Until a couple of months ago, Turkey and Iraq were at loggerheads. A crude verbal duel was being fought between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki. The persistent tension between Ankara and Baghdad was unsettling.
The visit of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to Ankara last week revealed, however, that the ice between the two countries was melting.
According to Zebari, who was accorded a warm welcome by Turkish leaders, a new page in the countries' relations is to be turned. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in a similarly optimistic tone, announced that he will travel next month to Baghdad, a city that he misses dearly. After him, the speaker of the Turkish National Assembly, Ahmet Cicek, will visit Iraq and most importantly, Maliki is likely to visit Turkey in December.
These are developments we could not have guessed a couple of weeks ago. What changed the atmosphere so drastically?
Before answering that question, we have to see why relations between the two neighbors deteriorated so sharply in the last two to three years.
Why did relations sour?
We used to have close relations with Iraq. After Germany, Iraq was the second biggest trade partner for Turkey. Turkish companies were doing big business in Iraq. During Erdogan’s 2009 visit to Baghdad, 48 agreements were signed with Iraq. Turkish and Iraqi ministers held a joint cabinet meeting. The relations had actually reached the level of "advanced strategic cooperation."
Then elections were held in Iraq, and Maliki's State of Law Coalition assumed power by defeating its rival, the Iraqiya List, which was supported by Turkey. While Maliki started taking steps to boost Shiite power in Iraq, we have to admit that Turkey became entangled in Iraq’s domestic politics. After Turkey gave refuge to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, whom Maliki wanted arrested, ties between Ankara and Baghdad were ruptured. That was followed by Turkey’s improved relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. With the signing of energy agreements with that region, relations between Ankara and Baghdad turned hostile.
Maliki’s actions fanned sectarian clashes and his authoritarian attitude played a major part in what happened, but the involvement of Erdogan's government in Iraq’s domestic politics was also an important contributor to deteriorating relations.
How can they be improved?
Both parties have realized that hostile relations were against their interests. The best thing Turkey can do is to avoid appearing as a biased, meddling neighbor. Moreover, Turkey’s energy interests require better relations with Baghdad. Of course, such interests are also valid for Iraq.
Another factor that contributed to high tensions between the countries was the headstrong narratives of their leaders. They now know that they can’t solve problems with that style of speech.
There may be those who will perceive this change in Ankara’s Iraq policy as a "step back," but in reality it is a step forward. It is a realistic approach that can set an example to our regional issues — for example, Egypt.
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