The Iraq and Turkey relationship has been rocky lately. The close relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), about the only regional relationship that has improved in recent months for Turkey, is a worrisome development for Baghdad. The KRG and Baghdad have a long-standing dispute over oil revenues, which Turkey, and several U.S. companies, has exacerbated by allowing the KRG to transship oil. The KRG and Baghdad have just come to an agreement over payments, but this merely puts off any crisis and doesn’t resolve the oil policy issues at the heart of the crisis between the two. The KRG and Baghdad still have to work out a permanent settle over oil revenues, oil fields, the status of Kirkuk, and several other issues over the exact nature of the KRG within the Iraqi state.
Relations between Turkey and the KRG are effectively those between two sovereign nations. Turkish officials visiting the KRG have drawn official Iraqi complaints, following which relations between the two countries hit a new low. Despite these complaints, these semi-official visits and meetings continue today. As recently as Oct. 1, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Masoud Barzani, President of the KRG, met to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis despite the fact that Barzani is essentially a governor of a province in Iraq and not someone who should be involved in meetings with foreign ministries or heads of state. The mini-state status granted to the KRG and Barzani is not limited to Turkey; the U.S. has also treated him as a near head of state, but this does put additional strains on the relationship.
Along with several other countries, Turkey has also been violating Iraqi airspace. Turkey frequently launches over flights of Iraqi airspace in pursuit of PKK terrorists. In a New York Times interview, U.S. General Robert L. Caslen, who is currently Chief of the Office of Security Cooperation – Iraq (OSC-I), said: “Iraq recognizes they don’t control their airspace, and they are very sensitive to that.” When Turkish fighter jets enter Iraq’s airspace in pursuit of Kurdish/PKK targets, Iraqi officials “see it, they know it and they resent it.”
Today, it seems, Iraq’s cabinet has responded to these Turkish irritants to their national sovereignty. The Iraqi cabinet has called for the abrogation of all treaties which permit foreign forces within Iraq. “The cabinet decided to reject the presence of any foreign bases or forces on Iraqi land and to reject the entry of any foreign military forces into Iraqi land,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement. If adopted by parliament, this would abrogate the 1995 treaty between Turkey and Saddam Hussein which allows Turkish armed forces to pursue PKK terrorists into northern Iraq. The cabinet has also declared that it will oppose any new treaties which allow foreign forces into Iraq, although no such treaty was being considered.
Officials have said that this decision was made specifically to get rid of Turkish forces still operating within Iraqi territory. These forces often launch cross-border raids in pursuit of PKK fighters or to attack bases and staging areas in Iraq. Turkish forces have also maintained several military bases in northern Iraq since the 1997. Included are bases in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk–one of the three KRG provinces–and the bases that Iraqi officials said were the primary reasons for this decision. (Note: I was unable to independently confirm the location of these military bases, any comments would be welcome). The Turkish military bases in Iraq are Bamerni, Batufa, Kanimasi and Dilmentepe.
This decision, however, is more illustrative of the trends in Iraqi-Turkey relations than an actual crisis point. The decision by the Iraqi cabinet requests that parliament abrogate these treaties. The Iraqi cabinet doesn’t have the authority to abrogate treaties and they must defer to parliament. Given the level of (dys-)functionality of the Iraqi parliament, any decision on this recommendation could be far in the future, if the legislators even decide to act on this issue at all. There are, after all, far more pressing matters for the Iraqi parliament to attend to.
At most the Iraqi cabinet wanted to send a clear signal to Turkey that Baghdad is unhappy with Turkish policy in the region. Turkish pursuit of terrorists, if Ankara feels it’s necessary, will continue regardless of Iraqi approval or disapproval, at least for the near future. Iraq lacks the strength to stop them. The closure of the Turkish military bases, which can be enforced by Baghdad assuming parliament acts, is unlikely to mean much. Turkey has other bases on its own territory which are far larger and better equipped to handle military operations. Many cross-border attacks are staged by aircraft which would be unaffected by base closures inside Iraq. The bases are really insignificant: Bamarni and Bakoufa have “a static monitoring and intelligence function” and host a small number of troops and tanks which have been blocked from even moving out of the bases. It’s unlikely that the functions of these bases are necessary and irreplaceable for the Turkish military.
Iraq has expressed its displeasure with Turkey in a finely crafted way. This announcement has no weight behind it, but does serve notice that the Iraqi government is unhappy with Turkish policy. Iraq has showed Turkey that it can negatively impact Turkey. The impact is debatable but Ankara will still take note.