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What is at stake behind Fidan s visit to Iraq

What is at stake behind Fidan’s visit to Iraq?

Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan paid an important visit to Iraq between Aug. 22-24. Iraq is one of the most strategic countries in the neighboring geography for Türkiye in terms of the fight against terrorism, energy geopolitics, economic relations, internal stability and rivalry between the countries in the region. Therefore, Fidan’s visit is quite critical before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's expected visit to Iraq.

Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan paid an important visit to Iraq between Aug. 22-24. Iraq is one of the most strategic countries in the neighboring geography for Türkiye in terms of the fight against terrorism, energy geopolitics, economic relations, internal stability and rivalry between the countries in the region. Therefore, Fidan’s visit is quite critical before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's expected visit to Iraq. Although Fidan’s command of the Iraqi file stems from his 13-year tenure as head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), his main advantage is his backchannel networks in Iraq. He played a leading role in formulating and operationalizing Turkish intelligence and security strategy and managed very important processes on the most critical issues with all the critical actors of Iraq. He has also a strategic portfolio that reflects all ethnic, sectarian, and bureaucratic balances in Iraq. The strategic value of Fidan’s portfolio in Iraq can be understood, especially considering the bridge-building role he played in the formation process of the current government led by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani. He not only has a strategic understanding concerning the role of Iran in Iraq and its disruptive game plan against Türkiye through the Shiite militias, especially in Iraq’s north, the intra-Sunni and intra-Kurdish dynamics, and the PKK issue but also the ability to manage tactical and operational processes on the ground. Therefore, Fidan is not an ordinary foreign minister when considered in the context of Iraq.

Internal dynamics of Iraq

However, the difficult issues between the two countries are far from being resolved, and even if President Erdoğan visits, it will take time for these problems to disappear. Although there are many reasons affecting this situation, the dynamics within Iraq are quite decisive. The fragile structure of the Sudani government, the weakness of the economy, the existence of disagreements between Baghdad and Irbil, the presence of the PKK terrorist organization and its activity in northern Iraq, and the disruptive influence of external players such as Iran are among the many reasons that closely affect Türkiye-Iraq relations. However, it is known that environmental problems related to climate change have an increasingly devastating impact on Iraq because the country is seen as one of the most vulnerable by the U.N. in terms of climate change. Yet, at this point, the water issue is one of the most critical problems waiting to be solved between Türkiye and Iraq. Although security and energy issues seemingly come to the forefront during Fidan’s visit, one of the most strategic issues for Türkiye, which is also one of Fidan’s priorities, is the preservation of the consensus reached among the Sunnis. Any political conflict among the Sunnis could pose a strategic threat to Türkiye's priorities in Iraq. This does not mean that Türkiye approaches Iraq from a sectarian lens. On the contrary, reconciliation among the Sunnis is seen as a strategic tool as it has the capacity to influence all other political and military processes in Iraq. Considering the upcoming local elections in Iraq (December 2023), Türkiye's priority becomes even more important. These priorities can be understood more easily when we look at Fidan’s meeting traffic in Iraq. Ahead of his meeting with Iraqi Turkmens, Fidan met with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein, Al Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid as well as the leader of the Fatah Alliance, Hadi al-Amiri and Iraqi Sovereignty Alliance leader Khamis al-Khanjar.

Security concerns

Türkiye’s strategic priorities are not limited to the maintenance of the ethno-sectarian political balance in Iraq. Internal Kurdish stability in northern Iraq, particularly between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), containment and weakening of the PKK’s increasing activities in Iraq, preventing Iranian influence over Shiite militias in which the PKK and the fractions of Shiite militias have cooperation against Türkiye and strengthening economic cooperation between Iraq and Türkiye are the main strategic concerns behind Fidan’s visit to Iraq. The most noteworthy development in this process is the fight against the PKK. Thanks to changes in its strategy to combat the PKK over a long period, Türkiye has succeeded in neutralizing the organization at home, weakening it in Iraq and containing it in Syria. Türkiye’s increased military presence in the strategic pockets in Iraq’s north and its area control of strategic areas, the constant military and intelligence operations against the PKK, and the close cooperation between Ankara and Irbil have weakened the PKK in Iraq but have not neutralized it. In return, the PKK repositioned itself in the Sinjar region under the pretext of fighting Daesh, transformed Makhmur into a recruitment and training camp for the PKK, started to control neighborhoods in Sulaymaniyah, developed a partnership with the PUK and pursued a so-called balancing policy against Türkiye by partnering with Shiite militias. More importantly, it sought to legitimize the PKK's Syrian branch, the YPG, over northern Iraq and to strengthen the PKK's political and military depth by incorporating it into Iraqi politics. Türkiye’s strategy now is to counter the PKK’s changing strategic and tactical approach, neutralize the PKK on an Iraqi scale and ensure that the organization withdraws to Qandil. For this reason, Türkiye wants the Iraqi government to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and sees the PKK’s growing presence as a risk for the disruption of Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as Fidan expressed during his visit. If this goal is realized, Iraq will become a sovereign power in its territory and Türkiye’s military presence in northern Iraq will be minimized. On the other hand, recognizing the PKK as a terrorist organization would free northern Iraqi politics from its influence and reduce the escalating conflict among Kurds. Although the realization of this situation in the northern Iraq equation seems difficult for now, Türkiye’s tools make it a strategic necessity for the actors in the region to work with Türkiye. Fidan’s diplomatic meetings in Irbil prove this. Continued cooperation between Türkiye and the KDP makes the PKK more aggressive against the KDP, while the resumption of flights from Sulaymaniyah to Türkiye is unlikely if the PUK continues to cooperate with the PKK.

Economic priorities

The fight against the PKK is even more important when economic relations and energy cooperation between Türkiye and Iraq are considered. Türkiye aims to increase the existing $25 billion trade volume with Iraq and to establish a strategic transportation link between Türkiye and Iraq through the Development Road Project. The project entails the establishment of approximately 1,200 kilometers (745.6 miles) of dual-track rail network and a novel expressway designed to accommodate cargo traffic originating from the al-Faw port in Basra. The primary objective of the project is to enhance economic cooperation between Iraq, Türkiye and Europe. This is in line with President Erdoğan’s economy-oriented foreign policy paradigm and makes Iraq a strategic priority for Ankara. However, the project faces challenges due to the activities of the PKK and military groups in the region. As Fidan pointed out during his visit, the PKK is not only posing a challenge against the territorial and political unity of Iraq but also undermining economic stability in the region. Another critical economic issue for the two countries is the energy file. Since February 2023, the flow of oil from Iraq to Türkiye has stopped, with Ankara claiming the February earthquakes as the reason. Although this justification seems reasonable, it would not be wrong to say that the ongoing disagreement between the Baghdad government and the Irbil administration and the fact that Iraq sued Türkiye in the International Court of Arbitration and was sentenced to compensation also pose a problem for Türkiye. The importance of oil can be understood even more when the Baghdad administration’s ongoing case against Türkiye is taken into account. While the closure of the oil pipeline since February has cost Iraq billions of dollars, the failure to resolve the problem with Türkiye could have critical consequences. If Fidan’s negotiations yield positive outcomes, a robust foundation for Erdoğan’s visit will be laid, potentially paving the way for strategic cooperation within Türkiye-Iraq relations. Türkiye’s regional influence is resurging, with Iraq playing a strategic role in fortifying this influence. [Daily Sabah, August 25, 2023]