Turkey's Current Role in Northern Iraq and its Goals

Published September 7th, 2021 - 09:35 GMT
The presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the rise of ISIS, energy resources, Mosul and the Ottoman era's nostalgia, the situation of the Turkmen, etc. have played a role in Turkey's approach in northern Iraq.
People take part in a demonstration organised by Kurdish artists and intellectuals, against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey's attacks on Kurdish autonomous regions in northern Iraq, in the city of Suleimaniyah, on June 17, 2021. / AFP / Shwan MOHAMMED
The presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the rise of ISIS, energy resources, Mosul and the Ottoman era's nostalgia, the situation of the Turkmen, etc. have played a role in Turkey's approach in northern Iraq.

By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

The relations between Turkey and Iraq, (with 370 km of common land border) since the independence of this country have had various ups and downs. In the last two decades, factors such as the presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the rise of ISIS, energy resources, Mosul and the Ottoman era's nostalgia, the situation of the Turkmen, etc. have played a role in Turkey's approach in northern Iraq.


Increasing influence and geopolitical goals

In recent years, Baghdad officials and political leaders have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction over Turkey's military approach to Iraq. some leaders of Iraqi political factions and parties, apart from filing a complaint to the UN and reducing relations with Turkey, have threatened to retaliate. There are also concerns about the consequences of Turkey's hydro political plans and their impact on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (which originate in Turkey).

For many in Turkey, however, Mosul is the lost land of the Ottoman Empire. Although Turkey renounced its claim to Mosul in 1926 by signing a treaty, its growing influence in Mosul and northern Iraq,  as well as the expansion of relations with Iraqi Turkmen and Sunni Arabs, is considered significant. In addition, in the last few years since the fall of ISIS, Iran has gained wider influence in northern Iraq, so it has more access to Syria via the Iraqi-Syrian border. 

Earlier, the Iraqi Defense Minister announced that the country intends to purchase T-2, Atak T129 and UAV attack helicopters from Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey seems to hope that arms sales to Iraq will increase the scope of geopolitical, defense and security cooperation between the two sides.

In another area, future political and social structure of northern Iraq is of particular importance to Turkey. Ankara intends to increase its role in the future political and social structure of northern Iraq by expanding its consulates in the region and supporting the Turkmen.

In fact, Turkey opposes the presence and activity of the Popular Mobilization Forces in northern Iraq. In the past year, the popular uprising has escalated tensions with Turkey by threatening to wage war inside the country and targeting the Turkish economy. Although Turkey does not want the Popular Mobilization Forces to be involved in an armed conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, it seems dissatisfied with Iran's growing influence in northern Iraq through the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Security and military goals

Since April 2020, Turkey has launched new operations dubbed 'Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger' operations focusing on PKK, that saw Turkish troops advance deeper into Iraq. In the past year, despite the Iraqi Prime Minister's)Mustafa al-Kadhimi ( visit to Ankara and his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has continued its air and ground attacks in northern Iraq without coordination with Baghdad.

Following the summoning of Turkish diplomats by Baghdad, Turkey, on the one hand, puts emphasize on preserving of Iraq's territorial integrity and sovereignty and opposes the secession of the Kurdish region from Iraq. On the other hand, Ankara considers the PKK's presence in northern Iraq a major threat to Turkey's national security.

While many in Baghdad want Turkey to stop military strikes and continuous bombing of northern Iraq and end the violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Ankara has paid attention to Baghdad's failure to prevent attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) against Turkey and does not accept the PKK's presence in Iraq and expects all neighboring countries to support the fight against the organization.  In other words, despite reactions in Iraq to the need to counter Turkish movements in north of the country, and criticism of Turkish bombing and attacks on Iraq, Ankara has Put on the agenda the complete annihilation of the PKK."

In this regard, Ankara seeks joint counterterrorism operations with Iraq to clear the PKK and support Iraq in the fight against terrorist groups.

In addition , relying on Baghdad's inability to control the PKK, Ankara is trying to encourage or even force Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq to do so. It seems that Turkey tries to pursue its goals and interests by using internal Kurdish divisions (PKK- Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - Kurdistan Democratic Party).

Although PKK leaders do not intend to confront the Kurdistan Democratic Party and emphasize the need for unity among Kurdish forces, they want Kurdish parties to be neutral in the PKK-Turkey war.But Turkey wants to drag Kurdish parties into war with the PKK.

This approach is opposed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, but Ankara still expects more from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (with close ties to Turkey) to fight the PKK jointly. In addition, Ankara hopes to reduce the scope of relations between Sulaymaniyah leaders, Syrian Kurdish forces and the PKK after changes in the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the removal of Lahore Sheikh Jangi from the party's structure and power.

Turkey fears that greater PKK power in Sinjar, continued party's presence in Qandil in northern Iraq, and growing importance of Sinjar (on the Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi border) for the PKK, led to a stronger link between Qandil, northern Syria and Turkey.  Therefore, by using about 20 bases and thousands of troops, Ankara intends to eliminate the PKK elements from about 500 villages and withdraw them from Sinjar in northern Iraq.

In fact, although the Turkish military presence is opposed by Baghdad, from the Turkey's point of view, the right to intervene in Iraq with the removal of key PKK commanders and the immobility of large convoys (as in 2011) is still legitimate.

Yazidi militias under the control of the PKK in the northern region are also a serious and growing threat to Turkey. They can be a strong link between the Syrian Kurds and the PKK. Therefore, Turkey puts more emphasis on cutting off PKK supply lines and logistics routes between Iraq and Syria.

Moreover, Turkey intends to gain more control over camps such as Makhmour, with more than 12,000 Kurdish refugees. In this way, Turkey believe that by more direct and indirect pressure on Turkish Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq, the ability to feed and nurture PKK forces will also be diminished.

Also, regarding Turkish Kurds, Ankara seeks to gain control of the Kurdish political and civic activity and tries to reduce the votes of the People's Democratic Party. Meanwhile, with the National Movement Party (Erdogan's unofficial ally) likely to lose votes in Turkey's 2023 parliamentary elections, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to Promote itself in Turkey by increasing military pressure on the PKK, revive the Kurdish-government peace process and increase the party's vote.

Economic goals

Iraq was the third largest Turkish export market worth $ 10.2 billion in 2019.  Turkey is pursuing its own interests with approaches such as supporting development, providing $ 5 billion in loans to rebuild Iraq, building highways and railways in Baghdad and Mosul, and building a second border crossing with Iraq.

In another dimension, the regional markets of Kurdistan and northern Iraq and their energy resources are two variables that the Turks have taken into account. Turkey's trade with the Kurdistan region and northern Iraq could expand with the presence of several thousand Turkish companies. Meanwhile, an increase in trade with Iraq in the coming years is crucial for Turkey .

Also, the rich energy resources of northern Iraq and the continued flow of regional oil exports to Turkey can be a source of energy for Turkey and receive the right of energy transit in the field of energy diplomacy. In this regard, the case of water and to guarantee the share of water to put more pressure on the Kurdish parties and the Iraqi government and gain more concessions can be a good lever to regulate relations with Erbil and Baghdad.


You may also like


Sign up to our newsletter for exclusive updates and enhanced content