TODAY’S MESOP COMMENTARY : DOĞU ERGİL – Turkey-Iraq reconciliation

Zaman – The strained relations between Turkey and Iraq (or better the Baghdad government) are improving. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visited Ankara and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, traveled to Baghdad to renew friendly relations in what were almost consecutive visits.

There are several reasons for this rapprochement. One is growing concern over the development of radical terrorist elements that are seeking to build bases in both Iraq and Syria, challenging all authorities and political regimes. Syria had been looked upon by Ankara as a stepping stone for Turkey to take a leading political role in the Islamic near-abroad.

Such extremist organizations, intent on creating an Islamic emirate, threaten the peace and stability of all Muslim nations. Another point of friction between Baghdad and Ankara is the latter’s ever-growing economic relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Turkey is growing rapidly and is energy hungry. The KRG sits on rich oil and gas resources. Both sides see no limit to making use of these resources for their mutual benefit. But Baghdad claims that it has the constitutional right to control the country’s energy resources. Hence Ankara’s direct dealings with Arbil, bypassing Baghdad, were severely criticized and deemed to be in violation of the sovereignty rights of Iraq proper. Baghdad’s woes have been heard by Washington, which has in turn warned the Turkish government against making any energy deals with Arbil that exclude Baghdad. The Americans want to keep the fragile unity in Iraq and prevent division. Ankara took notice of the warning.

Yet Turkey is not giving up on the lucrative deals with the KRG it has within its reach; rather, it wants to include Baghdad in them. Thus, not only will the conflicts between Ankara and Baghdad and Arbil and Baghdad end, but the political integrity of Iraq will be safeguarded.

The peaceful initiatives are timely and necessary because it is important for Ankara to get Baghdad’s endorsement on several agreements to build multi-billion-dollar oil and gas pipelines to transport the hydrocarbon reserves of northern Iraq (in the KRG region) to world markets. At the end, some 2 million barrels of oil per day and at least 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year may soon flow from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey.

These important projects are expected to produce important geopolitical consequences for the Middle East, increasing the wealth of both Turkey and Iraq and bringing prosperity, cooperation and stability to the volatile region. That is why Ankara and Baghdad have to reconcile. Under Iraq’s constitution, all oil export revenue goes through Baghdad. The autonomous Kurdish region is entitled to 17 percent of the total. However, KRG leaders say that all of Iraq will benefit if the KRG develops its region’s own resources. But Baghdad fears that if Arbil acts independently with regards to the natural resources in its territory, the Kurds will be empowered to eventually seek independence. Now, Turkey is setting out to assuage these worries.

These developments mean something else for Turkey: With its Kurdish antipathy, in the past the military-influenced Turkish government looked upon the KRG as a hostile agent that could encourage its own Kurdish population to seek independence. With this concern in mind, Ankara built strong ties with Baghdad. Two things have changed this one-dimensional policy: Turkey’s new government has altered the approach and instruments it uses in dealing with Kurds; at the same time, the Iraqi Kurds have assured Ankara that they will not get involved in Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” and can offer a lucrative partnership to help it meet its growing need for energy. In the past 10 years, the economic and political relations between Turkey and the KRG have grown so much that a virtual integration of the two regions has taken place. Furthermore, with the advent of Rojava, a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria that came into being under the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey turned to Arbil to rein in the Kurds of Syria.

Both Ankara and Arbil are worried about increasing PKK power in the region. They know that the PKK does not like sharing power and will sooner or later claim leadership of all Kurds in the Middle East. The modus operandi of this strategy and the latest advances between Ankara and Baghdad will be discussed by KRG President Massoud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this weekend in Gaziantep.With so many possibilities, the region is ripe for many developments, expected and unexpected.