Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 84

On May 2 the Turkish daily Milliyet reported that Turkey had offered to provide training to the Iraqi army as part of an attempt to strengthen the central government in Baghdad and prevent the breakup of the country (Milliyet, May 2).

In recent years, Turkey’s policy toward Iraq has been dominated by the fear that the predominantly Kurdish north of the country might break away to form an independent Kurdish state, something that Turkey fears could further fuel the separatist aspirations of its own already restive Kurdish minority.

On May 2 the Turkish daily Milliyet quoted unnamed sources close to Turkish President Abdullah Gul as reporting that the Turkish and Iraqi foreign ministers had already held preliminary discussions about the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) providing training to the Iraqi army and that there had also been direct talks between military representatives of the two countries (Milliyet, May 2). The issue is believed to have been discussed during a visit to Turkey by Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, who held meetings in Ankara with both Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 1. The sources quoted by Milliyet did not give any indication of what form the proposed military training would take or how extensive it would be. The TAF already provides military training to small groups of military personnel from a number of countries under both bilateral agreements and multilateral programs, such as NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP).

Ankara has long been eager to lock Turkey and Iraq into a closer economic relationship through increased cooperation in the field of energy. Its hopes received a setback in April when the Iraqi Oil Ministry excluded the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) from a list of 35 foreign companies that had been prequalified to bid for future oil and gas contracts in the country (see EDM, April 18). Speaking after meeting with al-Hashimi on May 1, Gul described the territorial integrity of Iraq as vital to regional stability and called on the government in Baghdad to strengthen bilateral ties by increasing cooperation in energy.

“Energy is an important dimension of these relations,” said Gul. “We want Turkey to be included in the new list of countries that can participate in oil exploration activities in Iraq” (Anadolu Ajansi, May 1).

Ankara has also proposed institutionalizing bilateral cooperation through the creation of what Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has described as a “strategic dialogue mechanism.”

“It would be chaired by the prime ministers of the two countries and would be a joint strategic dialogue mechanism made up of the two countries’ prime ministers in the company of a few ministers,” said Babacan (Anadolu Ajansi, NTV, May 30).

On May 1, while al-Hashimi was holding talks in Ankara, a Turkish delegation traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials. The delegation was led by Murat Ozcelik, the Special Envoy to Iraq at the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor. In addition to meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the delegation held discussions with Nechervan Barzani, the prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers northern Iraq. It was only the second official contact between Turkey and the KRG and follows a recent shift in Turkish policy from confrontation to engagement with the KRG (see EDM, April 25).

The main reason for Turkey’s reluctance to engage with the KRG was its fear that direct contact would be regarded as an implicit endorsement of the KRG’s political authority in the north of the country, which could encourage the Iraqi Kurds to push for full independence. Despite its desire to engage the KRG, Ankara has made it clear that there are still limits to how far it is prepared to go. The delegation rejected Barvani’s suggestion that they could meet in the KRG capital of Arbil, insisting that any discussions would have to take place in Baghdad, the seat of the Iraqi central government. The Turkish media pointedly described Barzani as an “Official of the Regional Administration of Northern Iraq” rather than as prime minister of the KRG (Vatan, May 2).

The delegation reportedly made it clear to Barzani that a continuation of the policy of engagement was conditional on the KRG’s distancing itself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose main bases and training camps are located in the mountains of northern Iraq. The daily Vatan reports that the delegation is warning Barzani that Turkey will terminate its policy of engagement unless the Iraqi Kurds isolate the PKK, sever its supply lines, prevent militants from moving around freely in northern Iraq, suppress the PKK’s propaganda outlets and generally distance themselves from the organization (Vatan, May 2).

Within hours of the delegation’s warning to Barzani, Turkish warplanes once again struck at PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Kurdish officials in northern Iraq reported that the bombardment started shortly before midnight local time on May 1 and continued for over two hours (CNNTurk, NTV, May 2). This latest bombardment came just days after the Turkish military launched its largest air raid against PKK positions in northern Iraq since December 2007. In the night of April 25 to 26, backed by long-range artillery fire from inside Turkey, 43 Turkish warplanes bombed 111 PKK targets in northern Iraq. A statement subsequently issued by the Turkish General Staff (TGS) stressed that “the necessary sensitivity was shown in order to avoid any negative consequences for the civilian population and local groups” (TGS Statement BA-28/08 of April 29, www.tsk.mil.tr).

Nevertheless, even if the raids were directed solely against the PKK, there is little doubt that, when combined with the harsh warnings delivered by the Turkish delegation to Barzani, they would have reminded the Iraqi Kurds that behind the carrot of engagement with the KRG, there still lurks a rather large stick.