The new phase in the Turkish-Iraqi relationship: fluctuating between friendly and inimical

The already strained Baghdad-Ankara relationship has further deteriorated in recent years, due to regional crises, internal political instability, narrow perceptions and regional interests.

Zana Khasraw Gul
20 August 2013

The deterioration in relations was, to some extent, inherent in the domestic and regional evolution of the two countries. The relationship, which was steadily progressing during the US occupation of Iraq, saw a reversing trend after the withdrawal of the US troops at the end of 2011. However, the trend of reversal was confined to relations between Baghdad and Ankara, while relations between Erbil (capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, within Iraq) and Ankara continued to flourish at all levels, both politically and economically.

The deterioration in the relations between Baghdad and Ankara emanates from several factors, the most prominent being the friction in Iraq’s internal political spectrum (notably the rivalry between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad). The other reasons contributing to this situation are the alteration of Turkish foreign policy, fuelled by its economic and energy interests, sectarian perceptions of the two countries, and differing positions on the Syrian civil war. In the same context, regional powers such as Turkey and Iran have attempted to expand their control in the region and to fill the vacuum of power in the Middle East, particularly in vulnerable countries such as Iraq and Syria. 

Rapprochement between Turkey and the KRG

Since the 1990s, a limited unofficial liaison has existed between the KRG and Turkey. Almost a decade of distrust endured until 2007, when a rapprochement emerged via Kurdish initiatives. After an official meeting between the President of the KRG, Massuad Barzani, and the Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Duvatogule, a Turkish consulate was opened in Erbil in July 2010. 

Because of the strain in relations between the KRG and the Central Government of Iraq, due to disputed territories and the threat that the Kurds perceived in Baghdad’s attitude, Barzani sought to reach the world via Turkey. To enhance the KRG’s capabilities and reduce dependence on Baghdad, the KRG granted Turkish companies major projects in the Kurdish region. Currently, there are more than 1000 Turkish companies in the KRG, operating in all the sectors. The Turkish-KRG relations were seen as an alliance by Baghdad, causing some annoyance, particularly when Turkey began shifting its dependence for oil and gas to the KRG. Iraq supplies oil to Turkey through a pipeline running from Kerkuk to Ceyhan; however, the supply is sporadic and unreliable because of frequent terrorist attacks on the pipeline. The Central Government’s lukewarm attitudes to various problems have made Turkey see Iraq as an unreliable source of energy. On the other hand, the strategic oil pipeline project from KRG to Turkey is expected to be completed by the end of this year, setting up the KRG as a competitive supplier of oil to Turkey. Furthermore, in June 2013, the KRG granted permission to explore oil blocks to six Turkish companies. These developments have naturally angered Baghdad.

The Maliki government has rebuffed the KRG for its extensive collaboration with Turkey, especially in the energy sector, seeing it as acting in defiance of the already fragile Central Government’s authority. Baghdad projects the Turkish-KRG ties in the energy sector as illegal, and claims that the central government has sole power over the management of oil and gas resources across the entire country. According to Baghdad, the KRG has violated the constitution, while the KRG claims that it has every right to manage the natural resources of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR), according to the constitution. The ambiguity in the constitutional provisions over this aspect is under debate. Negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad are continuing on the matter, but the situation has seen little improvement.

Turkey’s standpoint  

One of the main priorities of Turkey is to satisfy its growing energy (oil and gas) demands. It depends on outside resources for 80 per cent of its energy needs. To ensure energy security, therefore, it needs to diversify its suppliers and KAR is one of the potential sources. Naturally, the foreign policy of the Turkish government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken a noticeable interest in the region’s development.

Even in Turkey, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Davutoglu, is facing considerable pressure from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which terms the Turkish-KRG oil pipeline project illegal. Turkish officials too have responded by arguing that the KRG has a constitutional right to develop energy linkage with Turkey.   

In the Arab League Summit in Doha in March 2013, the Iraqi Vice President, Khudayr Al-khozaie, offered to build a pipeline from Basra to Ceyhan in Turkey, in which the Turkish Energy Minister, Yildiz, showed interest. However, as a move to persuade Turkey to reject the energy deals with the KRG, it proved unfruitful. The Turkish foreign policy towards the KRG is to engage it economically and politically, as the Kurds possess substantial natural resources and, therefore, are an influential actor in the Middle East theatre. This does not mean, however, that Turkey accepts the KAR as an independent state. Erdogan asserted in an interview with CNN Turk: “There is no real unity in Iraq anyway. At the same time, it should be emphasized that Ankara still does not support actual Kurdish independence”.  

However, the strategic Turkish-KAR oil pipeline project is going forward, despite objections from Baghdad as well as Washington. The US opposes the project on the grounds that it will disunite Iraq at a time when the country is facing sectarian violence.

The alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds also owes much to the fact that the Iraqi Kurdish leaders have played a significant role in bringing about a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and beginning the peace process in March 2013. It was agreed that the Kurdish fighters would withdraw to the KAR, and the process began in May 2013. The Maliki government was not involved in this process, and has objected to the presence of the PKK fighters on Iraqi soil. Maliki terms the PKK fighters terrorists and a threat to Iraq. Nonetheless, his government has no authority over the KAR. While disregard of the central government of Iraq in this process has widened the gulf between Turkey and Iraq, it also shows the Maliki government’s diplomacy as ineffective in reaching out to Turkey. Turkey already perceives the Shia-led government as having sectarian orientations, consolidating its own power while marginalizing other Iraqi communities, such as the Arab Sunnis.

Iraq’s political instability

Turkey is not happy with Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic foundations, particularly its being ruled by the Arab Shia majority. In the Iraqi elections of 2010, Ankara supported the Iyad Allawi-led Al-Iraqia coalition which, in spite of having the Arab Sunnis in majority, represented a secular trend, as opposed to Maliki’s State of Law coalition which represents one of the largest Shia factions. However, Allawi failed to form a government, whereas Maliki was able to attract a broader alliance and form a coalition, and there was a subsequent chill in Baghdad-Ankara relations.

Relations then worsened when Turkey refused to give back the former Iraqi Vice President, Tarig Al-Hashimi, who had been sentenced to death in his absence, for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Iraqi officials. In retaliation, Baghdad stopped registering Turkish companies in September 2012. Moreover, the Arab Sunnis’ discontent, due to discrimination and marginalization by Baghdad, resurfaced in the form of protests in western Iraq in Anbar province. Maliki accused foreign countries, including Turkey, of inciting violent demonstrations and subsequently accused the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. Erdogan responded by rubbishing Maliki’s accusations, and these statements deepened the chasm between the two countries.

The Syrian civil war factor

The flame of the civil war in Syria has also reached Iraq and Turkey and strained Baghdad-Ankara relations, due to their different stances in the war. While Turkey housed the headquarters of the  Syrian National Council  (SNC) and supported its arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which opposed the Assad regime, Baghdad opposed attempts to topple the regime by force, by either SNC or FSA. Baghdad has also been accused by the West of supporting the Syrian regime, by turning a blind eye to the Iranian flights through its air-space bringing weapons and ‘logistical support’ for the Assad government. Baghdad denies all these allegations but, while its formal stance is not to support either party, Maliki clearly stated in an interview that, if the rebels won the war, this would pose a threat for the whole region by destabilizing Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

The rupture in Turkish-Iraq relations also has a broader aspect in the form of a clash of axes. On the one side are Turkey, the majority of the Arab world and the West, while on the other are Russia, Iran, Syria under Assad, and, vaguely, the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Although Baghdad dismisses its alliance with any axis or camp, its stance is more tacit than explicit. Furthermore, the close relationship between the Shia-led government and Iran has been seen as a Shia alliance, or ‘Shia crescent’, and the Iran-Iraq affinity is perceived by Turkey (a Sunni majority country) as a menace to the Sunnis in the region.

Final words

Turkish-Iraq relations are going through a recondite juncture. Factors ranging from sectarianism, regional domination and domestic political uncertainties, to energy interests, seem to be pushing the relations towards a downward spiral. However, seeing each other from sectarian and ethnic perspectives is not going to solve any problem or serve any country’s interests. There is a dire need for effective diplomacy between the two countries, apart from effectively tackling the domestic issues by implementing real democracy, the ideals of a pluralistic state and tolerance.  

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