Confidence crisis between Turkey and Iraq

The recent feud between Turkey and Iraq over the deployment of a small contingent of Turkish troops to a camp near Mosul for training purposes may be a tempest in a teapot, given that 15 foreign nations keep military officers in Iraq and that the federal government has effectively lost control of a large swath of Iraqi territory to Kurds, terror groups, and Sunni and Shiite militias.

Yet, perhaps this tension was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the deep mistrust between Ankara and Baghdad — which has been building up in recent years over a number of issues — has finally resulted in the eruption of a major crisis of confidence between the two nations. Baghdad has apparently grown uneasy over the real intentions of Turkey’s current political Islamist leaders whose public emphasis on the territorial integrity of Iraq did not match their actions. Ankara’s unilateral energy agreements with the Kurdistan region and reported clandestine dealings with Sunni militants have pushed Baghdad more to Iran’s side, creating the opposite impact of what Turkish national interests required, i.e., a friendly federal government.

Backed by Russia and United States, two prominent permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as regional powers such as Iran and the Arab League, Baghdad managed to isolate Ankara and embarrass Turkish leaders, and it is determined to escalate the crisis further unless Turkey yields to Iraq’s demands for the troops’ withdrawal. This is the price Turkey will likely pay as a result of serious mishaps in Turkish foreign policy that have been driven by ideological motivations for some time rather than national interests. What is more, its terrible performance in terms of containing the damage and crisis management, often exacerbated by conflicting messages from Ankara policymakers, has given Iraq, as well as Turkey’s partners and allies, more misgivings.

Turkey should reflect on its mistakes when sizable groups among Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites have grown more apprehensive about Ankara’s ultimate goals. It is true that third party elements such as Iran meddling in Iraq’s affairs and the impact of residual fallout from the American invasion have complicated problems for many, but that does not suffice to explain the colossal failures in Turkish policies with respect to its second largest trading partner. The readout on the phone conversation between Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his Iraqi counterpart, Haider al-Abadi, on Dec. 30, as provided by Abadi’s office, indicates that the problem of Turkish troops is still ongoing despite efforts by Turkish side to downplay it.

Abadi’s office revealed that during talks last month with a visiting Turkish delegation led by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) head Hakan Fidan, Ankara promised to announce a pullout of its troops from Iraq. But the Turkish side did not comply with the agreement. Abadi made clear to Davutoğlu that “there was no invitation to the Turkish forces and no approval was given in this regard.” He even went further, confronting Davutoğlu’s arguments by saying that that ““there is no reason why the Turkish government [would] send trainers to areas deep inside the Iraqi border such as Mosul so that their trainers are endangered, when in fact there are safe training camps located in other areas.”

He also accused Turkey of not battling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh. “Daesh is on your borders from the Syrian side and you do not fight them! And there is a vast distance between [the] Daesh presence in Mosul and the Turkish border and therefore [it is] not a threat to Turkey from Iraqi territory,” Abadi told the Turkish prime minister. He also called for honesty, the courage to face public opinion and to actually pull the troops out of Iraqi territory. No readout has been provided by Turkish side so far. Davutoğlu merely said he called Abadi to congratulate him on the news of Iraqi troops liberating Ramadi from ISIL hands.

Certainly, this won’t be the last crisis Turkey will experience with Iraq because the fundamental issue of the lack of confidence in bilateral relations has not yet been addressed. A thorny issue for the Iraqi side that has lingered unresolved for a decade perfectly illustrates this point further. It may surely be cited as circumstantial evidence, but it helps shed light on the underlying theme of mistrust. On Sept. 18, 2006 in Jeddah, the interior ministers of Iraq’s neighboring countries signed a protocol on security cooperation and pledged to help boost security along their borders to prevent terrorist infiltration into Iraq. The multiparty protocol was signed by Jordan, Iran, Bahrain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Egypt on the one side and Iraq on the other.

The initiative to have such a security protocol was Turkey’s idea, first proposed at an earlier meeting in İstanbul on July 18-19, 2005. The gathering of the interior ministers of Iraq’s neighboring countries was first suggested during a foreign ministers’ meeting in July 2004, and again it was Turkey’s idea to bring the interior ministers together in a separate meeting to strengthen the security of Iraq.

Although it was Turkey that suggested the protocol, it has never been approved in the Turkish Parliament. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has kept it in limbo for each and every legislative session, pushing it through the relevant commissions twice but killing it on the floor by not taking it to a full vote. Considering that the AKP has been dominating the agenda in the rubberstamp Parliament and the majority of seats are under the ruling party’s control, it could have easily gotten Parliament to approve the agreement at any time. Yet it simply decided not to do so.

While Turkey, the founding father of this security protocol, has not ratified the agreement, the parliaments of all the other signatories with the exception of Iraq have approved the deal. Iraq’s failure has stemmed mainly from years of a deadlocked parliament that has also failed to resolve a number of outstanding issues such as sharing oil revenues and the demarcation of borders between provinces, and it has not ratified dozens of international agreements. Therefore, the Turkish case differs a great deal because the failure to act on the protocol has signaled a lack of political commitment to strengthening security in Iraq. This issue has become a recurring theme on the agenda list of items during bilateral talks since then.

Perhaps, the protocol itself is not that hugely important and certainly did not meet the criteria to satisfy the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which wanted a more robust agreement, preferably on a bilateral level, but had to settle for less in Jeddah when the Arab partners softened the agreement’s wording and weakened the terms of the deal, especially on its binding powers. Nevertheless, it was a compromise and as the architect of the protocol, Turkey should have adopted it in its Parliament before everybody else as a display of strong commitment to Iraq’s border security, fighting organized crime and the battle with terrorism.

Turkey’s two primary opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), objected to the protocol, citing several reasons which lacked, in my opinion, a strong basis. They are worried that the deal may hurt Turkey’s fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose leadership is based in northern Iraq. But it won’t really; the protocol is simply a supplementary agreement and does not void existing agreements Turkey has with Iraq, including a 1926 agreement between Turkey, Iraq and Britain.

Moreover, the preamble clearly makes references to the principles of international law, the Charter of the United Nations and its relevant resolutions concerning the subject of the protocol. Article 13 also states that “Provisions of this Protocol shall not affect obligations emanating from any bilateral or multilateral treaty binding upon either of the Parties.” What is more, none of the opposition parties had the power to stop the ruling AKP from proceeding with the approval of the protocol. Hence the buck stops with the AKP leadership for failing to act on it.

Although the protocol is valid for three years from the date of its signing, its renewal is automatic unless any party wishes to withdraw through an advance written notification. None of the nine countries that signed the protocol, including Turkey, has expressed its intention to drop out of the agreement thus far. The Turkish government again submitted the protocol to Parliament for ratification on Dec. 3, 2015 and the Speaker’s Office forwarded it to the Foreign Affairs Commission for deliberation on Dec. 25. The commission put the protocol on its debate agenda for the Dec. 30 meeting.

However, at the last minute, Taha Özhan, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission, decided to suspend debate on the protocol, citing a lack of paperwork from relevant ministries. He put the suspension to a vote and the commission agreed to it, delaying the approval process further. Perhaps the government is signaling that it is not the right time to approve the protocol given the rift between Ankara and Baghdad. Whatever the reason for the third round of delays on the ratification of this protocol, Turkey is sending the wrong messages to Baghdad by continuing to put it off, shattering what is left of the confidence between the two capitals and hurting Turkey’s credibility first and foremost.

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