When Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan paid a visit to Iraq last month, expectations were high for a breakthrough in bilateral relations that had remained toxic over a host of political, energy, and security issues at the heart of their relationship.
But after three days of talks with numerous Iraqi political leaders along the political and ethnic spectrum, there were no signs that Fidan had managed to place relations on a new trajectory away from these thorny issues.
Fidan’s discussions with officials in the Iraqi Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Autonomous Authority in Erbil underlined important disagreements in priorities and goals between Iraq and Turkey.
In many respects, the failure of Fidan, one of the few confidants of Erdogan, in his delicate diplomatic mission has been underlining anxieties about the future of Iraqi-Turkish relations and Ankara’s real aims in its war-torn southern neighbour.
Iraq and Turkey have locked horns on several vexing issues, primarily Turkey’s refusal to reopen a pipeline that runs from Iraq’s Kurdistan Region to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, the severe shortage of water supplies from Turkey, and Turkey’s assertiveness in fighting Turkish-Kurdish guerrillas hiding in northern Iraq.
Turkey stopped the flow of Kurdish oil through the Iraq-Turkey pipeline after the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) ruled on 23 March in favour of Baghdad and against Ankara, saying that the latter had breached a 1973 agreement and allowed the Kurdistan Region to begin independent oil exports in 2014.
The Paris arbitration court ordered Ankara to pay about $1.5 billion in damages to Iraq for transporting oil without Baghdad’s approval. The suspension of the twin pipelines left millions of barrels of oil stuck in the Turkish port with mounting impacts on Iraq’s economy and Baghdad-Erbil relations.
During his visit last month, Fidan did not publicly acknowledge the oil blockade, but media reports suggested that Ankara has set some preconditions for resuming the exports through the pipeline, which carries Iraq’s 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) of exports to the Mediterranean.
While Ankara shows no intention of paying the fine, it wants the Kurdistan Regional Government to pay it to Baghdad as it is the benefactor of the exports. It has also made new demands for resuming the operation, including a new revenue-sharing deal.
Another critical issue that has served as a key obstacle to developing better bilateral ties is water flow from the Turkish highlands towards Iraq, as shortages of supplies have combined with climate change to severely impact the country’s central and southern provinces.
The water problem has been at the centre of Iraq-Turkish relations for decades since Turkey started building the Anatolia Project (GAP), a massive hydroelectric and irrigation project consisting of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders.
Water levels downstream in the two Rivers have been falling short in recent years, sparking fears of a potential threat to this lifeline upon which Iraq depends. Millions of Iraqis who rely upon these two great rivers to provide drinking water, agricultural irrigation, power generation and transportation have been badly affected after Turkey began filling the dams.
Iraq’s water crisis has been worsened by an unprecedented decline in rainfall over the past few years and rising temperatures devastating large swathes of farmland, fisheries, power-production areas and drinking water sources.
Although energy and water issues have been in the forefront of bilateral contacts, security remains one of the most strategic issues for the two countries in view of Turkey’s increasing military interference in northern Iraq.
Turkey has intensified its cross-border incursions into northern Iraq in recent months, claiming its army is pursuing members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) whom Ankara accuses of using Kurdistan as a base for attacks against Turkey.
Shortly after the PKK started its guerrilla war against Ankara in 1984, Turkey moved its anti-PKK operations from southeast Turkey to Iraq and sought to build a security zone along the border to try to stop the group’s cross-border attacks.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey sent large contingents of troops to northern Iraq and opened dozens of bases and outposts along the border, exploiting a power vacuum created by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from northern Iraq.
Later, Turkey expanded its military presence in northern Iraq, and according to a map released by the Turkish presidency in 2020 before it was deleted, there were some 40 military outposts inside Iraq. Other estimates suggest some 80 Turkish outposts already exist in northern Iraq.
Over the last few weeks, Turkey has regularly carried out air strikes and drone attacks in northern Iraq, hitting targets deep inside the country and sometimes killing civilians.
While in Iraq last month, Fidan repeated the Turkish demand to both Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities to designate the PKK as a terrorist organisation and take action to end the group’s growing presence on Iraqi territory, which Turkey views as a threat to its security.
However, despite the strains in the relationship, the two countries still have much in common, including trade, investment, and tourism.
According to the UN COMTRADE database on international trade, Turkish exports to Iraq amounted to $13.75 billion in 2022, making it the second-largest trading partner with Iraq after China.
Turkish firms from the energy extraction, commerce, and construction sectors are also investing and expanding in Iraq in projects involving infrastructure, hospitals, schools, and public buildings.
Turkey is a favourite destination for Iraqi tourists, and over 600,000 Iraqis flocked to Turkey during the first seven months of this year, according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, making Iraq one of the leading Arab countries in terms of the number of tourists to Turkey.
In addition, Iraqis have been among the top property buyers in Turkey, purchasing some 50,000 houses in past decades and adding investments in real-estate business and therefore prosperity to Turkey’s ailing economy.
Iraqi-Turkish economic engagements could have been advantageous to both neighbours, while cementing political ties. Yet, Iraqi-Turkish relations are not a vibrant, two-way dynamic in which both sides would be able to achieve sustainable and win-win deals.
A closer look into the Iraqi-Turkish relationship reveals an exploitative, assertive, and even neo-colonial approach that focuses on getting the most out of these relations through Turkey’s attempts to use its power to achieve its goals.
Turkey’s logic in its Iraqi policy is simple: weaponising water and energy exports against a slumbering Iraq in order to increase the pressure on Iraqi decision-makers who are too weak to stand up to Erdogan’s agenda.
This strategy of taking advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi state and its domestic fragility emanating from its poor leadership, political uncertainty, security instability, and the divergent interests of its various ethnic and religious groups creates space for foreign actors to play out proxy battles in the country.
Turkey has been building its case regarding security concerns arising from the PKK’s threats to its southern border, but by driving the party’s fighters, and indeed the whole Kurdish issue in Turkey into Iraq, it is creating a conflict zone in its own backyard.
Turkey cannot ignore the root causes of its Kurdish challenge and try to dump it on Iraq. This policy will not only cause further problems inside Turkey because it misses the underlying causes of the Kurdish question, but it will also exacerbate Iraqi and regional instability with adverse impacts on Turkey itself.
Turkey’s overall policy towards Iraq does not only contradict Erdogan’s new reconciliation approach with multiple regional players and his attempts to normalise relations with others, but it also deepens Iraqi concerns about the sustainability of Iraqi-Turkish relations and Turkey’s agenda in Iraq.
Characterised by a hawkish stance unburdened by geopolitical nuances, Erdogan has previously sent signals doubting Iraq’s historical legitimacy, suggesting that its fate will be of serious interest for Turkey.
This has been echoed in many statements in which Erdogan has said that Iraq remains vital to a range of Turkish national issues.
Erdogan has in the past criticised the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which among its many stipulations settled the issue of the Turkish borders and paved the way for Iraq’s statehood after Britain seized it from the Ottoman Empire following World War I.
Though the treaty laid the foundations of the modern Republic of Turkey, many in Turkey itself believe that it left the country with too little territory, including by taking the Mosul Velayet, which at that time covered all of northern Iraq and part of the former Ottoman Empire, and giving it to the new state of Iraq.
With the advent of its 100th anniversary, some in Turkey were caught up in a sentiment of euphoria because the Lausanne Treaty was set to expire in 2023. They claimed that the treaty was only intended to last for 100 years and began to see the possibility of the Mosul Velayet’s return to Turkey.
Of course, the claim that the treaty has an expiration date is unfounded, and Iraq has by now survived to mark its centenary. But the notion has increased concerns about Turkey’s intentions in Iraq as it seeks to ramp up the pressure on the country in order to keep it in a perpetual arch of crisis.
Many Iraq-watchers who use discourse-analysis techniques do not underestimate Turkey’s ambitions and think that as long as Iraq remains on edge, Turkey will seek the termination of relevant items in the treaty by claiming that it remains valid only if Iraq remains a sovereign state.
This hardline thinking about Iraq has roots in the attitudes and policies of many former Turkish leaders and has also been framing bilateral relations and creating a suspicious environment that prevents normalisation from occuring.
At the inauguration of Turkey’s Ataturk Dam in 1992, then Turkish president Suleyman Demirel said that neither Syria nor Iraq could lay claim to Turkey’s water, any more than Turkey could claim Arab oil.
“We have the right to do what we like,” Demirel said.
In his memoirs published last year, the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani recalled that former Turkish president Turgut Ozal had confided in him some time in 1990 that he might even invade northern Iraq and annex it to Turkey.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly