Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is due to travel to Iraq on Oct. 11 for a two-day official visit to the capital Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s seat of government, Erbil.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Cavusoglu would be received by Iraq’s newly elected ethnic Kurdish President Barham Salih and that he would also meet with Iraqi political leaders and Turkmen representatives. The trip, Cavusoglu’s first since August 2017, when he traveled to both capitals to lobby against the Iraqi Kurds’ ill fated independence referendum, is seen as an effort to re-assert Turkey’s heft in Iraq amid the receding fortunes of its local Sunni Arab allies.
The Foreign Ministry noted that Cavusoglu’s meetings would focus on bilateral cooperation, especially on the reconstruction of Iraq. In February, Turkey pledged $5 billion in lines of credit for Iraqi reconstruction at a donors conference in Kuwait. Contracting deals in Iraq would throw a lifeline to Turkey’s tottering economy, whose growth was long fueled by mega construction companies with close ties to Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Coming before a Nov. 4 deadline imposed by the United States for abiding with sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industry, the visit will allow Cavusoglu to discuss ways to deal with the situation. Turkey relies heavily on Iran for almost half of its energy needs. And with a crisis looming with another top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, over the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, the need to revive oil exports from the Kirkuk oil fields is more pressing than ever.
Baghdad sealed the Kirkuk pipeline that runs to export terminals in Ceyhan in Turkey’s southern Mediterranean province of Adana following its seizure of oilfields there in October 2017, part of a Iranian-backed offensive to wrest contested territory that was being held by the Iraqi Kurds. The dual pipeline, which has functioned since 1977, is badly in need of repair if not outright replacement. Work on it requires the Iraqi Kurds’ cooperation, as the pipeline runs through territory under their control.
Cavusoglu’s stopover in Erbil will also mark a formal end to the chill that enveloped what until recently Erdogan called a strategic alliance between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
It's unclear what sort of reception Cavusoglu can expect in Baghdad, where Iran has further cemented its influence, some would say at Turkey’s expense, in the wake of parliamentary elections that were held in May. Most notable perhaps was last month’s election of pro-Iran Sunni lawmaker Muhammad al-Halbusi as the new parliament speaker to replace Salim Abdullah al-Jabouri, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood and hence pro-Turkish figure.
Parliamentary debates play an important role in shaping the public debate, and it would not be surprising if Iran used its expanded influence in the chamber to pressure Turkey to pull out its forces from the Bashiqa base near Mosul. The presence of an unspecified number of Turkish special operations forces backed by heavy weapons there remains a bone of contention between Ankara and Baghdad.
Ankara’s stance on Iraq’s new president is somewhat equivocal as well because of Salih’s affiliation with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second largest Iraqi Kurdish grouping, which has cordial ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Yet much like Ankara, Salih was opposed to the Kurdistan independence referendum, arguing that it was poorly timed. He will certainly look to cultivate good ties with Turkey and now that he’s won, Turkey with him.
A well-informed Turkish source said on condition of anonymity that one of the most immediate effects of a reboot would be for Turkey to resume flights to the PUK stronghold of Sulaimaniyah that were canceled when Baghdad closed Iraqi Kurdish airspace in retaliation for the independence vote. Turkey will look to leverage Salih’s position to persuade the PKK to free two top operatives from Turkey’s national spy agency, MIT, who were captured in August near Sulaimaniyah. Ankara holds the PUK responsible for the affair.
There is little doubt that Salih, a masterful negotiator, could play a pivotal role in helping to kickstart now defunct peace talks between Turkey and the PKK when and if ever Erdogan becomes interested. For now, though, Turkey is bent on wiping out the militants who have been fighting the Turkish army since 1984. Turkey has escalated airstrikes against the PKK in its mountain stronghold along the Iraq-Iran border. But the militants are striking back with increasing ferocity, killing eight soldiers with a roadside bomb in Turkey’s Batman province last week. Yesterday, the governor of Hakkari announced that a Turkish soldier had been killed and four others wounded by PKK militants operating from across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.