Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan boards a plane with his wife, Emine, in Istanbul, January 2017.
Reuters

On January 7, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited Baghdad, marking a milestone in its warming relations with Iraq. Four months ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had warned that Turkey’s deployment of troops to the Iraqi town of Bashiqa threatened to trigger a “regional war.” Turkey, which claimed for its troops the consent of the Kurdistan Regional Government, shot back that Iraq’s sudden concern with Bashiqa had “malicious” intent. An escalating war of words led to the mutual summoning of ambassadors and an Iraqi call, in October, for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. But during the January visit, the prime ministers of Iraq and Turkey stood together and declared that they would “solve the issue” of Bashiqa, in addition to strengthening bilateral trade, security, and economic cooperation.

Ankara’s about-face follows a dramatic year for the country, in which an attempted military coup, escalating attacks by the Islamic State (or ISIS) on Turkish soil, and a deepening war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) brought about a fundamental reexamination of the country’s foreign policy priorities. (Turkey maintains good relations with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, but considers the PKK a terrorist group.) As a result of the multiple domestic crises that buffeted the Turkish state in 2016, Ankara is in the process of overhauling its foreign policy, increasingly pursuing stable neighborly relations and reigning in its impulse to project power regionally.

DO UNTO THY NEIGHBOR

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, initially pursued a policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” which sought to establish the country as the economic heart of an increasingly interconnected Middle East. But the developments of the Arab Spring led Turkey toward a more assertive foreign policy. The AKP decried the removal of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in a 2013 coup, threatened to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his campaign of mass slaughter against Syrian rebels, and railed against former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for mistreating Iraq’s Sunni population. Although these moves had a certain moral strength, especially among the region’s Sunnis, they led Turkey into the midst of regional turmoil, which the government is now attempting to back away from.

The first signs of Turkey’s changing approach came in June 2016 when it normalized relations with Russia, apologizing for the 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace from northern Syria. That same month, Turkey reached a settlement with Israel resuming diplomatic ties after a six-year freeze in relations, following Israel’s 2010 attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that resulted in the deaths of several Turkish activists.

Turkey also moved away from its staunch opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Recently, its policy in the country has focused on preventing an autonomous and unified Kurdish region from forming in northern Syria rather than, as before, helping anti-Assad rebels to maintain a foothold in Aleppo. In its recent effort to retake the Syrian town of al-Bab from ISIS, moreover, Turkey has accepted air support from key Assad ally Russia, while publicly excoriating its traditional ally in Syria, the United States, for its lack of assistance. 

Turkish air force cadets march at a graduation ceremony in Istanbul, August 2009.
Turkish air force cadets march at a graduation ceremony in Istanbul, August 2009.
Reuters

Most dramatically of all, Turkey, along with Russian and Iran, helped forge a ceasefire in Syria—without U.S. involvement—in the final days of 2016, and brokered talks between opposition fighters and the Syrian government in the Kazakh capital, Astana. Although the ceasefire has collapsed in numerous areas, and the talks made little substantive progress, the moves represent a new Turkish acceptance of Russia’s authority in the Syrian conflict.  

GETTING IT TOGETHER

The timing of this new strategy is no coincidence. As Turkey faces growing violence, instability, and economic turmoil at home, Erdogan has come to the conclusion that now is the time to revert to the policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Today, with a plummeting lira and a contracting economy, there is little support among Turks for such adventurism. Even before economic woes began to take their toll, a 2012 poll found that two-thirds of Turks did not support Turkish intervention in Syria.

Erdogan can little afford to face any popular unrest: he is currently locked in a tense political battle to transfer substantial power to his office by changing the Turkish constitution. In foreign policy, he has therefore sought to prioritize efforts to undermine Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority, enabling him to tap into deep anti-Kurdish sentiment among the Turkish majority. For instance, after the Kurdish HDP party threatened the AKP’s grip on power with a shock election result in June 2016, the AKP escalated its war against the PKK, while seeking to conflate the terrorist group with the non-violent parliamentary party. Since then, focusing the Turkish public’s attention on the supposed threat of Kurdish violence has been a crucial part of the AKP’s electoral strategy.   

Yildirim’s visit to Iraq last week was a reflection of this new logic. The Turks’ main goal is to convince Baghdad to drive the PKK out of Iraqi territory. The PKK has been present in Sinjar, a Yezidi town in northern Iraq, since the expulsion of ISIS in late 2015. Indeed, local Yezidis have developed a close relationship with the PKK after the Kurds helped them escape from Mount Sinjar, where they had been trapped after other Iraqi Kurdish forces retreated in the face of ISIS’ onslaught. Since then, PKK forces have helped to train Yezidi militias and have received support from Baghdad.

Yet now it seems that Turkey has persuaded Baghdad to stop supporting the PKK, through diplomatic overtures and with the help of repeated mediation efforts by U.S. counter-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk. Ankara has also hinted that it may discuss withdrawing its troops from Bashiqa in exchange for the Iraqis ejecting the PKK from Sinjar. Turkey has, furthermore, co-operated with Baghdad in enabling a Turkish-trained Iraqi paramilitary force, known as the Hashd al-Watany, to merge with the Baghdad-backed popular mobilization units. Ankara’s strategy may be working: in the joint press conference on January 7, Abadi announced that “no force… beyond the frame of the security forces or the formal Iraqi security forces” will be allowed to work in Sinjar—a clear condemnation of the PKK’s presence. Yildirim in turn thanked Abadi for Baghdad’s  “seriousness in expelling terrorist organizations” from the region. 

The rapprochement with Baghdad also demonstrates a new willingness on the part of Ankara to move beyond its traditional partnerships in Iraq. In recent years, Turkey has invested heavily in its relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan’s governing Kurdish Democratic Party, with which it has forged independent economic and energy agreements, but these have damaged Turkish relations with Baghdad. Any rapprochement between Iraq and Turkey would thus be nerve-racking for the Iraqi Kurds, who are economically dependent on the Turks and remain embroiled in disputes with the federal government over energy exports, revenue sharing, and the status of disputed territories. But there is tremendous scope for Turkey to expand its diplomatic and economic ties with the rest of Iraq—growth that has thus far been stymied by poor political relations.

It remains to be seen whether recent positive steps will develop into a new era of Iraq-Turkish cooperation. Turkey will remain wary of withdrawing from Bashiqa before the PKK has withdrawn from Iraq, and it still expresses concern about the presence of Iraqi Shiite paramilitary forces to the west of Mosul and around the Turkmen town of Tel Afar. It must be emphasized, moreover, that Turkey’s outreach stems from a growing domestic authoritarianism and a hyper-hostility to Turkish and Syrian Kurds that is ultimately damaging to Turkey’s stability. A rapprochement with Baghdad would nonetheless herald a new era of economic and diplomatic co-operation that would likely prove a financial and strategic boon to two of the most vulnerable states in today’s Middle East. 

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