Three ways for Turkiye and Iraq to boost cooperation
Traditionally, Turkiye’s relations with Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been intertwined and guided by a wide range of factors. The countries not only share a border but common water sources, mutual concerns and common stakes. In the same vein, the KRG occupies a critical place in the Turkish foreign policy agenda.
On March 21, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani visited Turkiye for the first time since he came to power in October last year. He met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he discussed several issues, including bilateral cooperation. However, contentious issues were also gently brought to the table for discussion.
Turkish-Iraqi ties have experience a number of ups and downs in recent decades, mainly due to three main issues: Turkey’s military presence in northern Iraq; a water-sharing dispute over transboundary rivers; and the KRG’s crude oil exports through Turkiye.
Significant developments took place regarding some of these contentious issues in the aftermath of Al-Sudani’s visit.
He left Turkiye in a positive mood after pledging with the Turkish leader to deepen cooperation in a number of fields, and announcing the launch of a major rail and road transport project that would link Iraq’s southern oil-rich province of Basra with Turkiye.
Two days after the visit, on March 23, an international arbitration ruling prompted the shutdown of Iraq’s northern crude oil exports through Turkiye. Since 2013, the KRG has been exporting crude from the semi-autonomous northern region independently from the federal government, a move Iraq deemed illegal.
Baghdad filed for arbitration in 2014 with the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce over Ankara’s role in facilitating oil exports from the KRG without its consent. Following this, Ankara, Baghdad and Erbil engaged in talks to reach a mutual agreement over exports from northern Iraq. They finally reached a preliminary agreement to resume the exports.
Following the oil export issue, another development took place regarding water. This week, Turkiye allowed more water from the Tigris to flow into Iraq to alleviate acute water shortages. The dispute over the shared water from Euphrates and Tigris rivers is a longstanding one, causing occasional tensions between Ankara and Baghdad. While the latter claims that Turkish dams are causing water levels to fall in Iraq, Ankara argues that Iraq needs to improve its irrigation technology to make more effective use of water.
Al-Sudani was pleased by the move to increase the water flow, yet there were still some issues that remain thorny, such as Turkiye’s cross-border operations in northern Iraq and Iraq’s sovereignty issues.
Baghdad has protested against Turkish military operations on its soil several times and complained about the growing Turkish military presence in its territory. Relations were seriously strained by the presence of Turkish troops at a military base in Bashiqa that Ankara established in 2015 and has been a frequent target of pro-Iranian groups. There has been no change in Ankara’s stance over the Turkish military presence despite Baghdad’s uneasiness.
Against this backdrop, Turkiye this week closed its airspace to planes traveling to and from the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah due to intensified activity there by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which is headquartered in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. The foreign ministry said the closure took effect on April 3 and was expected to remain in force until July 3.
These three issues could now emerge as areas of cooperation between Ankara and the Al-Sudani government in Iraq, which seems pragmatic and keen to focus on increased economic and trade cooperation.
Throughout the past decade, Ankara attempted to tread a fine line between Baghdad and Erbil, which had a rivalrous relationship. Resolving the oil export dispute in a way that pleases all parties could pave the way for more cooperation between Ankara, Baghdad and Erbil.
The transboundary water sources might also be considered an area for cooperation that could serve mutual interests. Although climate change, population growth and economic difficulties pose critical challenges to the provision of water, making it an issue of concern, it could also act as a tool of cooperation in times of crises and could even help ease tensions between the states.
Lastly, enhanced cooperation in efforts to combat terrorism is the most powerful variable informing the links between Ankara and Baghdad, and even Erbil. While Turkiye is trying to find a path to cooperation with actors in Iraq on security issues, it also aims to boost its diplomatic presence in the country. With this in mind, it plans to open a consulate general in Najaf, in addition to those in Erbil, Mosul and Basra.
Also, greater focus could be paid to the Iraqi-Turkish committee that aims to resolve issues and enhance economic relations. This joint effort could be used as an effective mechanism to address problematic issues between two countries before they become point of contention, causing tensions to rise.
There is no guarantee that contentious issues will not surface again; however, even if there is no way to prevent this, there are ways to minimize their effects. In this regard, Turkiye could compartmentalize its issues with Iraq, as it has done with many other countries, and in return benefit from the tools of diplomacy and institutionalism.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz