Will Turkey, Iraq open new chapter in ties?

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s visit to Iraq last week set a new tone in the ties between the two countries, which have been highly tense in recent months. Following his talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, Yildirim met with Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani in Erbil. His contacts in Erbil reflected a desire to maintain a balance between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the benefit of the three parties.

Prior to traveling to Baghdad, Yildirim underscored that this visit was part of his policy of “increasing the number of Turkey’s friends and reducing the number of its enemies.” He pointed to the recently improved ties with Israel and Russia as examples of Ankara’s new approach. Analysts underline the fact that deteriorating ties with Baghdad were also undermining Turkey’s vast economic cooperation with Iraq at a time when the Turkish economy shows signs of wavering.

Despite its efforts to come out of its regional isolation with a new approach to foreign policy, Turkey’s ties with Iraq remained tense during most of 2016, even to the point where talk of war entered the conversation.

Yildirim’s and Abadi’s statements following their talks in Baghdad on Jan. 7 displayed a clear willingness to end this period of animosity and open a new chapter in ties.

Retired Ambassador Ali Tuygan, who served as Foreign Ministry undersecretary from 2006 to 2009, said the two countries are clearly aiming at compartmentalizing sources of tension so they do not cloud overall ties.

“This visit is a part of Turkey’s efforts to correct the mistakes made in Syria and not repeat these in Iraq. In that sense, it has to be seen as a positive step,” Tuygan, who has been highly critical of the government’s foreign policy, told Al-Monitor.

Remarks by Yildirim and Abadi in Baghdad also show that the two countries are ready to cooperate more closely against terrorism from the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This seems to be the cornerstone of the new relationship between Ankara and Baghdad.

Before Yildirim arrived in Baghdad, Abadi had declared that Iraq would not allow PKK activity against Turkey from Iraqi soil. Turkey is worried that the PKK is trying to establish a new base in the town of Sinjar (also known as Shengal), west of Mosul.

“We will not support any group that uses Iraqi soil to attack our neighbors. Our constitution does not allow for this,” Abadi said at a press conference in Baghdad. He repeated this in his joint press conference with Yildirim on Jan. 7.

Abadi’s statement on the PKK builds on remarks by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani during an interview with Al-Monitor. Barzani said the KRG would consider removing the PKK from Sinjar by force if necessary.

“The most important aspect of the memorandum signed in Baghdad was the declaration by Iraq that the PKK is not wanted on its territory,” reported Ilnur Cevik, a foreign policy adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a columnist for Yeni Birlik.

Tensions between Ankara and Baghdad had increased in recent months, mainly over Turkey’s military presence in Iraq and Ankara’s insistence that it would participate in the operation to liberate Mosul regardless of Baghdad’s opposition.

Prior to declaring the final assault on Mosul on Oct. 16, Abadi said: “Turkish forces will not be allowed to participate in the liberation of Mosul under any circumstances.” He had also declared the presence of Turkish troops in the town of Bashiqa, near Mosul, to be a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Turkey has had a special sensitivity toward Mosul, a majority Sunni city, which fell to IS in June 2014. Turkish irredentists still argue that Mosul was pried away from Turkey illegally after World War I.

Turkey also continues to voice concerns about the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units fighters participating in the liberation of Mosul. It fears revenge attacks by this Shiite group against Sunnis in Mosul and Turkmens in nearby Tal Afar.

Arguing that “Mosul belongs to the people of Mosul and Tal Afar to the people of Tal Afar,” Erdogan told Saudi Arabia’s Rotana TV in October that “after Mosul is liberated, only Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Sunni Kurds should remain there.”

Such remarks fueled Iraqi suspicions that Turkey was pursuing a sectarian/nationalist agenda in Iraq. Tensions between Turkey and Iraq had increased to the extent that Abadi warned in early November that Iraqis “did not want to go to war with Turkey, but would defend themselves if necessary.”

Abadi was also responding to angry remarks by Erdogan about him and the Turkish presence in Iraq. “You are not my counterpart; you are not of the same rank or quality as me. Your yelling and shouting from Iraq is not important for us. Know that we will do what we think is right,” Erdogan had said, referring to Abadi, during an address to the Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul in October.

Turkey said it is in Bashiqa by invitation, and its mission there is to train peshmerga forces and other fighters against IS. Baghdad said it did not invite the Turkish forces.

Turkey has been unable to take an active part in the Mosul operation so far, despite Erdogan’s insistence that it will do so no matter what. It has, however, not pulled out of Bashiqa either, as Iraq has been demanding.

According to press reports citing unnamed Foreign Ministry officials, Yildirim assured the Iraqi side that Turkish soldiers in Bashiqa were not there on a permanent basis but would stay there until the operation to liberate Mosul is completed.

These reports also indicate that Turkey is looking forward to cooperating with the Iraqi government in Iraq and the KRG against the PKK in Sinjar, with the proviso that if this cooperation does not yield results, Ankara reserves the right to take unilateral measures.

In the meantime, international awareness of the dangers of tampering with the demography of Mosul along sectarian lines has also grown. Under pressure from the United States, which is concerned about increased Iranian influence in the region, Baghdad is said to be taking these concerns more seriously now.

Aware that growing strains with Iraq is detrimental to its political, security and economic interests, Ankara sent a “reconciliation delegation” to Baghdad in mid-October. Diplomatic contacts behind the scenes since then have clearly matured to the point where Erdogan could hold a friendly phone conversation with Abadi at the end of December to discuss cooperation against terrorism and the need to improve bilateral relations.

This was followed by Yildirim’s visit to Baghdad and Erbil last weekend. On his return to Ankara, Yildirim summed up his visit by declaring “a new era” in ties between the two countries. “During this era, we will be assessing together our economic, political and security ties within the context of good neighborliness,” Yildirim told reporters at the airport.

Given the volatility in the region, though, it remains to be seen what Ankara’s resetting of its ties with Baghdad ultimately brings. Having seen their ties hit rock bottom to their mutual detriment, the good news is that the sides appear prepared for now to ensure there is no backsliding from the positive momentum caught after the prolonged period of tension.
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