Erdogan’s ‘historic’ visit to Iraq prioritizes economy over politics

No politics: The Turkish President’s trip to Iraq instead marks a strategic shift toward strengthening economic ties and pragmatic cooperation between Ankara and Baghdad.

Perhaps due to a lack of official clarity, experts anticipated that security and political issues would head the agenda during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 22 April visit to Baghdad – a trip widely heralded as “historic.”

Instead, revelations and analyses in the visit’s aftermath show that economic matters took precedence. However, security and political topics were not completely sidelined, as noted by high-ranking sources in both Baghdad and Erbil.

Speaking to The Cradle, Mazen al-Zaidi, a journalist close to Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, says observers misunderstood the repeated postponements of Erdogan’s visit to Baghdad – that schedules had to be readjusted because significant bilateral plans were being prepared:

The delay was intended to pave the way for a historic visit that would establish a new relationship between Iraq and Turkiye based on strategic partnership, and not as it was before on the basis of impositions and dictates.

Zaidi’s claim aligns with discussions held in March by the Iraqi and Turkish foreign ministers, which led to Baghdad’s announcement of restrictive measures against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – measures that stopped short of declaring the group a terrorist organization.

However, former MP and head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front Hassan Turan tells The Cradle that “President Erdogan’s visit focused on the path of development, and local political or security affairs were not touched upon.”

From the outset, the Sudani administration has prioritized implementation of Iraq’s “Development Road” project, aiming to establish a network of railways and highways for goods transportation, alongside neutral pathways for energy (oil and electricity) and optical internet cables.

The multi-billion dollar land corridor – principally designed and funded by Turkiye, Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE – stretching 1,200 kilometers from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea will significantly reduce travel time between Asia and Europe. And it is likely to leave the US–Israel India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridors (IMEC) project in mothballs.

With progress being made at Iraq’s Grand Faw Port – already expected to launch five berths within a year – and an energy transport grid extending to Turkish ports, the focus remains on developing and securing a comprehensive land and railway transportation route.

The Qatari and Emirati presence in the quadripartite agreement to implement the “Development Road” also illustrates the project’s potential lucrativeness.

While the source of funding for the ambitious $8–15 billion route remains vague, Anadolu Agency quoted Turkish Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Abdulkadir Uraloglu after meeting with Emirati Minister of Investment Mohamed Hassan al-Suwaidi as saying, “The UAE will make significant contributions to financing and operating this project.”

In early April, the Abu Dhabi Ports Group signed a preliminary agreement with the General Company for Ports of Iraq to codevelop the Grand Faw Port, any future expansion, and the economic zone adjacent to the port.

Map of Iraq’s Al Faw Port and Dry Canal projects , which will consist of railways, highways, and oil and gas pipelines (Photo Credit: The Cradle)

Bypassing the Kurdish oil problem

Relations between Ankara and Baghdad have been fraught in recent years over the issue of illegal Kurdish transportation of oil to Turkiye.

Economist Nabil al-Moussawi points out that “Kurdistan currently produces 295,000 barrels of oil per day, which is equivalent to 65 percent of its production before the international court’s decision [to level a fine against Turkiye] was issued. About 220,000 barrels per day of crude oil are being smuggled to Turkey and Iran at a reduced price of up to $30 per barrel, and Turkiye has benefited greatly from that situation.”

The court-issued fines from oil smuggling to Turkiye says journalist Zaidi, “have been postponed for the time being, and Iraq’s oil ministry announced – with qualifications – the resumption of oil exports to Turkiye a week before Erdogan’s visit to Baghdad.”

The difference, he notes, is that Iraq’s oil exports will now be traveling through the Kirkuk–Mosul–Ceyhan line and not the Kirkuk–Erbil–Ceyhan line controlled by Iraqi Kurdistan in violation of Iraqi law.

Iraq’s water security priority

The pressing issue of water scarcity in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers continues to be a major concern for Iraq, particularly under the strain of Turkiye’s iron-fisted control over water flows, which Baghdad feels unfairly reduces Iraq’s share of the precious resource.

This challenge has consistently exerted pressure on successive Iraqi governments, especially as the blockaded rivers are vital for agriculture, a sector upon which Iraq heavily relies.

During Erdogan’s visit, a crucial agreement focusing on water management was signed with the Iraqi government, which could accelerate Iraq’s wheat production, estimated to reach over 6 million tons this year.

The terminology used in the agreement has been crafted with precision, likely as a strategic move to address long-standing disputes while also allowing for some flexibility in negotiations. The deal notably refers to the necessity of “adopting a vision aimed at fair and equitable allocation of cross-border waters.” This wording is significant because it does not directly classify the Tigris River as a cross-border river – a point of contention, as Ankara views the waterway as a local river.

However, Adel al-Mukhtar, advisor to the Iraqi House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee, points out that the numbers for the amount of water that Turkiye can release were, worryingly, not included in the agreement.

But he notes that the ambiguity of the deal’s requirements might be interpreted as a decision to allow Turkish supervision of water harvesting and irrigation mechanisms throughout Iraq, in accordance with Ankara’s constant complaints about Baghdad’s lack of proper management.

Shifting strategic focus

The tenor of Erdogan’s latest visit to Baghdad is in sharp contrast to his first visit in 2009, particularly in terms of the geographical scope of the Turkish president’s engagements. The more restricted itinerary of his recent visit likely reflects heightened security concerns, especially considering the increased activities of the PKK in northern Iraq.

Iraqi politician Turan, who met with Erdogan in Baghdad during his visit, tells The Cradle, “The issue of the Workers Party and its crimes in Iraq was definitely addressed, as we hold them responsible for serious assassinations embodied in targeting the former security official of the Front.”

Journalist Zaidi also weighs in on this issue, saying: “There are different visions regarding the activity of the PKK in the Kurdistan region specifically, and so far Iraq and Turkey have not reached a unified vision… There are only initial understandings about limiting the activities of this party.”

Iraq’s domestic political scene, however, is always in push-pull mode. A source close to the country’s Coordination Framework who asked to remain unnamed, tells The Cradle that the group does not support a Turkish-promoted confrontation with the PKK:

The framework supports any cooperation regarding consolidating relations, pushing them forward, and the success of the important strategic [land route/ports] project, which is the path to [Iraqi] development, but it is clear that most of the parties to the framework rejects the involvement of the Iraqi military establishment in a confrontation that exhausts it, especially with the PKK, which has bases and tunnels that facilitate its movement on the Iraqi, Turkish, and Syrian borders.

The source further argues that “it is not in Iraq’s interest to throw its army and security forces into a battle in which it has no interest, especially since the [PKK] organization did not target Iraqi forces, did not destabilize security in Iraq, but rather it was one of the factors of victory over ISIS in Sinjar and other areas, and thus Iraq is in favor of resolving this file in a peaceful and non-military manner.”

Interests in Iraq and the Kurdish question

While Erdogan’s Baghdad visit could be deemed historic, it would not be in the traditional sense of breakthrough diplomatic achievements but rather as a strategic recalibration of Ankara’s approach toward Iraq.

During his visit, the Turkish president engaged in a series of brief meetings with representatives of key Iraqi communities – Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds – but did not appear to impose his views on contentious domestic affairs, such as the crisis over selecting a new (Sunni) speaker of parliament.

As one source close to the Azm Alliance, a very prominent Iraqi Sunni political party, informs The Cradle:

Erdogan tried to stay away and not engage directly and deeply, as has happened in the past decade. He tried to urge the [Sunni] parties to reunite, end the divisions among them, and agree on a vision and one candidate for the presidency of parliament, given that he is now interested in consolidating the relationship with the Iraqi state. It is not in the interest of this agreement to return backward to be the leader of a particular component.

As for Iraq’s Turkmen minority, which is experiencing a political confrontation with both Sunnis and Kurds in Kirkuk, no agreement has been reached on choosing a governor months after holding its first local elections since 2005.

Iraqi Turkmen Front Leader Turan discloses that “the issue of choosing a governor for Kirkuk was not discussed during the meeting with the Turkish President, but the representation of the Turkmen component in the government and how to strengthen it was discussed.”

On his return to Ankara from Baghdad, Erdogan stopped in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, to meet with its President, Nechirvan Barzani, his Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Leader Masoud Barzani.

Qubad Talabani, the youngest son of the late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, attended the meetings in his capacity as deputy prime minister of the region, but the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, Bafel Talabani, was notably absent.

This has left big question marks about the faltering settlement between Sulaymaniyah and Turkiye, as the latter is still imposing an air embargo on Sulaymaniyah Airport, the de facto capital of the Talabani family, according to Vian Sabri, head of the KDP bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, as revealed to The Cradle.

Was the visit historic?

The broader context of Erdogan’s visit reveals a concerted effort by Turkiye to realign its geopolitical strategy in West Asia, especially following last decade’s failed Arab Uprisings and diplomatic developments in Syria.

Boosting economic ties with Iraq, which already exceed $20 billion, and focusing on mitigating Kurdish autonomy in neighboring countries would instead promote a mutually beneficial Iraqi-Turkish dual strategy of economic integration and political stabilization.

Thus, while Erdogan’s Iraqi trip might lack the overt publicity of past diplomatic encounters, it represents a significant pivot towards a more pragmatic, economically focused, and regionally sensitive approach.

This could indeed be “historic,” but in a sense, that will only fully reveal its significance in the long-term relationship between both countries.

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