toward its southern neighbor.
For years, diplomatic traffic between the two countries has fallen well below what is needed.
Cavusoglu’s visit included stops in Baghdad, Basra and Irbil. In the Iraqi capital, he met with his counterpart Mohammed Alhakim and exchanged views on subjects including post-war reconstruction of Iraq, strengthening bilateral trade, boosting Turkish investment in the country, water issues and possible substitutes for Iranian oil.
The Turkish delegation also announced the opening of new consulates in Kirkuk and Najaf, and the reopening of two consulates — Mosul and Basra — that were forced to close because of pressure from Daesh.
Turkey has had to revisit its Iraqi policy because of major mistakes made in the recent past.
One was Ankara’s sectarian approach to its relations with Iraq. In most of the sectarian conflicts, Ankara sided with the Sunnis, resulting in tension between Turkey and Iraq’s democratically elected Shiite government. Constitutionally, Turkey is a secular country and seeks to avoid sectarian bias in its relations with its neighbors. But at one stage, Ankara even treated its Turkmen kinsmen in Iraq according to whether they were Sunnis or Shiites. A Turkish foreign minister visited the Iraqi office of the Sunni Turkmens but ignored the Shiites.
The second major mistake was to ignore the Iraqi central administration while Ankara was cooperating closely with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani. Turkey ignored Iraqi leader Haider Al-Abadi’s calls not to make deals with the KRG to buy Iraqi oil and export it. In a meeting of the Eurasia Islamic Council, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abandoned the prepared text and used trivializing rhetoric when discussing Al-Abadi. However, a year later he had to receive the Iraqi prime minister in the presidential palace with full honors.
A perennial issue in Turkey’s relations with Iraq is the water of the Tigris.
In 2013, the Iraqi government opposed the export of Iraqi oil through Turkey without the consent of the central government, claiming in an arbitration case that this was a violation of the Iraq-Turkey pipeline agreement of 1973. Three years later, Turkey cooperated with Baghdad by opposing the KRG’s independence referendum. The KRG was disillusioned by the change in Turkey’s attitude. Now Ankara is again turning to the KRG, asking it to persuade Baghdad to withdraw the arbitration case. These zig-zags must have been noted in the Iraqi government’s institutional memory.
An increase in Turkey’s purchase of Iraqi oil was also discussed during Cavusoglu’s visit — a convenient coincidence because, after the US announced it would end the sanctions waivers that have allowed Turkey to import oil from Iran, Ankara had to find other sources for its imports.
Turkey opposed Washington’s unilateral sanctions on Iran, but at a critical time in its fragile relations with the US, it will perhaps reluctantly abide by them. An existing oil pipeline links Kirkuk to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. Its pumping capacity could be improved by repairing damage caused during the Iraqi crisis. In addition, Iraqi oil could also be imported from Basra by tankers.
A perennial issue in Turkey’s relations with Iraq is the water of the Tigris. More than half of the river’s water originates in Turkey, but it utilizes only a small fraction of it since there is little irrigable agricultural land in its basin in Turkey. The only major dam, Ilisu, now under construction, will be used mainly for power generation. Despite this, Iraq has complained about the quantity of water Turkey should release. Cavusoglu promised his Iraqi counterpart that Turkey will send a special representative to discuss water issues. Both sides need a strong political will to tackle this issue.
In his visit to Irbil, Cavusoglu met KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani for talks on bilateral issues.
The most substantive agenda item was cooperation in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization based in the Qandil Mountains on Iraq’s northeastern border with Turkey. Despite persistent efforts, the terror group cannot be dislodged from the area because the KRG has been reluctant to cooperate with a foreign country in the fight against its kinsmen.
Cavusoglu also announced that Erdogan will visit Iraq later this year to chair a Strategic Partnership Council meeting. The Turkish leader’s visit will tell us whether his country’s mishandling of its Iraqi policy has left lasting scars in their relationship.