Kurdish independence bid made Turkey and Iraq friends again
Turkey and Iraq have decided to upgrade their relations in “all fields” including joint fight against terrorism. The Oct. 25 visit to Ankara of Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi was full of praise for the cooperation between the two neighbors, including from Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan.
This marks a sharp shift from the situation almost a year ago on Oct. 11, 2016, when Erdoğan said the following about al-Abadi: “Know your place. You are not at my level. Know your limits.” That was in response to al-Abadi’s words the previous day saying that Erdoğan was pursuing aggressive policies against Iraq and violating its sovereignty, demanding that Turkish troops be immediately withdrawn from the Bashiqa military camp in northern Iraq.
Erdoğan said Turkish troops were in Bashiqa, to train the peshmerga forces of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In those days Ankara and KRG President Masoud Barzani’s peshmerga forces also had another enemy in common: The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK was at the time trying to seize full control around the Sinjar region in order to secure a geographical connection between the Qandil Mountains in KRG territory and the “Rojava” region of Syria, which the PKK controls through its Syrian extension the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with the support of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
Back then Baghdad had another reason to react against Turkey: Ankara’s close relations with Barzani’s KRG in the oil trade. Barzani had seized the city of Kirkuk days after ISIL seized Mosul in June 2014, together with its oil fields, and he had taken the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline under KRG control. Baghdad saw the oil trade between Turkey and the KRG as a violation of its sovereign rights and actually still has a pending application to the international arbitration court in Switzerland against Turkey.
Compounding problems was the fact that Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) considered al-Abadi’s Shiite-dominated government - and that of Nouri al-Maliki before al-Abadi - as being heavily under the influence of Iran, a rival in both Iraq and Syria.
So it is certainly dramatic to see yesterday’s pictures in Ankara, showing the leaders of Turkey and Iraq remembering their friendship and shared interests. This turnaround is entirely thanks to the referendum that was unilaterally announced by Barzani to secure independence from Iraq, carried out on Sept. 25 despite objections from almost all sides - most importantly from Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran, which surround the landlocked KRG territory. Erdoğan, al-Abadi and Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani have decided to coordinate all their actions against the Kurdish independence bid. Turkey and Iran, for example, supported the move of the Iraqi army to retake Kirkuk from Barzani, while Iran restrained Shiite militias from doing what many feared. In addition, all three closed their air space to flights to and from the KRG, among other things.
But there are a number of interesting details in the rapprochement process. For example, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım postponed a recent planned visit to Baghdad reportedly because of the ongoing row over the Bashiqa base, but also because al-Abadi informed Ankara about the Kirkuk operation and he did not wanted Turkey to get any credit out of it. Ankara obeyed the postponement request, but at the same time Turkey started the first cross-border air-land operation in nine years against PKK camps in the KRG region, to which the Baghdad government did not react or protest.
The result of all this is that on the same day as al-Abadi arrived in Ankara, Barzani announced that he had frozen the outcome of the independence referendum and would not take any further steps on the issue. This likely shows that Barzani had no game plan other than relying on the - never promised but always assumed – U.S. support for the independence of his territories. Life is less easy now for Barzani. And thanks to him Turkey, Iraq and Iran have come to remember their shared interests.