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Since winning Turkey’s critical May 28 runoff election, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a number of surprising Cabinet appointments. Notably, Hakan Fidan, who led the National Intelligence Organization for 13 years, was appointed minister of foreign affairs. Fidan was replaced as spymaster by Ibrahim Kalin, a former presidential spokesperson who also previously served as Erdogan’s foreign policy and security advisor and has worked closely with Fidan in the past. Cooperation between the two may increase the operational convergence between the National Intelligence Organization and the Foreign Ministry.
Fidan was one of the architects of Turkey’s turn to geopolitical activism, which integrated the intelligence, security, and foreign policy ecosystems and drove Turkish involvement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Nagorno-Karabakh in the past decade. As an experienced foreign policy actor whose main academic focus in his doctoral studies was the role of intelligence in foreign policy, Fidan may be able to strengthen the intelligence pillar of Turkish diplomacy. In light of Turkey’s recent increase in military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Iraq as well as Fidan’s contacts with Kurdish political actors and his key role in handling the Iraq file, his appointment could lead to a paradigm shift in Turkey’s Iraq policy.
The PKK Remains a Flashpoint
Turkey’s ties with Iraq have fluctuated since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Initially, Ankara pursued a policy capitalizing on the rivalry between Baghdad and Erbil. However, since the failed September 2017 independence referendum for the Kurdistan region, Turkey has worked with both Baghdad and Erbil in a complementary fashion rather than playing them against each other. Ankara and Baghdad have a crucial strategic relationship, but unresolved issues have nonetheless kept them at odds. The most challenging issues, Turkey’s anti-PKK military operations and dozens of military outposts in Iraq, long resented in Baghdad, are crucial components of its Iraq policy.
For over 40 years, Turkey has fought the PKK, which has been based in Iraq’s northern Qandil Mountains since the late 1990s. It has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. Since 2016, as its human and technological intelligence capacity has grown, the National Intelligence Organization has expanded its military activities against the PKK in northern Iraq, especially in Sinjar, Sulaymaniyah, and Makhmur. In April, a suspected Turkish drone strike near Sulaymaniyah’s airport targeted a convoy that included three U.S. military personnel and Mazloum Abdi, commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a significant portion of which is made up of members of the PKK’s Syrian offshoot. (The United States, which cooperates with the SDF in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, does not consider the SDF a terrorist organization.)
Many Iraqi officials have denounced Turkey’s military operations as egregious violations of sovereignty and for their irredentist aspects. Baghdad has repeatedly requested that Ankara withdraw from its Bashiqa military base near Mosul, and Iranian-backed armed groups have attacked Turkish military outposts in northern Iraq.
Ankara, which favors the status quo between Erbil and Baghdad and opposes Kurdish independence, supports the balance between the region’s two main Kurdish political parties – the Erbil-based Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Sulaymaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Turkey has strong relations with the KDP due to their close political and commercial ties and similar perspective regarding countering the PKK’s activities in northern Iraq. On the other hand, Turkey has recently had serious tensions with the PUK due to its alleged affiliations with the PKK. Although Fidan, who is Kurdish and reportedly has close contacts with Kurdish political actors in Iraq, is expected to maintain close ties with the KDP, Turkey’s pressure on the PUK is also likely to continue. Shortly after the attack at the Sulaymaniyah airport, Fidan reportedly hosted Qubad Talabani, the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and a PUK member, in Ankara, where, according to media accounts, Fidan expressed Turkey’s displeasure with “the PUK’s relations with the SDF and the PKK.” If the PUK takes steps to distance itself from the SDF and PKK, it may be easier for Ankara to publicly engage in diplomacy with the PUK. Ankara is demanding the PUK (as well as Baghdad) address the PKK issue with the same determination the KDP has demonstrated. As foreign minister, Fidan will likely wear both his intelligence and diplomatic hats, integrating security policy into Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives, as he works to continue to apply pressure on the PKK.
Sunnis Will Not Be Neglected
Turkey values its relations with Iraq’s Sunni population stemming from historical and ideological ties and proximity. This led Turkey to work to reintegrate Sunnis into Iraqi politics after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, despite Ankara’s limited influence in Iraq in the early years after the 2003 invasion, particularly with Shia actors, representing the dominant source of political power. In current Iraqi political dynamics, Turkey’s relations with the Shia-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani are healthy.
Turkey focused on bringing together Iraq’s disorganized Sunni political actors after the 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections, which were followed by a prolonged struggle to form a government. Fidan organized numerous meetings between Erdogan and rival Sunni politicians Mohammed Halbousi and Khamis al-Khanjar in 2021 and 2022. The presence of Fidan in a photograph with the Iraqi Sunni leaders shared after a February 2022 meeting, signaled this close consultation even while provoking short-lived but strong reactions in Baghdad.
Ankara is aware that an Iraqi government consisting of pro-Iranian parties could force Sunnis to align more closely with Tehran, a realistic possibility considering Halbousi’s and Khanjar’s pragmatism and close relations with pro-Iranian groups. For this reason, it is almost certain that Fidan will continue his backdoor diplomacy to integrate Sunnis into Iraqi politics. Although Ankara rejects the perception that it supports Iraq’s Sunni politicians, that has been the case in practice, and Ankara is likely to continue these efforts and encourage continued contact between the predominately Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
The Turkmen File Needs Revision
Turkey has also long pursued a policy to protect the rights of Iraqi Turkmen, centered on support for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a Turkmen political coalition. However, it is unlikely that this strategy has reached the entire Turkmen population, which Turkey claims to be 2 million. About half of Iraq’s Turkmen are Shias, while the other half are Sunnis. Since March 2021, the former leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Arshad Salihi, and his successor, Hasan Turan, have been locked in a leadership struggle that underscores the fragility of Turkmen politics and society and makes sustained, broad-based Turkish influence in this key ethnic group challenging.
With the fight against ISIL, the Shia-Sunni split among the Turkmen became more visible. While Shia Turkmen have become closer to pro-Iranian groups, there is a perception that Turkey prioritizes Sunni Turkmen. Fidan’s October 2022 appearance with the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Erbil was read as a clear show of support for Turan, who some believe is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, a perception negatively affecting Turkey’s relations with Shia Turkmen. It is unclear whether Ankara’s Turkmen policy will change with Fidan leading the Foreign Ministry. However, if Turkey does not change the perception that its involvement in Turkmen politics is centered on the Iraqi Turkmen Front and Sunnis, the crisis in Turkmen politics will worsen.
Economic Ties Are the Top Priority
The long-standing stated priorities of Turkey’s Iraq policy have been security, Iraq’s territorial integrity, and economic relations. Regarding the latter, with a trade volume of over $20 billion in 2022, Iraq and Turkey are major trade partners, and Turkey-Iraq commerce has grown in recent years. As a result, Turkey seeks to separate economic ties from tense political and security issues in its relations with Iraq.
Going forward, completing the massive “Development Road” (also known as the “Dry Canal”) project – a highway and rail line from the southern Iraqi city of Basra to Turkey – will be an extremely important area of Turkish-Iraqi cooperation. The project is envisioned as a transportation hub between Asia and Europe, with Erdogan claiming that the $17 billion project has the potential to be the “new Silk Road of our region.” Meanwhile, Turkey is seeking negotiations related to damages the International Chamber of Commerce’s Court of Arbitration in Paris ordered Turkey to pay Iraq in a ruling on a long-running dispute with Iraq regarding crude oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara halted Iraq’s 450,000 barrels per day of northern exports through the Iraq-Turkey pipeline on March 25.
After taking office as foreign minister, Fidan said he aims to “further develop” Turkey’s “national foreign policy vision.” Major changes to the basic dynamics of Turkey-Iraq relations during Fidan’s tenure are unlikely, but he may bring about a paradigm shift in terms of approach by institutionalizing a security-oriented foreign policy within the diplomatic framework. However, given Turkey’s escalating economic crisis, Ankara will likely prioritize its economy above all else and ensure any changes in its policy don’t undermine economic relations with Iraq.
is an academic researcher focusing on Iraq, regional Kurdish politics, and Shia militias in the Middle East.
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