Paul Iddon
Jul 18 2018

Why Turkey is pushing ahead to reopen its consulates in Iraq

As part of its efforts to complete restore and normalise its relations with Iraq, Turkey is pushing ahead to reopen its consulates in both Mosul in the north, and Basra in the south.

Turkey's last consulate in Mosul was captured by Islamic State (ISIS), following the group's takeover of the city in June 2014, and 49 of its staff were kidnapped, including the consul-general. The hostages were held until late the following September. Ankara was accused of not joining the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS which began bombing the group in Iraq early that August since it feared for the lives of these staff members. 

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When they were released then Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said it was the result of an operation by Turkey's intelligence agency, which was largely based on negotiations with the group that reportedly included Turkey exchanging detained ISIS members for the hostages.

Ankara would later, in early April 2016, give the United States its blessing for bombing the ISIS-occupied consulate. Now Turkey is seeking to build a new, larger and more secure consulate in Mosul, a city that remains largely destroyed since its recapture from ISIS in July 2017. Turkey wants to restore its influence there for a number of reasons.

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“Turkey wants to re-establish its presence in Iraq's second largest city, where Ankara feels it has natural influence with the local population,” Aaron Stein, a Turkey analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank, told Ahval. “Mosul is a key node in Turkish foreign policy. The consulate was large and a way-station to project Turkish power into Iraq's north. As the country picks up the pieces from a nasty war with ISIS, Ankara is certain to try and rebuild its own influence and networks.”

Kurdish analyst Abdulla Hawez said that historically, “Mosul has always been an important city for Turkey, it used to be the seat of the Ottoman-era Mosul Vilayet, which was the mostly Kurdish northern Iraq, and is within Turkey's sphere of influence.”

For these historical reasons Turkey has exhibited telltale signs of the phantom limb syndrome in Mosul, as well as Kirkuk, since it sought to incorporate these areas into the nascent Turkish Republic during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, Turkey was denied by Britain, then the mandate power in Iraq. Many Turkish nationalists have coveted these areas ever since.

“It is only natural for Turkey to reopen its consulate as soon as possible given that it is influence in the city is waning because of the increasing presence of the pro-Iran Shi’ite militias,” Hawz told Ahval. “Also because Mosul is the largest Sunni city in Iraq and Turkey still have a large influence on the Sunnis and we have seen lately the mostly pro-Turkey Sunnis gathered under a new alliance with 52 seats (in Iraq's 329 seat parliament).”

Relations between Ankara and Baghdad were strained in recent years. Both countries butted heads in late 2015 over the Turkey's deployment of combat troops and heavy weapons to the Bashiqa base in northern Iraq near Mosul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even made the feud with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi personal, telling him: “You are not my equal and you are not at my level.” Later, Turkey said it would participate in the Mosul operation regardless of Baghdad's opposition. Ankara supported the exiled governor of Nineveh province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who headed a small Sunni militia trained by the Turkish military in Bashiqa. He was described as “Turkey's main Sunni Arab proxy in Iraq.”

Erdoğan also demanded Mosul remain a Sunni Arab city following the anti-ISIS offensive, seemingly disregarding the city's minority communities, which were mostly decimated by the militants.

Ultimately Turkey never participated in the Mosul operation and relations with Baghdad have since thawed, with Abadi even visiting Ankara.

Michael Knights, a noted Iraq analyst and Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, said Turkey's primary motivation for reopening the Mosul and Basra consulates now was “to win and maintain business”.

“Basra has been problematic for the Turks, lots of business exposure, but lots of protests and blockades on their consulate whenever Iraqi-Turkish relations would suffer,” he said.

Basra, along with the important Shi’ite shrine city of Najaf, is currently gripped by violent protests over government mismanagement. These protests are being supported by the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), a group that Turkey supports. It will be worth noting if Ankara lends its own diplomatic support to the protests if they continue or intensify, or chooses to remain quiet so as not to antagonise Baghdad.

Ankara's normalisation of ties with Baghdad may have an affect on its relations with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with its capital in Erbil.

“Turkey’s latest development in its relations with Baghdad is part of the Erdoğan strategy to balance Ankara relations with both Baghdad and Erbil,” Lawk Ghafuri, a Kurdish political analyst, told Ahval. “It’s important to note that Erdoğan and Ankara cannot ignore or neglect Erbil, actually they are even trying to improve their relations with Erbil further.”

“Turkey is struggling with its economic crisis, and Erdoğan’s future strategy is to improve the country's economy and one of the steps he is taking is normalising and improving Turkey’s relations with Baghdad,” he added.

For years Turkey had closer ties with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, but these were strained by Erbil's referendum on independence last September, which Erdoğan bitterly denounced. But Turkey did not join the blockade of the region nor open an alternative border crossing bypassing Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Erdoğan will never sacrifice KRG for Baghdad, that is a fact, but Ankara now needs to increase trade with Iraq by normalising relations with Baghdad,” Ghafuri said. “This step will be very good for Turkey and will not harm neither the KRG, nor Baghdad.”

“We have to wait and see what happens with the formation of Iraq's government,” Stein said. Turkey appeared to be losing influence with Iraqi politicians, he said, and that could result in Ankara resuming its backing for the Iraqi Kurds as a hedge against Baghdad.

Hawez said that Turkey “having better relations with either of Baghdad or Erbil will already affect the relations with the other, so better relations with Baghdad wouldn't be a good sign for Erbil, but I don't think Turkey wants to isolate Erbil anymore.”

“For Turkey the redline for Kurdistan is independence, anything below that is negotiable. So now that the Kurdish referendum has practically failed, Turkey wouldn't mind warm relations with the Kurds once again,” he said. “But I think Turkey will be more careful in relation with Kurds and try to balance it between the two, as Russia and to some extent Iran are doing.”