Jan 6, 2017 | 01:22 GMT

5 mins read

A Return to Normal for Turkey and Iraq

(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

After a period of heightened tensions, Turkey and Iraq have a chance to smooth things over. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim will visit Iraq this weekend to meet with his counterparts in Baghdad and in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. During Yildirim's visit, all parties involved are expected to paper over their differences by playing up the areas where they agree. The Iraqi Parliament's Committee on Iraqi-Turkish Friendship has hailed the trip as an opportunity for relations between the two countries to "return to normal." But for Iraq and Turkey, "normal" is a pragmatic cooperation punctuated by episodes of strife between decidedly fair-weather friends.

No matter how cordial it is, Yildirim's visit will not resolve the issue that has strained Iraqi-Turkish relations recently. Since 1981 Turkey has maintained a small military presence in northern Iraq, a source of intermittent consternation for Baghdad. Ankara initially established bases within its southeastern neighbor's borders during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, mostly to secure its own border. In the 1990s, Turkey beefed up its presence in northern Iraq during the Kurdish civil war, largely in an effort to combat the militant Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). But the underlying justification for its military presence in Iraq traces back to World War I. After the war's end, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne drew the borders across formerly Ottoman territory that define the modern Middle East. Though Turkey officially abides by the treaty, it has tried nevertheless to keep a foothold in its former domain.

A surge of nationalism has emboldened Ankara in this endeavor. In December 2015, Turkey increased the number of trainers at its Bashiqa base just east of Mosul in Iraq, much to Baghdad's dismay. Turkey was resolute, however, determined to increase the number of local Sunni and Kurdish forces it supports with funds and training in preparation for the fight to come against the Islamic State. In the immediate runup to the Mosul operation — the first of many decisive battles to determine Iraq's future — tensions with Turkey reached fever pitch. From Baghdad's perspective, as the Iraqi government tries to exert its influence in territories reclaimed from the Islamic State, Turkey's presence could undermine its control over its own people and risk upsetting Iran, to boot.

Turkey's military presence in northern Iraq, controversial as it is, is not up for discussion as far as Ankara is concerned. Having military trainers in Iraq, under terms that Ankara occasionally renegotiates with Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, has enabled Turkey to combat the PKK at the militant group's bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. It has also given Ankara a means to protect its economic ties with Baghdad and Arbil while trying to keep rival Iran's interests in check. Even a small Turkish military presence in Iraq helps Turkey. At the same time, though, it vexes Baghdad and provokes criticism from nationalist Iraqis eager for their government to exercise authority over its entire territory.

Still, Iraq has neither the funds nor the military capability nor even the will to try to oust Turkey from the smattering of bases it keeps in northern Iraq. Baghdad cannot afford to alienate Ankara because Turkey is a major economic partner for Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government alike. Turkey is Iraqi Kurdistan's number one source of imports, and Iraq depends on the country to export Kurdish oil, a precious source of income for the cash-strapped region. For Ankara, meanwhile, Iraq is a key export market and an essential part of fueling Turkey's stagnating economy.

These factors underline the countries' mutual need to cooperate, despite the pressure that Baghdad and Ankara each face to play into the nationalist narratives that their electorates favor. In October, at the start of the recent flare in tensions with Turkey, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was on the verge of launching the critical Mosul operation. The offensive is a cornerstone of the legacy al-Abadi hopes to leave as the leader of Iraq's efforts to defeat the Islamic State. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was beating his own war drum, eager to portray his country as the front-runner in the regionwide fight against the extremist group to cement Turkey's resurgence in the Middle East. Even so, the leaders will not sacrifice their countries' relationship in the interests of image-crafting.

As the battle for Mosul continues and Iraqi troops steadily loosen the Islamic State's grip on Iraq, the question of the country's future looms large. Turkey has already revealed its interest in shaping that future, threatening to insert itself into sectarian and ethnic conflicts in Tal Afar, Sinjar and Kirkuk to empower Iraqi Sunnis and curb Kurdish autonomy. Baghdad, Ankara, and Arbil agree on some issues — such as the need to oust the PKK from Sinjar. But Turkey will have a trickier time gaining sway in Kirkuk and Tal Afar, cities of great ethnic and religious diversity where Iran is also vying for influence. And so, though demonstrations of accord will prevail in this weekend's meetings, tensions are bound to flare up once again between Turkey and Iraq.

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