If Tehran, with its undeniable influence and substantial impact on Iraq, responds to the Development Road Project as it did to the Zangezur Corridor, it could potentially impede the project's realization.
Is Hakan Fidan's Visit to Iraq a Milestone?
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan's visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad, and Erbil, the center of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), on August 22-24 has attracted a lot of attention from the press of both countries and international observers. Fidan met with senior Iraqi officials as well as prominent party leaders. Among them, political leaders known to be close to Iran and Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) commander Falih Fayyad were particularly noteworthy. During Fidan's visit to Baghdad, he also engaged in a bilateral meeting with the Malaysian Foreign Minister, who happened to be present in the country at the same time.
Background of the Relationship Between the Two Countries
While it is possible to trace the historical roots of Türkiye-Iraq relations in the Islamic era back to the Great Seljuk period, it was under Ottoman rule in the early 16th century that these relations not only became enduring but also assumed a distinct structural nature. Following the victories against the Mamluk and Safavid empires—both of which were Turkish entities primarily governing present-day Egypt-Syria and Iran—the empire led by Yavuz Sultan Selim significantly broadened its sphere of influence to encompass not only the entirety of Iraq, but also the regions of Iraqi Persia and Jazirat Al-Arab. By the 19th century, the geopolitical importance of Iraq and the Persian Gulf had increased significantly, and the Gulf region began to attract the attention of the great powers, especially due to its proximity to Britain's most valuable colony, British India. The increasing importance of worldwide water routes, combined with the initiation of the construction of the Baghdad-Basra railway, supported by Germany subsequent to Britain's takeover of the Suez Canal, underscores Iraq's geopolitical significance during that era. A review of the official archives of the period reveals that sectarian tensions in Iraq, law and order problems among the tribes, and agricultural and water problems in the marshy areas were the main issues preoccupying the agenda of the administration.
After the formation of the modern Turkish Republic and the Kingdom of Iraq, particularly once the Mosul-Kirkuk provinces were no longer a focal point for Ankara, bilateral relations entered a phase of relative stability devoid of notable issues. Even though the rise of the Baath Party in Iraq, recognized for its assertive and aggressive policies, led to significant challenges with neighboring countries like Iran and Kuwait, it did not immediately present a security threat to Türkiye. However, the Iran-Iraq War and the PKK's exploitation of the power vacuum in Iraq left Ankara apprehensive, prompting the organization of military operations in the northern region of Iraq from the 1980s onwards.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction dealt a heavy blow to regional stability and order. The initial resistance movement against the USA swiftly evolved into conflicts among various factions, eventually giving rise to the formation of global terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. Subsequently, following the Arab Spring, the emergence of groups like Daesh further underscored this trend. Meanwhile, the PKK's expansion of influence across both Syria and Iraq, coupled with its acquisition of political ability in navigating diverse circumstances and identities, as well as garnering overt or covert backing from global and regional powers—most notably the USA—under the pretext of countering the Daesh threat, have presented profoundly disconcerting developments for Ankara.
Headlines, Expectations, and the Reality
In light of the historical background summarized above, it is not surprising that the new Foreign Minister made his most comprehensive visit to Iraq, a country he had keenly observed and cultivated distinctive ties with during his prior tenure. Also, it comes as no surprise that the discussions predominantly centered around combating terrorist organizations, particularly the PKK, the water problem of Iraq, and the Development Road Project, which will increase the regional and global importance of the country. Undoubtedly, achieving these three objectives will prove to be more challenging than what press conferences might imply. When assessing these matters in terms of their significance to Ankara, the task of removing the PKK from the territories it has asserted control over presents considerable technical and political complexities. As is well known, the steep mountainous structure of northern Iraq provides a very favorable terrain for terrorist organizations. In order to clear the entire region of terrorist elements, military operations must continue for many years and proceed step by step. The close cooperation with the Erbil administration led by the Barzani family in recent years plays an important role in making this struggle more effective. Indeed, the organization is known to be disturbed by this situation and occasionally resorts to assassinating Kurdish officials. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Barzani, is not the sole political, intelligence, and military structure operating in northern Iraq. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by the Talabani family, has long been in close cooperation with the PKK and its affiliates under different names. It makes Sulaymaniyah, which is under the party's control, a safe haven for the organization. While Ankara occasionally resorts to punitive measures like imposing bans on civilian flights, and it is increasingly employing drone strikes to target the organization's regional infrastructure, it is significant to note that unless there is a substantial shift in the prevailing political landscape, parties like PUK, Gorran, New Generation, and others will likely persist in maintaining their associations with the PKK and its affiliated entities.
The Influence of Iran
The strong affiliations between Sulaymaniyah and the mentioned parties/organizations with Iran underline that addressing the PKK's presence in northern Iraq necessitates a broader approach beyond the purview of the regional administration or even the Sudani-led Baghdad administration. Tehran, which has a long history of relations with armed Kurdish groups, was able to dictate the Algiers Agreement to Saddam Hussein in 1975. The PKK, which attracted the attention of regional and global powers with its actions in the 1990s, established close relations with Iran, especially through its Qandil Mountain structure. Since then, there have been numerous news reports and comments in the Turkish press about the organization receiving assistance from Iran. The Tehran government, from the outset of the Syrian Civil War, challenged Türkiye by backing the Bashar al-Assad regime in establishing the YPG and offering it a foothold. Despite the evolution of the YPG's stance over time towards a pro-USA and pro-Western stance, the organization has been mindful not to sever its connections with Iran. The Iranian involvement with the PKK's presence in Iraq has been notably conspicuous, particularly through certain Hashd al-Shaabi units that have extended extensive support to the PKK and its affiliated factions, establishing a corridor stretching between Sinjar and Qandil.
It is critical how the pro-Iranian political groups, which have been relieved by Muqtada al-Sadr's withdrawal from the political scene, albeit temporarily, and have formed a government, will respond to Türkiye's demands, especially the joint fight against the PKK. While the activities supported by the KDP wield a certain degree of influence, as previously noted, the stance adopted by Tehran-influenced political entities in Sulaymaniyah and Baghdad regarding matters like the formal designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization will carry definitive weight. In this regard, the recent regional normalization efforts may contribute to the decline in the influence of proxy organizations and non-state actors. Indeed, even the Baghdad-based irregular militia groups have come to a certain order with the formation of the Sudani government and have reduced their demonstrations in the streets. The diminishing threat of Daesh, the acceleration of Saudi-Iranian normalization, and the rapid increase in Iraq's oil revenues may collectively encourage both Iran and the central Baghdad government to place greater emphasis on fostering stability and cultivating positive relationships with neighboring states. If the countries of the region come together within the framework of a win-win formula, the existence of terrorist organizations and non-state actors may potentially lose their relevance.
Türkiye has an important trump card that it can use to make some groups in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, more willing to fight terrorism: Water. As is well known, Iraq is one of the countries most adversely affected by global climate change. According to Iraqi officials, the country, with nearly half its expanse classified as desert, experiences an annual loss of 400,000 acres of arable land. The population of the country, which cannot use about half of its agricultural land due to insufficient water resources, has tripled in the last 40 years, reaching 45 million. If the population keeps growing while water and agricultural resources continue to decline at this rate, the country will face much bigger structural problems in the near future. Although Türkiye is not a water-rich country, contrary to popular belief, it possesses the technical prowess and infrastructure to strategically manage the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, both of which flow across its borders into Iraq. This potential could be harnessed to facilitate Iraq's utilization of these waterways, fostering the creation of collaborative agricultural and irrigation initiatives between the two nations. In this way, Iraq would find a smoother path to solve its most formidable problem to human development while Türkiye would exemplify the influential potential of water as a tool for effective diplomacy and trade. Indeed, Ankara has already increased the amount of water released to Iraq at the expense of its own means by appointing a "special representative" and meeting the demands of Iraqi leaders. Iraqi officials, comparing Ankara's stance to Tehran's inflexible attitude on transboundary waters, have thanked Türkiye many times in the past.
Foreign Minister Fidan's unprecedented meetings with almost all actors in the country, some of which were accompanied by Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Alparslan Bayraktar, have the potential to mark a new beginning in bilateral relations. It is possible to somehow reconcile the main demands of the two countries (terrorism/water), resolve issues such as the halted oil exports from the port of Ceyhan, and develop structural mechanisms to further enhance existing cooperation. It requires Iraqi political factions to prioritize their national interests and address the country's fundamental problems. The Sudani government's efforts to maintain a balanced stance between the USA and Iran, as well as its hosting of the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization talks, show that Iraqi ruling elites are aware of the issue. On the other hand, if Tehran, with its undeniable influence and substantial impact on Iraq, responds to the Development Road Project as it did to the Zangezur Corridor, it could potentially impede the project's realization.