Turkey and Iraq need to wise up and mend ties

People of Turkey and Iraq should once again feel comfortable that Ankara and Baghdad will not run at each other with daunting ultimatums.

2017/01/29 Issue: 91 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Yunus Paksoy

Turkey and Iraq share a 330km border and the brotherhood between the people of Turkey and Iraq dates way back. Turkish and Iraqi businesspeople used to benefit greatly from peaceful ties.

However, relations between the two countries strained in recent years and annual trade volume between them dropped from $12 billion to $8 billion.

Years ago, the Turkish Army set up a military camp in the Bashiqa region of northern Iraq “at the request of” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Turkish forces have been training local Arab and Kurdish forces to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Turkish-Iraqi relations suddenly soured over the camp prior to the launch of the Mosul operation. Abadi urged the swift withdrawal of Turkish troops from Bashiqa, calling the forces “invaders”. Abadi threatened Turkey if the latter were to launch a military campaign on Iraqi soil.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s visit to Baghdad in January calmed the storm. In addition to Yildirim’s warm handshake with Abadi, a constructive meeting between the two paved the way to normalisation of ties.

There was a glimpse of hope for a brighter future of Turkish-Iraqi relations when Yildirim and Abadi affirmed at a news conference that the Bashiqa issue would be solved. However, Abadi claimed that the Turkish military would withdraw from the camp but Ankara did not confirm it.

In the following days, Abadi said relations would not move “one step forward” without the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Bashiqa. An official statement regarding the matter from Hisham al-Alawi, Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, asserted that the withdrawal would take place after the Mosul operation.

Spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry Huseyin Muftuoglu said there has not been a new development since Alawi’s words. Muftuoglu said Turkish and Iraqi authorities were working to improve relations.

“Turkey displayed that it is well-intentioned on the matter by PM Yildirim’s visit,” Muftuoglu said, adding that he could not speculate on whether relations would move forward before the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Bashiqa.

One cannot foretell how the Mosul operation will fare. Three months into the offensive, Iraqi Special Forces have barely liberated the eastern side of Mosul from ISIS. Based on the current pace of the operation, we could see a fully liberated Mosul in late 2017, if not 2018.

Burhanettin Duran, director of the Ankara-based think-tank Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), said Turkey was looking to have better relations in the region, which is why Ankara showed its goodwill towards Baghdad. However, Duran predicted that the Bashiqa issue will not allow the two countries to mend ties soon.

Do Turkey and Iraq have the luxury of freezing their diplomacy and economy until then? The answer is certainly a “No”.

Emin Taha, president of the Turkey-Iraq Business council of the Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board said Iraqis were waiting for Turkish goods.

“Actually, the people of Iraq want Turkish goods but the central government does not let the entry of the goods,” he said, adding that the normalisation of ties would affect economic ties quite positively.

“Iraqi PM cannot backtrack on his earlier statements due to the domestic pressure on him,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations and former rector of Istanbul Bilgi University. He contended that even though the two countries desperately need to better their economic relations, the Bashiqa issue will not let them sort out their differences until after the Mosul operation.

The trade volume needs to increase and the people of Turkey and Iraq should once again feel comfortable that Ankara and Baghdad will not run at each other with daunting ultimatums.

The Bashiqa issue and the end of the Mosul operation should not further alienate the two countries. It is high time that Ankara and Baghdad acted wisely.

Yunus Paksoy is an Istanbul-based Turkish journalist who covered the wars in Syria and Iraq.

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