In the Turkish press of late, talk of opening a second border crossing to Iraq – one which bypasses Iraqi Kurdistan – has reemerged. In media outlets controlled by or close to the Turkish government (which is more than 90 percent of newspapers in Turkey these days), article after article discusses the proposed new border crossing.
Yeni Safak on August 14 reported that delegations from Baghdad and Ankara would meet for talks on the issue “in the next few weeks,” adding “The planned Ovakoy Border Gate will directly link Turkey to Baghdad via a 570-kilometer (354-mile) highway.”
Hurriyet newspaper, citing Anadolu, also mentions imminent plans to make the new border crossing a reality. “Turkish and Iraqi officials announced plans on August 7 to conduct a joint feasibility study in advance of opening a new border crossing point named Ovaköy between the two neighbors. In a statement, Qazim al-Akabi, head of Iraq’s committee for border crossings, said he had recently met with Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Fatih Yıldız to discuss the proposal. According to al-Akabi, the two sides have agreed to dispatch technical experts to the border region sometime next month to conduct a feasibility study,” it said.
As they did in October 2017, around the time of the referendum on Kurdistani independence, Baghdad and Turkey are once again discussing bypassing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with a new border crossing. Readers may recall such headlines in Turkish media at that time as “Turkey’s next step to foil Barzani’s plans: Ovaköy border gate” (from Yeni Safak on October 17, 2017).
Absent from the whole discussion is one inconvenient fact – Turkey has no border with Iraq other than areas within the recognized boundaries of the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
That is the uncontestable reality. The Iraqi constitution of 2005 recognized the Kurdistan Region as consisting of all the territories under autonomous Kurdish rule prior to 2003. That includes the entirety of the land border with Turkey.
So how do Turkish and Baghdadi officials believe they can get around geographic reality? Four possibilities seem to exist.
First, Baghdad and Ankara could convince KRG leaders to relinquish control of some of their territory. That does not sound likely – the leadership in Erbil is well aware of its geographic leverage over Baghdad, which would dearly like to export Kirkuk’s 300,000 barrels per day of oil without making any concessions to the Kurds.
Second, the KRG could be made a party to the opening of a second border crossing to relieve traffic at the busy Ibrahim Khalil / Habur crossing near Zakho. The Kurds would favor such an initiative, but such a route would do little to further what appears to be a Turkish-Baghdad plan to bypass Kurdistan.
Given that no KRG officials have been invited to any of these “technical talks” on opening a new border crossing, this does not seem to be the plan in either Ankara or Baghdad. When there were murmurs of such a plan in October of 2017, Peshmerga Secretary-General Jabar Yawar made the KRG position clear: “No border crossing could open in the Kurdistan Region without the official approval of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).”
Third, Turkey could seize territory in northeastern Syria (Rojava), allowing trade to go from Turkey’s border with Syria’s most northeastern tip and then into Iraq south of KRG-controlled territory. This would be fraught with complications, however, including breaches of international law, a lack of infrastructure in that area, hostile Syrian Kurdish forces, the presence of American troops backing those Syrian Kurds, and the Assad regime’s objections to such a scenario. In short, this third option seems quite impossible.
All of which leaves a fourth option for a new border crossing that bypasses the KRG – the forcible seizure of a sliver of the Kurdistan Region’s land just west of the current border gate, around the town of Ovakoy. Baghdad and Iran’s Shiite paramilitias tried to do just that in October 2017, but suffered heavy casualties from fierce Peshmerga resistance and were pushed back (it helped in this case that the Peshmerga’s leadership did not order them to withdraw).
One must therefore wonder if there is a new plan for Baghdad to move against the Kurds militarily. Either the Turks have been made aware of this plan or Ankara suffers from serious mental geography handicaps regarding the prospects of reaching Iraq directly.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.