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Turkey reaches out to Iraq amid increasing regional challenges

There is a very good sentence in Robert Mason’s 2014 book “Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East,” which examines the relations between states in an increasingly unstable region. It reads: “All states, whether classified as hegemons or small states, tend to ‘look everywhere’ since opportunities must first be identified before durable relationships can be established.” One should consider Turkey’s recent approach toward Iraq through this lens.

Although Ankara’s relations with Baghdad have ebbed and flowed in the past two decades, the recent visit of top Turkish officials to Iraq signals the opening of a new page in relations between the two neighbors. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu paid a visit to Iraq this week, with stops in Baghdad, Basra and Irbil, where he discussed all aspects of bilateral relations and regional developments.

His visit came amid Washington’s announcement that it was to end an exemption from unilateral sanctions for a number of countries importing oil from Iran, including Turkey. Ankara, along with others, rejected this move, saying it is not bound by the US decision to break the terms of the Iran nuclear deal. During Cavusoglu’s visit, reports suggested the volume of crude oil Turkey imports from Iraq would be increased to compensate for the Iranian product. But the foreign minister said last week: “We don’t accept unilateral sanctions and impositions on the issue of how we will establish relations with our neighbors.” However, Ankara is already looking to alternative suppliers and Basra is an obvious choice due to its proximity to Turkey.

As an immediate neighbor of Iraq, Turkey is concerned about the country’s stability and security. Knowing that an unstable Iraq poses disquieting risks, Turkey has rolled up its sleeves to be one of the regional countries contributing to its recovery, fostering relations in all aspects, including economic, political, cultural and diplomatic. Ankara is trying to increase its influence in post-Daesh Iraq. As part of this role, Turkey claimed the biggest share of Iraq’s reconstruction bill by pledging $5 billion at the international donor conference held last year.

Turkey aims to help with the redevelopment of cities such as Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar, Baghdad, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency in order to help Iraqis return to their homes. It also sees attractive opportunities for its companies through these projects. Needless to say, increasing security along the borders and stabilizing the country internally will not only serve Turkish interests, but also the whole region.

During his visit, Cavusoglu announced that Turkey is not only considering reopening its consulates in Mosul and Basra, which were closed due to the threats posed by Daesh, but that it also wants to open offices in the southern city of Najaf and the northwestern city of Kirkuk. He also hailed the opening of a new border gate in Sirnak, southeastern Turkey, connecting it with the northern Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) region. “Opening a second border gate will be beneficial both for Iraq and the KRG and will support the activities of our businessmen,” Cavusoglu said on the day he arrived to visit the KRG in Irbil.

It was also announced during Cavusoglu’s trip that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would make an official visit to Iraq before the end of the year to attend a high-level strategic council meeting with his Iraqi counterpart and ministers from both sides. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is also expected to visit Turkey in the coming months.

Cavusoglu’s visit was also symbolic and timely, as Turkish officials were greeted with a commemoration of the historic Ottoman victory over British forces during the First Battle of Kut in the First World War. This siege of Kut Al-Amara, which is in modern-day Iraq, ended on April 29, 1916.

Prior to this visit, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi met with the heads of Parliament of neighboring countries in a Baghdad summit. The one-day summit brought together officials from Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Syria, as well as a representative from Iran. Al-Halbousi said Iraq is committed to maintaining balanced bilateral relations with Turkey and other countries in the region.

Meanwhile, political consultations between the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministries were held in Ankara this week. The discussions were held in the wake of an April 17 visit to Turkey by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.

The challenges emerging from US pressure in the region have pushed Turkey to reconsider its relations with its neighbors based on mutual economic and political interests.
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