Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's two-day visit to Turkey on Dec. 24-25, which he called "historic" on his Twitter account, points to a new period in Turkish-Iraqi relations. As Iraq deals with the problems of a weak state, a worsening economy, sectarian and ethnic tensions and now the threat of ISIS, Turkey remains committed to helping the new Iraqi government.
Abadi's visit follows high-level diplomatic shuttling between the two countries over the last three months. President Erdoğan met President Fuad Masum on Sept. 23 at the U.N. General Assembly in New York where the two leaders discussed a road map to reset Turkish-Iraqi relations. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Turkey on Nov. 6 and expressed the new government's desire to leave the Maliki era problems behind. This was followed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's important visit to Iraq on Nov. 20 where Davutoğlu underscored Turkey's commitment to further developing bilateral relations. These efforts have now paid off and a new page has been turned.
As a neighboring country, Turkey has always been concerned about the political stability and security of Iraq. To that effect, Turkey considers four issues, among others, as essential: The territorial integrity and political stability of Iraq, the overcoming of sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, the rapprochement between Baghdad and Irbil and addressing security threats in Iraq including the ISIS and the PKK.
Despite major challenges, Iraq has not split up. Even though some talk about the de facto division of Iraq among Sunnis, Shiites and the Kurds, the break up of the country is an entirely different story. At a time when ISIS controls vast swaths of Iraqi territory, no one is interested in creating small and weak states that will only play into the hands of ISIS and similar groups. Instead, the central government needs to be strengthened and the regional administrations, including Nineve, Anbar and Kirkuk, need to be supported financially and militarily against ISIS.
The relations between Sunnis and Shiites remain fragile and require attention, but there is hope in the post-Maliki Iraq. Abadi has taken steps, including the changes in the interior and defense ministries, to win back the Sunnis, who will obviously play a key role when they see they are fully included in the new political and security architecture. However, the Sunnis need to resolve their own differences and present a united and strong leadership.
Somewhat ironically, the ISIS threat has brought Sunnis and Shiites closer to one another. It is to be noted that ISIS has made no distinction between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis or Christians in its barbaric attempt to subdue and eliminate its rivals. Turkey supports both the Sunni-Shiite reconciliation and the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, for which it is now providing the Iraqi government with intelligence and military aid.
Resolving the Sunni-Shiite divisions in Iraq depends largely on the new government's ability to embrace all Iraqi citizens regardless of their ethnicity, sect, religion or class. Moreover, all related parties including Iran and Saudi Arabia should help the Iraqis overcome rather than deepen their sectarian and political differences.
The agreement between Baghdad and Irbil on Dec. 2 is another important step Turkey has been calling for over the last several years. According to the deal, Irbil will sell oil and gas to third parties and Baghdad will pay Irbil the 17 percent share of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Baghdad has already made payments to the KRG as a confidence building measure. The deal is important for Turkey as well because it confirms the energy agreement Ankara signed with Irbil last year. The Dec. 2 deal is part of a larger settlement that will require detailed work in 2015, yet it is an important move in the right direction and will decrease tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Finally, a new security architecture needs to be established in Iraq against al-Qaida, ISIS, the PKK and other groups. ISIS has already caused enough chaos and destruction in Iraq, and Turkey currently hosts around 35,000 Iraqi refugees who have fled ISIS terror. Moreover, 18,000 of those are Yazidis from Sinjar and the rest are Turkmens and other Iraqis. Turkey has pledged military and intelligence support to the Iraqi Government against ISIS.
As Turkey engages in a carefully crafted peace process with the Kurds, no one - including Iraqi authorities - wants Iraq's territories to be used by the PKK to sabotage the process. So far, the PKK threat from Iraq has been largely contained and neutralized. While the Iraqis focus their attention on ISIS at the moment, they also acknowledge the danger of the PKK threat against both Iraq and Turkey.
The High Level Strategic Partnership Meeting, held in Ankara on Dec. 25, confirmed the commitment of the two countries to deepen bilateral relations. Turkey's current trade volume with Iraq is around $12 billion, and Turkish companies have won bids worth $20 billion. With the new perspective in place, economic relations are likely to increase between the two countries.
Turkey and Iraq are key partners in a troubled region. With the current security and economic challenges, they stand to gain from wider and deeper relations - relations that will benefit not just the two countries but also the larger region.