Turkey and Iraq held the first ministerial meeting of the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC) in Istanbul on September 17-18. To give substance to the HLSCC (EDM, August 12), eight Turkish and ten Iraqi ministers with responsibility for various portfolios gathered at a joint cabinet meeting. The ministers then held face-to-face meetings with their counterparts to elaborate joint projects in their respective fields. The parties agreed to sign agreements or memorandums of understanding in over 40 areas. The detailed technical work on these projects will continue, before final approval at the Turkish-Iraqi inter-governmental meeting during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Baghdad in October (Dunya, September 19).
The Turkish and Iraqi delegations agreed to cooperate on a wide range of issues, ranging from environmental cooperation to energy partnership. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said that he agreed with his Iraqi counterparts to "develop joint projects for the production and transportation of natural gas and oil." The two delegations discussed the renewal of the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline carrying Iraqi crude oil to world markets through Turkish territory. Yildiz referred to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s remarks during the Nabucco signing ceremony in July that Iraq could export up to 15 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to Europe through the Nabucco pipeline. He said that they will continue their bilateral talks on signing a memorandum of understanding on this issue (Anadolu Ajansi, September 18).
One of the most remarkable decisions was to create a free trade area and form a joint commission to streamline mutual investments. This idea reflects the political weight that Ankara attaches to the HLSCC initiative: aimed at integrating both economies. Turkey also has initiated a similar HLSCC process with the Gulf Cooperation Council and Syria and expects this form of partnership to include other countries in the region (EDM, September 18). Ankara also plans to organize a Turkish-Arab forum. Given Turkey’s experience of a free market economy, it could spearhead the integration of the regional countries into the global economy. In return, the region might serve as a future destination for Turkey’s growing exports and investments, while Turkey could also attract capital from the region, especially the Persian Gulf, to stimulate its economic development.
The Turkish government increasingly views such bilateral partnerships as the nucleus of a regional cooperation scheme, which might evolve into an organization similar to the E.U. The Turkish press has started to discuss the prospect that the current idea of "full economic cooperation" might produce a common market, which could eventually lead to political integration. The idea is to use economic interdependence as a peace building project to ensure the stability of the region. Obviously, the prospects for such an ambitious vision, among others, depend on the elimination of political differences and conflicts of interest among the regional countries.
The need to reduce political tension brings to the fore another area of cooperation agreed at the HLSCC: combating terrorism. Ankara has been fostering closer relations with Baghdad and Arbil, the capital of the regional Kurdish government in Northern Iraq, to tackle with the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is using Northern Iraq as a safe haven to carry out its terrorist campaign inside Turkey. The tacit support of the Northern Iraqi Kurdish authorities for the PKK and the inability of the Baghdad regime to end the PKK’s presence in the region has long strained Turkish-Iraqi relations, and provoked occasional Turkish cross-border operations.
Ankara’s engagement policy has partly paid off as the Iraqi authorities have taken steps toward reducing the activities of the PKK inside their country. Moreover, a trilateral Turkish-Iraqi-American security mechanism was established to coordinate the fight against the PKK (EDM, April 13). Speaking at the end of the HLSCC, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyar Zebari reiterated Baghdad’s support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, arguing that "no armed entity can operate on our territory under the Iraqi constitution" (www.cnnturk.com, September 18).
Nonetheless, the intensification of PKK terrorism inside Turkey in recent weeks has raised questions about the effectiveness of Turkey’s campaign against the PKK despite the improvement of diplomatic relations (EDM, September 10). A spokesperson for Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff General Ilker Basbug announced that the Turkish army conveyed a request to the government to extend its mandate to conduct cross-border operations in Northern Iraq for another year (ANKA, September 18). The current mandate, which was originally granted in October 2007, will expire on October 17, and the renewal of the authorization will require parliamentary approval. Although representatives of the opposition parties declared that they would support the renewal bill, the government has yet to clarify its position on the issue. The discussions on the cross-border military authorization bill may further test the government’s efforts to solve the Kurdish issue through closer diplomatic ties with Iraq and enhancing democracy at home.
The conclusions of the HLSCC meeting signifies a major step toward the implementation of Turkey’s new policy of boosting closer political and economic integration with its Middle Eastern neighbors, through the creation of new inter-governmental institutions. The road to this goal will be long and full of political obstacles, such as the ones raised by the issue of terrorism. Moreover, at a more fundamental level, this new process highlights Davutoglu’s efforts to fulfill his grand vision for Turkey. As he has advanced in his academic work, Davutoglu assigns Turkey with the mission of reviving the once glorious Islamic and Turkish civilization. His remarks at the HLSCC echo his geo-cultural vision, which was already formed in his seminal book, Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth).
Davutoglu described the meeting as a historical turning point for bilateral relations and the region, adding that "[the projects created here] will link Basra [southern Iraqi province] to Edirne [western Turkish province]. The fate of Baghdad and Istanbul will be joined… If the Turkish-Iraqi process expands [to other countries], the Middle East will no longer be mired in crises and conflicts, but it will be transformed into a common economic area, with a common political dialogue and security mechanism… An area that will be able to revive that great civilization" (Anadolu Ajansi, September 19).