What Shi’a/Sunni Divide? Iran and Turkey Both To Help Iraq Revive Oil Industry

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Turkey is set to help Iraq restore a badly damaged pipeline which transported oil from Kirkuk to the Turkish port at Ceyhan. Baghdad’s Oil Ministry Spokesman Asim Jihad has stated that Iraq is looking to re-start direct sales to Turkey in addition to further exports through Iraq’s government owned oil company SOMO.

Since the failed Kurdish ethno-nationalist insurgency in Autumn of 2017, oil shipments from northern Iraq have largely been stalled. Additionally, damage to oil facilities during the Iraqi fight against Daesh have also hurt the slowly rebuilding Iraqi oil industry. During much of Iraq’s protracted battle against Daesh, the Barzani regime in charge of the Kurdish Autonomous Region cooperated directly with Ankara regarding the export of oil. This move was always controversial as according to the Iraqi laws establishing a Kurdish Autonomous Region, Kirkuk and its oil fields were well outside of the Kurdish Region’s jurisdiction.

Following the failed Kurdish insurgency, Iraq has restored law and order to Kirkuk while Turkey’s relationship with the Iraqi Kurdish regime has soured. While Turkey once happily partnered with Iraqi Kurds in-line with an understanding that their political differences amounted to a rejection of the Turkey based PKK and Syria based YPG, during the insurgency it became clear that many Iraqi Kurds felt sympathy with their ethno-nationalist brethren in Syria and Turkey. Today, with Iraqi Kurds burning Turkish flags in the street to protest Ankara’s anti-YPG/PKK Operation Olive Branch, relations are not going to improve any time soon.

At the same time, the Iraqi Kurdish betrayal of their erstwhile Turkish partner helped to cement a win-win rapprochement between Ankara and Baghdad which looks to expand via direct cooperation regarding oil between the neighbouring states.

At the same time, during the 2017 Kurdish insurgency in Iraq, both Iran and Turkey cooperated to create a no-fly zone in northern Iraq at the request of Baghdad. Meanwhile Iran and Turkey have cooperated directly regarding a border wall designed to restrain arms flowing between the Turkey based PKK and its sister group, the Iran based PJAK.

Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad’s Shi’a dominated governments have forged close ties with Iran. Further to this point, Iran is helping Iraq to refine and re-ship its crude oil due to the poor state of Iraq’s oil refineries in the aftermath of its long war against Daesh.

But beyond oil having a unique ability to create economic partnerships in a rapid fashion, the fact that Iran and Turkey are both cooperating with a Shi’a dominated Iraqi government, helps expose the myth that Sunni-Shi’a partnerships are impossible in the Middle East.

While Iraq’s style of government leans closer to Iran than any in the Arab world and with Baghdad openly sympathetic to the Syrian government, quite unlike during the Saddam era, Iraq has nevertheless proved that it is possible to also  cooperate with Turkey both in respect of security measures vis-a-vis Kurdish separatists and in the longer term, over oil sales and shipments.

This means that for the first time since Iraq formed the core of  the pro-western Baghdad Pact in 1955, the country is on openly good terms with Turkey. Likewise, for the first time since 1966, Iraq and Syria are on exceptionally good terms, while relations with Iran were restored after 2003, after Saddam’s Iraq launched a brutal war on the young Islamic Republic in the 1980s that has since been revised in the Iranian narrative as a “Saddam war” rather than an “Iraqi war”.

While political alignments have shifted and re-shifted, what has not changed is the sectarian make up of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. This is proof positive that under the right circumstances, political and economic conditions can trump the much overplayed sectarian divides of the region.

While some will point out that the Twelver Shi’a practices of Iraqis differs from the Shi’aism practised by Syrian Alawites, the notion that spiritual considerations should impact on cooperation in the fields of energy and security is patently absurd, not least because several years ago, the same pundits were talking about Iraq’s inability to ever ally with a Sunni power because of its substantial Shia population who had been brutally targeted by Al-Qaeda and Daesh, after years of living under a Saddam Presidency that many Shi’a Muslims openly resented.

Sectarian conflicts are only as real as those fighting them allow them to be and more crucially, they are only as real as pundits, propagandists and opportunistic politicians make them out to be. While Turkey’s involvement in Syria over the last several years has been more thorough than Turkey’s interventions had been in Iraq, as recently as a year and a half ago, Baghdad was criticising Turkish involvement in northern Iraq while many criticised Turkey’s President Erdgoan’s tendency to speak about northern Iraq as part of a neo-Ottoman Turkey.

But now that the oil is about to flow, suddenly Turkey’s previous actions and the rhetoric seem far more distant to both Iraq and Iran. There is nothing written in stone that says a similar rapprochement between Syria and Turkey cannot take place. While Turkey’s more profound involvement in Syria might makes this more difficult vis-a-vis Iraq, the fact that in Syria, Russia could easily foster such a rapprochement, could just as easily be pointed out as something which would make such a process easier.

Earlier today, a clearly exasperated Russian Foreign Minister implored all the factions in the Syrian conflict to speak to one another and try to reach some sort of common understanding in the name of peace. Russia is clearly willing and eager to help move such a process along.

There is a danger that in spite of its domestic pluralism, tolerance and progressivism, that when it comes to geopolitics, the Syrian Arab Republic may be getting sucked into the very sectarian trap that it has managed to avoid domestically, in spite of the enormous pressure to succumb to an ‘us versus them mentality’. Instead, Bashar al-Assad’s leadership continues to lead patriotic Syrians think of themselves as Syrian first and any other ethnic or religious consideration second.

Syria furthermore has a long standing offer of political amnesty to any Syrian citizen who renounces violence and puts down their weapons. Many former foes of the Syrian government have even joined ranks with the Syrian Arab Army or volunteer brigades as a result of this generous amnesty.

If Syria can take such a mature mentality to those that other Syrians will have to live beside on a daily basis, than surely it would be possible to take such an attitude in respect of relations with a country like Turkey, which unlike the US or the occupier of Palestine, is in fact a legitimate neighbour of the Syrian Arab Republic whose relations were healthy and becoming even healthier just prior to the present conflict.

This may not be what some Syrians want to hear. Indeed, when President al-Assad first announced his amnesty, many would have naturally preferred if the Syrian President handled his opponents in the way Saddam Hussein handled his real and perceived enemies – with the utmost brutality. It is nevertheless time for Damascus to follow Russia’s lead and make the leap towards slowly normalising relations with Turkey. It begins with a conversation that could even have a Russian party on the phone line to keep things in perspective.

If President al-Assad were to do this, he would prove himself not only to be a leader who has largely won the war against terrorism, but also a leader who can secure a lasting peace for his country. If one has to swallow pride or swallow blood, pride is always the healthier option. This is not about ‘trusting’ Turkey, as many Syrians may never do so for a generation – it is about something more profound for Syria. It’s about trusting Russia, a country that has sacrificed its own men for the Syrian Arab Republic’s safety, even while ethnic Russians are being killed in Donbass, on Russia’s borders and in Russia’s historic industrial heartland. Syria and Russia can work together to make this  happen. It is simply a matter of fortitude triumphing over caution and resentment. If Iraq can do it, Syria certainly can too.

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