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Analysis: New era in Turkish-Iraqi ties

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Evolving relations between Türkiye, Iraq offer beacon of hope for both nations and rest of the region

On April 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a key visit to Iraq, a trip which constitutes a milestone in the development of cooperation between the two sides after a 12-year hiatus. The comprehensive discussions held in Baghdad and meetings in Erbil with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) head Nechirvan Barzani represent significant steps in a brand-new chapter in bilateral relations, underscoring the diligent efforts of Turkish diplomacy.

With 26 different agreements signed in diverse areas such as security, trade, water, oil, education, agriculture, and finance, Ankara opened vital prospects for Iraq’s development, modernization, and pan-regional economic integration. While the spirit of this cooperation is built on a win-win scenario, some opportunities and risks hold significant implications for both parties as well as for the region’s geopolitics. The background of this cooperation, particularly intensified by recent diplomatic engagements with Baghdad and Erbil, forms a crucial foundation. This visit formalized the mutual commitments underlying this long and comprehensive process.

Terrorist group PKK a threat to both sides

In the domain of counterterrorism, this visit unfolded against the backdrop of Iraq designating the terrorist group PKK an outlawed organization and the Turkish military announcing preparations for an extensive operation in northern Iraq this summer. The establishment of a PKK foothold, along with affiliated groups, under the protection [1] of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaymaniyah within KRG territory, has been a grave concern for Ankara. Despite repeated warnings, the Bafel Talabani-led PUK failed to heed these sensitivities, prompting Türkiye to close its airspace last year, which underscores the gravity of the situation.

The present interactions have sent a new wind into bilateral relations, so Türkiye anticipates significant steps from Baghdad on this matter. More so, since terrorism is not just a problem for Türkiye, it is also a threat that disrupts the daily lives of Iraqis, endangers Iraqi border security, and jeopardizes bilateral ties.

New steps on Development Road Project

On the Turkish-Iraqi Development Road Project, [2] the strides taken not only position both countries as significant players in inter-regional connectivity but also offer Iraq the chance to diversify its heavily oil-dependent economy by attracting foreign investment and opening new areas of employment.

The escalating risk of regional conflicts, such as Israel’s Gaza conflict and threats from the Houthis in Yemen affecting maritime trade routes in the Red Sea, underscores the need for secure alternatives in trade and logistics across the Middle East. While the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) [3] project has remained largely on paper, constructing trade corridors and inviting regional participation within this cooperation framework reflects Türkiye’s open and inclusive diplomatic approach. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar’s participation in the quadrilateral agreement signed during Erdogan’s visit underscores their interest in putting in place more alternatives that boost the region’s inter-connectedness.

On Turkish-Iraqi ties, where does Iran stand?

There is another side of the coin, and the collaborative spirit underpinning Turkish-Iraqi relations could face some hurdles.

The terrorist group PKK, increasingly pressured by Türkiye’s heightened military operations, could redirect its terror activities to new locations in the region. It could possibly relocate from the Iraqi side to the Iranian side of Mount Qandil. This option would require Ankara to open new dialogue tracks with Tehran on counterterrorism.

Equally pressing are the issues surrounding Iran, whose stance on terrorism and skeptical approach towards the Development Road demand close scrutiny. While the degree of Iranian influence on Iraqi domestic politics and its influence network of proxies across the Middle East is problematic, Türkiye has to maneuver with these considerations in mind and keep its feet grounded, continuing to emphasize the long-term benefits to Iraq’s nation-building and development and underlining the strategic nature of this collaboration.

So far, Iran views the Development Road initiative with a lack of enthusiasm. Both sides need to underscore the economic benefits that Tehran would reap, as this project can be beneficial for all. While the traditional approach would see this project as undermining Iran’s ports, the reality is that they will benefit more from interconnectivity than from the current isolation.

After all, the potential scenario of former US President Donald Trump [4] winning the upcoming US presidential elections could lead to the return of a maximum pressure policy, forcing a sanctions-busy Tehran to reluctantly but necessarily warm up to regional initiatives of trade and connectivity like the Development Road, which brings economic gains to all stakeholders at various levels.

In short, the evolving relations between Türkiye and Iraq offer a beacon of hope for both nations and the rest of the region.

Türkiye’s strategic approach, taking into account Iraq’s complex political dynamics and regional realities, is crucial in fostering this newfound partnership. In turn, Iraq must actively participate in and invest in this partnership to achieve long-term objectives, including economic diversification and socioeconomic progress.

Source: AA

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