Can Turkey be Part of the Solution in Iraq?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, December 21, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Turkey sees high stakes in Baghdad-Erbil reconciliation, but after being part of the problem for so long, it cannot be part of the solution now.

Tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) soared after the latter held an independence referendum at the end of September. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi responded by dislodging Kurdish forces from the disputed regions including the oil city of Kirkuk and imposed economic measures that could lead to a collapse of the KRG economy. Swift negotiations between the parties are needed to prevent further escalation. Many agree that that might not be possible without external mediation.

Turkey sees itself as the master of mediation. Under the ruling Justice and Development Party, Turkey used mediation in regional and global conflicts to exert its influence in international affairs. It even led the “friends of mediation” initiative at the United Nations along with Finland. Turkey tried tirelessly to mediate between Palestinian factions, Iraqi factions, Israel and Syria, Iraq and Syria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, even in the civil war in Somalia. Ankara’s mediation efforts, however, rarely yielded positive results, which was often due to Turkey’s lack of leverage over the parties or its image as a country with a neo-Ottoman agenda.

But Turkey insists on mediating. It recently signaled that it could step in to act as a go-between in Baghdad’s dispute with Erbil. In a recent statement, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the KRG “has formally asked Turkey to contribute to normalization between Erbil and Baghdad.” Cavusoglu will discuss Turkey’s role in the negotiations and bilateral issues during his January 21 visit to Baghdad.

Renewed negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad are important for Turkey. Up until the KRG’s referendum decision, Erbil was one of the very few Turkish allies left in the region. It played a critical role in Turkey’s domestic and regional calculations. Through its close partnership with Erbil, Ankara sought to curb Iranian influence in Iraq. Turkey hedged its bet on Erbil in its efforts to counter the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) both at home and in the region. Masoud Barzani, former president of the KRG, tolerated Turkey’s cross-border operations against PKK hideouts inside KRG territory, and even allowed Ankara to build military bases in areas under his control where Turkey has been training peshmerga forces.

Turkey also benefited from trade with the autonomous region. The KRG has become Turkey’s third biggest export market and a supplier of oil and gas. Ankara quietly dropped its decades-old opposition to Kurdish control over the oil-rich town of Kirkuk to benefit from the oil pumped from Kirkuk via a pipeline through southeast Turkey to the Mediterranean. Turkey not only collected transit fees, but became reliant on imports to meet its own fast-growing energy needs.

The post-referendum dynamics, however, threaten all of those things. Particularly concerning for Ankara is the prospect of a stronger PKK in the absence of Barzani acting as a counterbalance. The economic measures imposed by Baghdad threaten a collapse of the Kurdish economy, thus threaten Turkish interests as well. Turkey supplies Iraqi consumer goods overland through the KRG using Kurdistan-based merchants. The KRG owes Turkey billions of dollars, but Erbil is struggling to even to pay its public servants. Ankara is also eyeing investment opportunities in Iraq as well as access to Iraq’s southern oil fields, which produce more oil than the Kirkuk fields.

Ankara wants parties to reach a swift consensus so that it can resume security partnership and oil flow. Turkey hopes that midwifing a workable arrangement between Erbil and Baghdad will provide Turkey a fresh start with both. But Abadi might not be as enthusiastic, not just about Turkish mediation but also about a swift resolution of the conflict with Erbil.

Parliamentary elections will be held in May. Once called a “traffic warden” by members of his own party, Abadi now enjoys wide popularity for reclaiming disputed territories from the Kurdish forces. Many in Iraq think that being tough on the Kurds might hand him another term in May. That means he might not be in the mood to give concessions necessary to negotiate a settlement to the Kurds before the elections.

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