Turkey and Iraq: Past, present and future

Ceylan Ozbudak

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In every family, the siblings fight quite often. At one point you can see them pulling each others’ hair, hitting each other kicking and screaming; but when it’s the dinner time, they make up, come to the dinner table and start giggling again. We, the people of Middle East, are like a big, dysfunctional family: We have our occasional fights and problems but we always make up and establish deeper bonds than ever before. We are indispensible to each other. We are related.

This is something the U.S. doesn’t entirely grasp in its Middle Eastern diplomacy. No matter how hard the American diplomats try, when they are sitting in a room to settle a deal, they will always be the foreigners in the house. No matter how great their deal is, it’s always going to be approached with twice the hesitancy it deserves; not that our American brothers are always up to something fishy, but because they rarely agree to speak our language. I am waiting in anticipation to see Americans realize that learning Arabic is not enough for this, but cooperating with a Middle Eastern partner certainly is. This is an issue I will revisit later.

Turkey’s foreign policy issues were also among the most disputed in the last few years. Turkey came out of its shell in the new millennium, left its issues with the Arab nations behind and took a step forward for better diplomacy in the region. Its Arab allies welcomed Turkey, like a long -lost relative, back into their lives. Then, Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy came onto the scene and Turkey started to put an end to the remains of the bi-polar world of the Cold War era; but with the ongoing Arab revivals, “zero problems with the neighbors” has turned into “zero neighbors without problems.” In the fluidity of the situation, Turkey has managed to put the bricks back in place and has become an indispensible neighbor for post-war Iraq.

Turkish policy has moved up a notch recently by making impressive moves in two different areas. Ankara now works to repair its broken relations with the Iraqi government, which has been somewhat sour for the past two years. At the same time, it is getting closer with the regional Kurdistan administration in northern Iraq, as well.

As a part of this new strategy, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu paid a visit to his counterpart Hoshyar Zebari in Iraq, while Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki is expected to visit Turkey soon. Furthermore, the prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdish Region, Nechirvan Barzani, was in Istanbul recently while Mesut Barzani, the head of the administration, is also scheduled to visit Prime Minister Erdoğan in Diyarbakır today. Barzani’s meeting is important in terms of two interlinked developments: First is that Turkey’s relations with the central Iraqi administration is getting back to normal and the second is that things are getting more tense between the KPD and the PYD.

Difference between Barzani’s Kurds and the PYD’s Kurds

Barzani is a beloved political actor for the local Kurds. Since the 1970s, he has been involved in the Kurdish problem and the rights of the Kurdish people and has been the indisputable leader of the KDP since 1987.

He’s had his ups and downs in his relationship with Turkey, but Barzani is known to support the peace process between Turkey and the separatist Kurds. This bothers the PKK to a great extent. Especially a series of events in recent months has further increased the rift between the Northern Iraq administration and the PYD. Due to reasons such as a Kurdish conference which could not convene, Salih Muslim not being given a pass to Iraq, that the PYD was neutralized with regards to attending Geneva II, the PYD accused the KPD of being “enemies to the Kurdish people and against the Rojava revolution.” A prompt answer to that claim came from Barzani: “Which Rojava revolution are they talking about? Against whom did they carry out this revolution? They do not represent the majority of the Kurdish population and the fact that they make agreements with the Assad regime is a dangerous game for the Kurdish population in Syria. They did not stay faithful to the Erbil Kurdish Council agreement of 2012. They only attained rights at the point of a gun .” PYD does not allow the Kurdish parties to work in cities like Kobani, Afrin and Kamışlı. The PKK also shows similar allergic reactions to the recent warming of relations with Turkey.

Now, let’s take a trip down the memory lane

Iraq did not exist as a nation a hundred years ago. Until the end of World War I, its territory was divided into three separate provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was buried in the ashes of World War I; but a revitalized, largely secular Turkey had arisen in its place. Turkish-Iraqi border remained in question for many years and included intense negotiations with Britain. The British unified lraq in the end to make the three former Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia easier to govern and they determined the capital city of present-day lraq, Baghdad. The situation in Mosul at the time was chaotic and still remains a historical memory for both sides. Until after the American invasion, Iraq remained suspicious of Turkey’s intentions there. Turkish-Iraqi relations since the 1958 Iraqi Revolution trace a path from limited and cold to very warm with the Turkish involvement in post-Saddam Iraq. Until recent developments, Turkish relations with Baghdad have been about a few key elements, one of which was the Iraqi Kurds’ political aspirations for autonomy.

Iraq is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of hydrocarbon resources, but it has to develop its infrastructure

Ceylan Ozbudak

Until a couple of years ago, Ankara was vehemently against the idea of an autonomous administration in northern Iraq and called the Kurdish leaders Talabani and Barzani “tribal leaders,” accusing them of being separatists. It’s safe to say the most radical change in Turkish foreign policy recently has been its approach to Iraqi Kurdistan. When Barzani managed to establish an autonomous administration –almost a half-independent administration- taking advantage of the new constitution in Iraq, Ankara kept its distance from him for a very long time. However over time, resentments were forgotten, and trade and investments increased with improving relations. Especially with the new opportunities in energy area rising recently, direct cooperation became more important then ever. After seeing the energy resources of northern Iraq, the Turkish government started handling some projects together with the regional administration, bypassing the Baghdad administration in the process.

An Iraqi perspective

An influential Iraqi resident and a Shiite, Reda Abd Hamid, thinks different from other Sunni-majority nations, there is a significant religious angle to the representation of Turkey in Iraq. That is, through Ashoura commemorations which are openly celebrated in Turkey. The fact that Turkish officials and opposition representatives have been present in these commemorations in Istanbul in the past few years is a sign of healthy democratic nation, which is not missed by the vast majority of Iraqis. Remember the only two events in the post-Saddam Iraq that attracts millions of Iraqis are Ashoura and al-Arbaeen which marks 40 days after Ashoura. While the vast majority of these commemorators are Iraqi Shiite Muslims, Kurd, Sunni and Christians also participate in these two commemorations. So, the image of public Ashoura commemorations in Turkey strikes a chord with millions of Iraqis. Besides, the recent visit of the Turkish foreign minister to Iraq was an encouraging indication of opening a new page in the Turkish-Iraqi relationship, the hopes are high that the visit marks the return of the Turkish policy of zero problems with its neighbors in the region, which ultimately will have positive impact on the security situation in Iraq.

Talk about money baby!

Iraq is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of hydrocarbon resources, but it has to develop its infrastructure, increase production and refining capacity and build new strategic pipelines. Turkey, with its strong private and public companies, offers important opportunities for cooperation in all those fields. An agreement has already been reached for an impressive project in this field. In this project, discussed during the last visit of Nechirvan Barzani, Turkey will import petrol and natural gas directly from Iraqi Kurdistan. The pipeline construction has already started and two million barrels of petrol will be shipped through this line per day, while the natural gas line will be completed by the end of 2016 with an estimated capacity of 10 billion m3 per year. As of 2011, Iraq has become the second largest export market of Turkey. By 2012, the trade volume between Iraq and Turkey increased 41 percent. Turkey exported $10.7 billion worth of goods to Iraq by the end of 2012, and this number is forecast to be much higher this year. Let’s not forget that the first foreign bank in Erbil is Ziraat Bank of Turkey and the presidential palace of Kurdistan, situated in Erbil, is being built by a Turkish construction company.

Revisiting the issue of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East

All the above developments show that Turkey is on its way to improve its relationship with this neighboring country, while carefully considering all the balances and internal factors. Turkey has no desire to be a military force even though it has an offensive army structure. Via financial factors, bilateral relations, importing a labor force, by being an energy hub and involved in water politics, Turkey has managed to place itself among the indispensible players in the region. It doesn’t take a social scientist to clearly see both countries share a common vision: These include a nonmilitant, non-nuclear Iran, an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute, an end to terrorism in the region and of course a peaceful, centralized Iraq. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry decided to carry out three peace conferences at the same time in the Middle East and pretty much managed to sink all of them, Turkey is now picking up the pieces left over from the blunders of the U.S. . Where the U.S. diplomats cannot spend half a day with their Iraqi counterparts talking about the intricate details of Arab –Turkish cuisines and speculate over tea for minutes, Turks can. Where the American diplomats cannot visit shrines and pray together with the Iraqis, Turks can. This might be the perfect time for the U.S. and Turkey to begin cooperating more closely on matters in the Middle East, for both parties’ benefit.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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