Iraq’s new president, Barham Salih, is due to meet with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara tomorrow on his first formal visit to Turkey since being elected to the post in October.
Salih’s meeting comes at a critical moment as Turkey seeks to influence the timing and logistics of a declared withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, escalates its military pressure on Kurdish militants in Iraq and grapples with the fallout from US sanctions on neighboring Iran.
Salih’s post is largely ceremonial, but unlike his predecessor Fuad Massoum, the veteran Kurdish politician is already keeping a high profile, jetting to Tehran on his first formal trip abroad and touring Gulf capitals last month.
Ankara began wooing the Iraqi leader early on, dispatching Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to meet with him in October and extend Erdogan’s invitation. The outreach marks something of a turnaround, as Salih’s roots are in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the main Iraqi Kurdish parties that has traditionally enjoyed close ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Kurdish rebels whose insurgency inside Turkey is orchestrated from their headquarters in the Qandil Mountains separating Iran from Iraq move freely in the PUK’s Sulaimaniyah stronghold.
Turning a deaf ear to Baghdad's howls of protest, Turkish air force jets continue to routinely pound PKK targets in Qandil, Amediyah and Sinjar, causing the deaths of multiple civilians over the years.
The PUK was instrumental in establishing the soon-to-be defunct anti-Islamic State alliance between the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units and the United States, an issue that remains an unremitting source of Turkish ire. So is the August 2017 abduction of three intelligence operatives near Sulaimaniyah by the PKK. Ankara blames the PUK for the affair and continues to refuse to restore air access to Sulaimaniyah because of it.
Yet Ankara clearly sees merit in looking beyond Salih’s political antecedents on a number of counts.
Erdogan will almost certainly seek Salih's support against the PKK. He is keenly interested in landing a chunk of Iraq’s multi-billion-dollar reconstruction pie. With Washington tightening the screws on Tehran, Turkey and Iraq have much to gain from cooperation, particularly as Iran will undoubtedly lean on Baghdad to help it bypass the sanctions.
Iraq is sitting on the world’s 10th biggest reserve of natural gas and most of it is in the Kurdistan Region. Turkey is a natural customer and transit hub for sales of the stuff to gas-hungry Europe. Iraqi gas would reduce Turkey’s dependency on imports from Iran and notionally from Russia, its biggest supplier, as well. (The latter rationale no longer holds, since Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft became the biggest foreign stakeholder in the Kurdistan Region’s bankrupted energy sector last year, when it threw it a $3.5 billion-plus lifeline.)
Turkey’s political influence in Baghdad has never been a match for Iran’s. And what little it had has been rapidly waning together with the fortunes of its Sunni Arab protégés. Salih could be a helpful ally in helping restore links between Turkey and Iraq’s fractured political establishment. But not everyone agrees. A well-informed Iraqi Kurdish source noted, “He’s trying with the Turks and the West, but I think he became president too late.” The source, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition that he not be identified, concluded, “Iraq doesn’t command the time and dice necessary in Western capitals as it did in the past, and that hurts him.” But not necessarily in Ankara, however, whose interests seem to be increasingly diverging from those of the West and especially of Washington.
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