[NEWS ANALYSIS] Towards a new era in ties with northern Iraq

[NEWS ANALYSIS] Towards a new era in ties with northern Iraq

November 02, 2009, Monday/ 16:37:00/ BÜLENT KENEŞ
Arbil/Mosul -- This is the second time I have been to Iraq in the last 15 days; the first was with the historic visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and nine ministers to Baghdad on Oct. 15. For the last two years, I have been witnessing historic developments in the Iraqi provinces of Basra, Arbil and Mosul.

We witnessed the rapprochement between the Turkish and Iraqi nations through the re-establishment of a friendship that resumed after a six-year hiatus in Arbil, which is emerging as a modern city, while also trying to get rid of the influence of the famous saying “After the destruction of Basra,” brought to mind by the ruins of this ancient city following the war, during the Iraqi visit by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan. In other words, we experienced grief and anguish that held us captive because of the ruins left by the violence and war, and hope and confidence in the future at the same time. The Turkish delegation, which brought hope to the city of Basra, raised confidence and trust in Arbil; the delegation left the city with hope and promises. This is particularly important and promising considering that the two countries were on the brink of war in the aftermath of a deadly raid by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists on the Dağlıca military post near the Iraq border in November 2007.

State Minister Zafer Çağlayan (3rd from L) and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (3rd from R) attended the inauguration of Turkey’s consulate general in Mosul on the third day of second trip to Iraq.

As might be recalled, the raid carried out in November 2007 was not an ordinary one. It was so obvious that the attack sought to provoke a clash between the Kurds and Turks; however, Turkish diplomacy successfully transformed a probable crisis into an opportunity and developed ties with northern Iraq. Turkey initiated a whole new era with northern Iraq despite it being only two years since the raid. This successful performance actually addresses the usual cycle and precedent in the Middle East that a crisis in the region turns into a vicious circle because of mutual reactions and provocative moves. The relations between Turkey and northern Iraq, where both sides used to rely on mutual threats and a terminology of war and conflict, were glorified by a northern Iraq where the spectators were holding flags to welcome their brothers from Turkey. However, there was no contact between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish regional administration when the crisis erupted. The meeting on May 1, 2008 between the Kurdish administration’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was serving as the chief advisor to the Turkish prime minister back then, laid the groundwork for the improved bilateral ties between the parties.

The constant smile on the face of Basra Governor Sheltag Aboud al-Mayah as well as the sparkle in his eyes following his meeting with Davutoğlu during the latter’s visit to the city shows the emphasis that the governor puts on friendship with the Turks. It was fairly surprising for all in the delegation to see the same look and joy on the face of Massoud Barzani who is known for his temper and harsh style. This joyous development was interpreted as implying that the newly emerging process and relations between Turkey and northern Iraq will gain momentum during Davutoğlu’s visit to the region. The hosting of the Davutoğlu-Çağlayan delegation at the Presidential Palace the Kurds call the White House, a venue previously reserved for Dick Cheney and Joe Biden alone, and Barzani’s arrival there to meet with the delegation instead of his own palace were visible signs of the greater emphasis the Kurds put on this visit.

FM Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Işık University, newly opened by the Turkish Fezalar Educational Co. in Arbil.

It should be noted that the Turkish delegation actually deserved this interest because no state has ever sent such a large delegation -- including 80 businessmen, 20 reporters and ministers -- to northern Iraq. The delegation actually did something more than merely visiting the city; the members of the delegation headed to Mosul after Arbil. This is unprecedented considering that the next stop in the visit was suffering from security problems. Apparently, the daring and brave visits like the one by Prime Minister Erdoğan on Oct. 15 to Baghdad will be used as a model and repeated in the future.

Davutoğlu upholds that the welcoming ceremony held by the northern Iraqi authorities for the Turkish delegation and Barzani’s warm welcome reflects the northern Iraqi Kurds’ affinity with Turkey. This welcome, despite the recently adopted motion allowing cross-border operations in Parliament a month ago is a concrete sign of a change in atmosphere in northern Iraq. If the motion had been passed in a different environment, it would have been impossible to witness a visit by Davutoğlu to Arbil and to see Baghdad and northern Iraq silent and reluctant to express anger.

Undoubtedly, the growing interest in the Middle East towards Turkey is partly due to the stable foreign policy vision held by Davutoğlu seeking to transform the region into a haven of peace. Instead of negotiating thorny issues that could have possibly led to the eruption of a crisis between the parties, the Turkish foreign minister explained his vision for the Middle East during the meeting. During his elaboration of this vision, Davutoğlu reportedly made reference to the presence of the PKK as a terrorist organization in the region as the greatest obstacle to the attainment of lasting peace. This must be a clear example of constructive diplomacy.

Davutoğlu, who seeks to remove the barriers between the countries in the region rather than virtually eliminating their boundaries and borderlines, wants to make the borderlines dysfunctional as EU countries have done. With this diplomatic move, Davutoğlu is also implicitly warning the Barzani administration of the dire consequences of the latter’s probable actions to divide Iraq and hold ambitions for an independent Kurdish state. Davutoğlu, who holds that Turkey’s potential in the region is not limited to the preservation of the status quo and the existing borderlines, seeks to develop an intricate and integrated set of regional and bilateral relations that go beyond these borderlines.

Reports say that Barzani has fully agreed with the Davutoğlu vision of the region, adding that he shares the concerns of Turkey over the PKK which was actually poisoning their bilateral relations. The same reports also noted that Barzani and his team expressed their discontent over the provocative and unwise attitudes displayed during the return of the PKK militants to Turkey, further stressing that Davutoğlu asked for concrete steps to deal with the logistics.

It has been observed that positive developments are taking place thanks to the policy of zero problems with the neighbors and the recently declared democratic opening in Turkey despite the PKK issue. I should also mention that the northern Iraqi administration’s change in attitude is partly because of their preference to align with Turkey which is decisively moving towards becoming a global power. It is not hard to predict the effect of Barzani’s preference on the PKK; what matters most are the probable consequences of this preference in the months to come. There is every reason to believe that Turkey’s policies to alienate the PKK and make sure that it suffers from isolation by creating alliances in the region will work out in northern Iraq just like they have in Iran and Syria. Even though the zero-problem policy actually seeks to improve regional ties, who could argue that the same policy has not narrowed the sphere of action of the PKK and forced it to become marginalized? Of course, we cannot talk about a perfectly smooth process free of problem areas despite these positive developments. After all, there are still 4-5,000 PKK militants on the mountains.

However, it is good to see that the northern Iraqi people are sick of these militants, signaling that they actually want a lasting resolution of the issue.

The Kirkuk issue is another problem between Barzani’s regional authority and Turkey even if the PKK issue is set aside. Northern Iraq wants to include the province under its authority and territory whereas Turkey advocates the creation of an autonomous polity in the province that will be secured by the consent of all actors that are party to the issue. Because all the other actors -- Shiites, Arabs and Turkmen -- agree with Turkey’s argument, Turkey is now hopeful that the problem may be resolved through the involvement of its internal dynamics. It is held that Barzani’s statements on Kirkuk, that attracted harsh criticism from the central administration in Baghdad, seek to satisfy his own people and speak to the nationalist sentiments.

Turkey has achieved much through its constructive diplomacy in the region -- it is not usual to see the ministers of a foreign country walking around in the city -- but this is happening because of Davutoğlu’s diplomacy which makes sure that a large delegation is able to tour Basra, Arbil and Mosul in 24 hours. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, when called by Davutoğlu upon his arrival in the Iraqi territories saying “I am on your lands so I wanted to say hello+,” responded by saying, “These are your lands as well.” This shows that bilateral relations between the countries are multidimensional and fairly improved.

In parallel to the enhanced ties with Iraq, economic relations improved by the Turkish companies that rebuilt and recreated northern Iraq have become normalized. The consulate that will be opened in Arbil after Basra and Mosul will take northern Iraq closer to Turkey. When I witness the joy of the northern Iraqi Kurds with the landing of a Turkish Airlines (THY) flight at Arbil airport, I can’t help thinking that THY should include this destination in its portfolio. Thanks to Turkey’s rising power and increasing influence based on its sensitivity towards regional problems, the entire region is becoming a haven for winners.

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