Ankara breaks ice with Baghdad after period of tension
Needless to say, the future of the military base in Bashiqa, which Turkey established in March 2015 near the Iraqi city of Mosul in order to train local forces to fight against Daesh, was the most important topic of the agenda.
The presence of around 500 Turkish troops has been a heated topic between Ankara and Baghdad since December 2015. The issue turned into a serious political crisis and even talk of war between the two neighbors.
They summoned their respective ambassadors in October 2016 after Baghdad described Turkish troops in the country as “hostile occupying forces,” and the Iraqi Parliament called for the withdrawal of the troops, which were actually deployed there with the authorization of Al-Abadi’s government.
Following the meeting between Yıldırım and Al-Abadi, two different statements came from both sides. The Iraqi prime minister said a deal was reached over the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Bashiqa. The Turkish prime minister, without referring to such a deal, said the two countries agreed to resolve the matter in a friendly way. A few days after the visit, Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isık said the status of Turkish troops at Bashiqa will be reassessed with Iraqi officials once the area has been cleared of Daesh terrorists.
So for now, it seems there is not a full agreement on the table regarding Bashiqa, but it is important that both sides have reached some sort of understanding through diplomatic moves. Also, at a time when the Mosul operation is still ongoing, it is crucial that both Iraqi and Turkish leaders have at least opened the doors to discussion in order to overcome disagreements, although details of the discussion are still not clear.
Yıldırım’s two-day visit to Iraq will not be a magic problem-solving wand, but it will undoubtedly push the two sides to engage in effective dialogue that could lead to cooperate against common threats.
For instance, the existence of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a fundamental threat for both Turkey and Iraq. Close cooperation between them, and with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, is required to fight against the PKK, which has been using Iraqi territory as its main headquarters and trying to expand its influence in Sinjar province.
For this reason, Yıldırım’s visit to Erbil to meet with KRG President Massoud Barzani after visiting Baghdad becomes even more important. In Yıldırım’s Iraq visit, both the KRG and the Iraqi government reiterated their support for Turkey in the fight against the PKK. Life will become more difficult for the PKK when Turkey and Iraq normalize relations, as the terrorist organization was taking advantage of the strained relations between the two neighbors.
In this respect, the visit could be regarded as breathing new life into bilateral relations. Turkey not only seeks the cooperation of both the KRG and Baghdad against the PKK, but also tries to maintain a balance between the central government of Al-Abadi and Barzani’s government in northern Iraq. So better Turkish-Iraqi ties will also pave the way for normalizing ties between Baghdad and Erbil.
Besides the threats emanating from the PKK and Daesh, there is also the issue of Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s strained relations with Iraq were playing into the hands of Iran, which has influence on Iraqi politics. The visit was important in the sense of not leaving Iraq to Iran.
The visit was also part of Turkey’s strategy to normalize relations with regional actors. Normalization with Iraq is the continuation of Ankara’s rapprochement with Russia and Israel. Turkey, which is already carrying out Operation Euphrates Shield to fight terrorism in Syria, aims to get the support of regional and global actors.
So the picture we saw last week in Baghdad raises hope for the future of the Middle East, because better relations with regional countries based on mutual trust will be in the best interests of actors in the region.
At the end of the day, Turkey and Iraq are interdependent neighbors that need to cooperate on several issues such as energy and security. If necessary, for the time being they should be able to agree to disagree on Bashiqa. While the region is going through critical days, the peace and stability at their doorsteps and in the Middle East are of great importance to both Iraq and Turkey.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on
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