The international border gate between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region at Ibrahim Khalil. Photo by Ayub Nuri
Turkey and Iraq are both planning to study the prospect of opening a new border crossing between the two countries in Ovaköy. Ovaköy is located approximately 12 kilometers southwest from the primary Ibrahim Khalil border crossing Turkey has with the Kurdistan Region, currently its only land route through which to trade with Baghdad.
"Officials from both countries hope the new crossing will stimulate cross-border trade between Turkey and the Turkmen-majority areas of northern Iraq," reported Turkey's Anadolu News.
Opening a border-crossing at Ovaköy, however, could enable Ankara to trade directly with Baghdad and bypass the Kurdistan Region if it wanted to. This proposal was often floated in the Turkish press in the immediate aftermath of the Kurdistan Region's referendum in September 2017 to enable Ankara to bypass and further isolate the autonomous region to reprimand it. This ultimately never materialized. Despite bluster from Ankara it did not shut down the Ibrahim Khalil crossing.
Interestingly, when the Turkish Prime Minister's Office of Public Diplomacy listed the pretexts for Ankara's invasion of the Syrian Kurdish Afrin Canton last January it included the elimination of "the possibility of losing Turkey's geographical contact with the Arab world." This was a clear reference to the fact that the Syrian Kurds control most of the Syrian border with Turkey – with the exception of the 60-mile wide northwestern area Ankara conquered in the Euphrates Shield operation, and now Afrin itself also – while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controls all of federal Iraq's border with Turkey, and has done so sine 1991.
In October 2017, following the loss of Kirkuk to Iraq, the Peshmerga defended the Faysh Khabur crossing – the three-way crossing between Iraq, Syria and Turkey – from brief attacks by the Iraqi state-sanctioned Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries and cemented its continued control over the border. Today, it's unlikely Ankara and Baghdad could establish a direct trading link between Ovaköy without first attaining KRG approval.
There has since been a thaw in relations between Erbil and Ankara in recent months and tensions with Baghdad were considerably eased after it lifted the punitive flight ban over Kurdistan. Consequently, it's unclear if a border-crossing between Ankara and Baghdad at Ovaköy becomes a reality whether or not it will affect the Kurdistan Region in a negative way.
Aaron Stein, a Senior Resident Fellow at The Atlantic Council think-tank's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, believes it is too early to tell. "Iraq will soon have a new sheriff in town, so I think any talks with Turkey are dependent on who will be in charge once a government is formed," he told Rudaw English.
Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, points out that in light of the fact that Ankara and Erbil have once again normalized relations it's unlikely that any Ovaköy crossing between Ankara and Baghdad would aim to isolate the KRG.
"Opening a new border post is likely just aimed at increasing trade," Wing told Rudaw English. "Iraq is already a major importer of food stuffs and domestic goods and Turkey is more than willing to provide them."
This all comes as Baghdad has said it will comply with new United States sanctions against Iran. Iraq is a major importer of Iranian goods while the Kurdistan Region has, especially in the last decade, been a large importer of Turkish products, everything from foodstuffs to electronic appliances. Long-term Iraqi compliance with U.S. sanctions against Iran could potentially necessitate closer trade relations with Turkey.
"I'd assume Turkey needs to double down on trade with the one market – that of Iraq – where it still enjoys easy access, and cash in to replace whatever Iranian goods that wouldn't make it to Iraq," Bilal Wahab, the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute where his focus is on governance in the Kurdistan Region, told Rudaw English. "But on the Iraqi side, Baghdad would welcome a second border that bypasses the KRG. It creates more wiggle room for Baghdad and Ankara."
"Also, this makes commercial sense," he elaborated. "A Turkish overture as such may temper KRG's attitudes toward Baghdad as well. Nevertheless, cutting one's nose despite the face is still a predictable practice by Baghdad."
Wahab instances Baghdad's oil policy since taking over Kirkuk last October as a prime example of this "predictable practice." The region's oilfields, he explained, "have about 300,000 bpd (barrels per-day) oil production capacity that the Iraqi government refuses to export via the only viable route to world markets, which is the KRG's pipeline to Ceyhan."
While "Baghdad's reasons are multiple, like higher fees that the KRG's deal with Turkey entails" it ultimately boils down to "politics" since "Baghdad sees in using KRG pipelines the kind of recognition (read concession) it refuses to extend the KRG energy industry."
With such precedents coupled with the chaotic lack of governance that has predominated in Iraq throughout the summer it would not be surprising if the Ovaköy proposal exists solely on the drawing board for the foreseeable future.