Can the New Türkiye-Iraq Start Overcome Security Impediments?

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Momen Zellmi, Sardar Aziz|1 May 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Iraq is one of Türkiye’s most significant partners, sharing vibrant Kurdish nationalism on both sides of the border and being the world’s top market for Turkish commodities.
  • While economy and security have been the two dominant areas between the two countries throughout history, new areas such as military training and cooperation reflect Türkiye’s ambition to become a center of arms industry in the region.
  • Türkiye is focusing on Iraq and hoping to benefit from the country as a corridor to reach the Arabian Gulf region through the Development Road and new oil pipeline.
  • Iran might give the green light to the Development Road project as it might become a way to integrate Iran into the region through Iraq.
  • While the KDP has been increasingly drawn toward Türkiye, the latter is worried about the KDP’s declining influence in Iraq and Kurdistan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Baghdad and Erbil on April 22. In the buildup to the visit, Türkiye and Iraq exchanged delegations and signed several memoranda of agreement. Their joint statement revealed that Türkiye and Iraq are attempting to build institutions to facilitate regular liaison mechanisms.

These bodies – agreements or committees – aim to bring the authorities in both countries together to work in a coordinated manner, at regular intervals, and with an approach directed toward the intended results. Together, these are leaping forward in a relationship that historically suffered from the inability to elevate to completeness. Despite the cooperation on political, trade, oil and water, and socio-cultural matters, the reality between the two countries has remained contentious. They have remained non-cooperative in many areas. Will both the countries manage to make a new start?

This paper focuses on the potential Turkish military incursion to fight the PKK in a circumstance laden with tension and opportunities.

Background

Iraq is one of Türkiye’s most significant partners, sharing vibrant Kurdish nationalism on both sides of the border and being the world’s top market for Turkish commodities. This cross-border ethnic link combines and divides the two countries differently than others without such commonality. One obvious consequence of this cross-border relationship is Türkiye’s attempt to establish a security zone up to 40 kilometers deep into Iraqi territory to create a buffer zone between the two sides.

This policy is quite a shift from the previous mode of operation. Before 2019, Turkish military operations were temporary offensives in which Türkiye’s air force raided supposed PKK camps in mountainous terrain. Occasionally, air raids were supported by ground troops as well. Türkiye had only a couple of permanent bases in the region, taking advantage of the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s.

By 2019, Türkiye had changed its strategy and started seeking area control through Claw, Claw-Tiger, and Claw-Eagle operations. Since then, Ankara has maintained a permanent military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan that is sustained by a much larger chain of military bases and smaller forward-operation posts along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Throughout the conflict’s history, two main paradigms dominated the Turkish-Kurdish relationship: one is traditional Kemalist security-oriented and eventually securitization of the Kurdish issue; the other started with Özal, who challenged Kemalist views on the Kurds and reached the Kurds both within and outside Türkiye. During the 2000s, the EU reform process between 2001-2005 and Türkiye’s foreign policy toward the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq after 2007 contributed to the de-securitization of the Kurdish issue in Türkiye.

Since the Syrian war, the relationship has been re-securitized. The current policy of relying on drones, creating a security zone, pushing out democratically-elected representatives, and appointing trustees are all methods to securitize the Kurdish issue and deal with it through coercion rather than negotiation.

Erdogan in Baghdad and Erbil

Speaking at a joint press conference with Iraqi PM Sudani, Turkish President Erdogan stated, “I believe that my visit and the agreements that were just signed will mark a new turning point in relations between the two countries.” Erdogan’s belief shows Türkiye’s desire to build a new relationship with Iraq and beyond. The 26 strategic agreements and MoUs clearly show the big ambitions of both sides. The agreements and MoUs are mostly economy-focused, followed by security/military and other soft areas such as culture, science, and health, aiming at 360-degree relations.

While economy and security have been the two dominant areas between the two countries throughout history, new areas such as military training and cooperation reflect Türkiye’s ambition to become a center of arms industry in the region. The MoU regarding the development road included other regional countries, namely the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The participation of these countries makes the realization of the project more real, as not only might they be able to fund the project but also expand the project and link Türkiye to the Gulf countries, especially in energy, food, and household goods.

The weakest link in the new mode of the relationship is security. While the two countries agreed to a strategic framework agreement overseeing security, Iraq still faces political, geopolitical, and logistical barriers to implementing the deal. Most of the theater of operations is beyond Iraqi military control. Therefore, Iraq is only capable of cooperating in Sinjar and Makhmur camps, according to General Babikir Zebari, former Chief of Staff of the Iraqi army.

Mount Gara Operation: Combining Security and Economy

Aiming to lock down Türkiye’s border, the coming Turkish operation will focus on the Gara mountain. The Turkish focus is on security and preparing the area for a new trade route. Controlling Gara will provide Türkiye with enough access to limit PKK’s movement and establish relative security, especially as the KDP cooperates.

The Gara Mountain is situated in the center of the KDP zone. This might provide the KDP with a sense of comfort when Barzanis is under pressure from Iran, directly and indirectly through Iraq. Furthermore, seizing control of the mountain may be a step toward securing the intended trade route that connects Türkiye and Iraq.

However, many challenges lie ahead. As local journalist Hiwa Khoshnaw said, the Gara mountain cannot be conquered in one operation, no matter how massive. The Turkish military will thus face several challenges in carrying out its missions. First of all, despite the continuous bombardment, there are still people living in the area, and they oppose and reject the operation. Second, the KDP has limited authority over a tiny fraction of the vast territory.

Third, the combination of internal changes after the election and Iran and Iraq’s lack of collaboration will limit Türkiye’s choices for action in the region. Fourth, and perhaps most crucially, having lived in the area for decades, the PKK is ready to fight for the land. Especially as it is noticeable lately, the Turkish military switched from exclusively using drones to using fighter jets in their war against the PKK, as the latter acquired DIY-AA- weapons to strike down Turkish drones. This is far more expensive and less effective.

Iraq’s ability to support Turkish operations is limited as:

  • The theater of conflict is outside the control of the Iraqi army.
  • The terrain is rough, and the Iraqi army lacks the experience and equipment to fight in the high mountains.
  • The reluctance of the Iraqi government to brand the PKK as a terrorist group shows that Iraq is also reluctant to fight the group.

Besides Gara, Sinjar is another strategic spot that combines security and economy. Sinjar has gained a particular place within the Kurdish, Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish policies. It combines religious characteristics, genocide, guilt, and responsibility for all and is currently a highly secure complex. The Turkish army’s ability to control Sinjar is unforeseeable and would be difficult for Iraq to swallow.

Currently, the area is the home of the PKK, KDP, PMF, and the Iraqi army. A strategic rivalry between the PKK and KDP makes the PMF and PKK a tactical alliance. Despite being an Iraqi government institution under the National Security Agency (NSA), most of its armed groups operate independently of that chain of command; they are under the authority of their political parties and leadership, such as the Badr Organization, Asaeb ahl al-Haq, or Kataib Hezbollah.

The Iraqi government’s inability to implement the 2020 Sinjar Agreement shows that the PMF intervention has proven independent and more influential than the central government. The events and challenges since 2014 show that the Iraqi government has little or no power over Sinjar. The region is controlled by various groups with strategic, ideological, tactical, and economic alliances and rivalries. Against this background, it is challenging for any new actor to intervene in the region.

Source: https://cptik.org/reports-1/2024/3/19/fully-locked-the-upcoming-turkish-military-operation-in-spring-2024-deep-within-iraqi-kurdistan

 

KDP and the Turkish Military Operation

Besides the threat of the impending US exit, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is currently feeling pressure from several sources, including Baghdad, Iran, and the PUK. Due to this situation, the Party (as it is known locally) has become increasingly aligned with Türkiye, which has further strained ties with the PKK. According to Mohammed Ameen Penjweni, a close friend and confidante of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK views the KDP as one of the major political parties within the Kurdish polity. However, despite several attempts, it has not forged a political connection with it.

This situation has limited Barzani’s influence among Kurds in Türkiye. Furthermore, the pro-PKK Kurds in Türkiye believe that the Barzani movement is tribal-based and does business with Ankara. Against this background, the armed conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is largely fought in Iraqi Kurdistan, automatically makes both the KDP and PUK part of the equation, both for their interests and fear and their regional affiliations.

The PKK accuses the KDP of not only helping Türkiye but also assisting in putting further pressure from the Turkish side on the Iraqi government by taking advantage of its bureaucracy and institutions within the Iraqi state to oppose the PKK, as the PKK statement highlights. The statement also highlights that the KDP advises the Turkish state that the fight against the PKK will not be effective without the PUK’s participation, thus encouraging the Turkish state to put pressure on the PUK.

According to observers, the KDP might enable Turkish influence in the region to balance the current pressure. This has been implemented through the Iraqi foreign ministry and its Turkish counterpart, focusing on “counter-terrorism, security, and military cooperation.” Consequently, the KDP will support the operation, offer its complete collaboration, and regard it as crucial to its strategic continued existence. Nevertheless, according to Jabar Yawar, the former general-secretary of the Ministry of Peshmerga, the KDP’s collaboration with the Turkish army would continue to be restricted despite the current circumstances.

However, Türkiye, in its current policy, is focusing on Iraq and hoping to benefit from the country as a corridor to reach the Arabian Gulf region through the Development Road and new oil pipeline. Currently, Iraq and Türkiye are rebuilding the Iraq-Türkiye Pipeline. This raises the possibility of restarting crude exports from northern Iraq [Kirkuk] with an alternate route that could bypass political disputes between Baghdad and Erbil. Similarly, the Development Road is planned to bypass Iraqi Kurdistan. Both projects are passing through KDP-controlled territory for about 18 km.

In summary, Türkiye seeks to establish direct connections with Iraq and other regions, which eventually lessens the KDP’s relevance for Türkiye, even as the KDP pushed for a greater reliance on Türkiye in response to US withdrawal and Iranian pressure. Mehmet Alaca, a writer and commentator based in Ankara, claims that Turkey “has recently adopted a policy of making Erbil and Baghdad complement each other.”

PUK and Turkish Military Operation

The bad blood between the PUK and Türkiye is not new, according to Turkish political observer Rebwar Karim Wali. Türkiye opposed Jalal Talabani, the former PUK president, becoming Iraqi president in 2005. When Türkiye demanded PKK handover in 2007, Talabani said his government could not combat the PKK and angered Turks when he said, “We will not hand any Kurd over to Türkiye, not even a Kurdish cat.” Not surprisingly, Sulaymaniyah, the PUK party stronghold, is at the top of Türkiye’s threat perceptions. Türkiye attacked military and civilian places in the vicinity of the city recently.

The PUK leaders came directly under pressure from the Turkish government, accusing the PUK counter-terrorism forces of training with the PKK. PUK has yet to yield to the pressure. The PUK leader, Bafel Talabani, stated in the past that his party’s problems with Türkiye are hard to resolve and that he refuses to visit the country. In addition to military attacks, Türkiye has also closed its airspace to flights to and from Sulaymaniyah airport.

When PUK president Bafel visited Moscow in March, he outlined the PUK’s strategy. He stressed the importance of nurturing political relations to uphold security and stability, highlighting the need to safeguard the sovereignty of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region and preventing the country from becoming the ground for settling scores. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed Russia’s dedication to ensuring enduring peace in the region by adhering to a policy of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs and sovereignty. Local media regarded this interaction as the PUK president pleading with Russia to step in and stop Türkiye’s expansion. Insiders say that wasn’t the case.

Türkiye is not pleased with the PUK’s strengthening in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Mehmet Alaca, an Ankara-based Turkish journalist and analyst, a strong PUK will weaken Ankara’s hand in Erbil and Baghdad and adversely impact its regional rivalry with Iran and Iraq. As Bafil Talabni reiterated to the media, there is nothing new regarding the closure of Sulaymaniyah airport and Turkish military incursion. The PUK-Türkiye relationship is expected to remain stubborn against any change soon.

Türkiye and Iraq: The Two Opposite Approaches

Following Iraqi Prime Minister Sudan’s return from the White House, Turkish President Erdogan is anticipated to visit Baghdad. Türkiye’s invasion and the Iraqi government’s collaboration are two issues on the agenda. Due to the previous failure to negotiate a settlement, the visit has been postponed, and Erdogan does not want to go to the region empty-handed. Unlike past operations, Türkiye anticipates the support of Baghdad and Erbil’s governments this time, particularly in intelligence sharing.

However, there are a few critical differences between this incursion and the ones that came before it. Initially, the Turkish military will advance far into Iraqi territory. The Gara Mountains divide Erbil and Duhok, providing the Turkish army with a tactical advantage to increase its regional influence. This is more difficult now because Iraq has greater clout in Kurdistan, which means it has more responsibilities, and – more importantly – the Baghdad-PUK relationship is at its finest. Second, local media reports that an armed militia from Syria will accompany the Turkish army. This will further complicate the situation for Iraq, especially in terms of maintaining sovereignty, a sensitive topic in Iraq currently.

Third, the invasions take place at a time when Iran is cautious about any more NATO member incursions near its borders because of the Iran-Israel conflict, particularly considering that the Iranian mentality includes the idea of being under siege. Fourth, the US has lost interest in Iraq and the wider region. Any potential US withdrawal will leave a vacuum; neither Iraq nor Iran would like to be filled by Türkiye or potential pro-Türkiye groups, especially in Kirkuk, Salah ad Din, and Mosul, as some Turkish political parties claim parts of these provinces.

Development Road: Will Trade Solve the Situation?

On the eve of Eid al-Fitr, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke by phone with Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid. According to the Turkish side, the call addressed Turkish-Iraq relations, the fight against terror, the Development Road project, and regional issues. While the Turkish side highlighted the issues discussed, the Iraqi side remained opaque, highlighting only general issues like improving regional peace and stability and coordination and consultation on matters of shared interest.

The messages might show the mode of communication of each administration. However, they show what Türkiye’s priorities are regarding Iraq. Highlighting security (fight against terror) and economics (the Development Road) shows the importance of the economic aspect, as Türkiye cannot omit security issues in Iraq, as the PKK has been in Iraqi Kurdistan Mountain since the 1990s.

Therefore, the Development Road dominates the current Iraqi-Turkish relationship more than any other issue. The messages may uncover the communication style of each government, but they also reveal Türkiye’s objectives for Iraq. The fact that Türkiye has brought up security concerns about Iraq – the PKK has been in the Iraqi Kurdistan Mountains since the 1990s – while also highlighting economics, the Development Road demonstrates the latter’s significance. Thus, more than any other topic, the development path dominates the Iraqi-Turkish relationship today.

First, Türkiye is looking for markets, and currently, Iraq is at the top of the list of countries consuming Turkish goods. Second, Türkiye fears the development of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which excludes Türkiye. In response, Ankara was determined to strengthen routes that placed Türkiye in an integral position. According to Türkiye’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Abdulkadir Uraloglu, the Iraq Development Road is a “serious alternative” to IMEC.

 

 

Figure 3. Power networks of the main actors in Sinjar

Source: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2024/03/responding-instability-iraqs-sinjar-district/03-sinjar-transnational-conflict-hub

Thirdly, Türkiye aims to reach the Gulf countries for finance, energy, and geopolitics. This is best done through Iraq. Fourthly, as Turkish commentators increasingly claim, Türkiye is also seeking to move forward with the Development Road project with Iraq to achieve a direct territorial connection with Iraq. The dominance of trade and security and Iraq’s desperate need for water leaves the relationship lacking any real and long-term solution.

Iraq has to know that there are more than just soldiers and merchants between Iraq and Türkiye. Recently, there have been two Iraqi ways to connect to Türkiye: cooperation and pushing Türkiye to withdraw. For cooperation, the two countries are establishing more and more committees in various areas, including water, security, and a joint operations center.

The government, including the foreign ministry and security sectors, is currently leading this cooperation and building of institutions. This cooperation approach is driven by the framework in which both countries share interests. “We have geographical, historical, and economic commonalities, and the issues of water and border security—all this invites us to trade, economic, security, and social ties, as the Iraqi National Security Adviser Qassem al-Araji put it.

Qais al-Khazali, Secretary-General of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, has led another way of approaching Türkiye. In recent years, he has constantly called for expelling the Turkish bases in Iraq and Kurdistan. Assessing the two diametric views shows Iraq’s need for a good relationship with Türkiye and, simultaneously, the sensitivity of the Turkish military’s campaigns and bases in the country. The latter touches on Iraq’s sovereignty, becoming a dominant topic. The persistence of the two views shows that, while there might be improvement in the relationship, it is haunted by others who might jeopardize it at any time. This approach has been dominant in the last few decades and has not led to any solutions.

Iran: Decoding the Silence

While the Iraqi PM is signing deals after deals with the US and Türkiye, Iran has remained silent so far. Is the silence a sign of agreement, as the proverb says, or is Iran currently having other priorities, including dealing with the pressure from Israel and the US? While the silence might have many indications, sources hint that Iran has shown understanding and some sort of agreement to limit the PKK.

Iran might give the green light to the Development Road project as it might become a way to integrate Iran into the region through Iraq. Still, Türkiye’s military expansion into Iraq remains a challenge for Iran. It might not wish to challenge Türkiye directly, but Tehran has done that through its proxy earlier. Moreover, Iran’s relationship with the PKK is more than tactical, as the latter is a leftist group challenging the current world hegemonic system, according to Qudrat Ahmadian, a lecturer at Razi University, Iran.

The United States: No Role

In mid-April 2024, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’a al-Sudani visited the White House and met with United States President Joe Biden. The Sudani team aimed to minimize the security aspect of the US-Iraq relationship and attempted to start a new chapter in the strategic partnership beyond security. As part of its broader strategy, the US aims to agree on a transition from the mission of the anti-ISIS coalition to bilateral security relations. The move reduces US financial costs and responsibilities.

This move aims to shift away from viewing Iraq through the lens of Iran policy and toward a “360-degree” policy architecture that institutionalizes non-military aspects such as commerce, education, energy, and climate. As the US aims to reduce security-focused relations, it might be happy for other US allies to enter the fray, namely Türkiye. The US does not object to the Development Road, which might move Iraq toward Western-allied countries and reduce Turkish dependence on Russia.

Conclusions

Iraq and the wider region expect a Turkish military attack on the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. While nothing is new, neither in rhetoric nor in practice, there are signs that the relationship between Iraq and Türkiye might have the potential to commence a new beginning. The number of agreements signed between the two sides during Erdogan’s last trip to Iraq is ambitious. Both Sudani and Erdogan need them, albeit for different reasons.

Despite that, several issues are to be considered, including security and Turkish military intervention. At a time when Türkiye is pushing for more and more economic ties and even trying to benefit from water and the military from a financial perspective, is it rational to jeopardize military and security issues that have been tried for more than four decades without concluding? Some observers argue that “without greater Turkish willingness to move ahead on agenda items that matter to Iraq, the current dialogue risks running into the habitual sands of Iraqi factionalism and Turkish overbearingness.”

While one might see the Erdogan visit as a preparation for the attack, the officials and non-official information indicate that the priority of Erdogan was economics and restoring ties with the Arab world, in addition to the urgency to enter the fray of competition over developing roads and connections in the wider region.

There are signs of appeasement; however, the priorities between the two sides diverge. The rhetoric from the Turkish side is strong, while Iraq, while ambitious, is still quite cautious. Erdogan also visited Erbil and reassured the Kurdish side that he would remain supportive, as he had been during the difficult days. However, all signs show that Türkiye is not supporting Erbil to balance Baghdad, as it was in the past; instead, the current policy is to embrace both sides, as Ankara aims at developing the relationship with Baghdad.

Meanwhile, while the KDP has been increasingly drawn toward Türkiye, the latter is worried about the KDP’s declining influence in Iraq and Kurdistan. While in Erbil, Erdogan did not embrace the PUK request to lift the air embargo on the Sulaymaniyah airport. While Iraq and Türkiye pursue ambitious plans, the specter of Iran is always present. The latter is under pressure, so it might not want to show hostility toward Türkiye and the Gulf countries. Will this translate into a situation where Iran tolerates the growing Ankara-Baghdad relationship? Besides, there may be new possibilities and problems associated with the US exit for Türkiye in the region, as the US might tolerate further Turkish influence.

While the agreements might spark processes, the processes require the right circumstances, good-willed actors, and stable domestic politics. What is happening could be successful if both sides agreed to continue meetings and contacts on these issues within relevant frameworks. As the fate of the IMEC project showed, fulfilling grand ambitions often stumbles in the face of harsh geopolitical realities.

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