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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Iraq Accommodates Turkish Interests Ahead of Expected Offensive

On March 14, amid Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s most recent official visit to Baghdad, the Iraqi National Security Council announced a ban on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish left-wing political party and militant group. The PKK has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish government in support of Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey for more than three decades; it has conducted assassinations, bombings, and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, and is regarded by both the United States and the European Union as a terrorist group. Moreover, as regional instability has spread, the PKK has gained ground in Kurdish-majority areas in Syria and Iraq, prompting Turkish authorities to conduct cross-border military operations against them. Although these military operations in Syria and Iraq have triggered harsh criticism in the West, Ankara has continued them, justifying its response on national security grounds.

The Iraqi government’s decision to ban the PKK has opened a new chapter in Baghdad-Ankara relations, as the latter has long sought to form a regional alliance against the PKK in Syria and Iraq. For example, in January 2024, the Turkish forces conducted a series of air raids in Syria and Iraq against Kurdish militants  in response to a PKK attack on Turkish military bases in Iraq. During the raids, Turkish jets destroyed 29 bunkers, shelters, caves, and oil facilities across the Metina, Hakurk, Gara, and Qandil regions in northern Iraq and northern Syria. However, though the Turkish mission was intended to degrade the power of the PKK, it remains a powerful force in northern Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the two sides is far from over.

A History of Insecurity

Since the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad lost control over the Kurdistan region of Iraq, it has become a launchpad for Turkey’s military activities—and a new battleground between Ankara and the PKK, which blossomed in Saddam’s absence. The security vacuum in the region that emerged following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq widened over the following 20 years, enabling the PKK and its allied groups to establish a permanent presence and develop into notorious non-state actors that pose a threat to regional stability. Indeed, the Iraqi Kurdistan government’s systematic failure to snuff out the PKK’s influence provides Turkey with ample justification to conduct occasional military operations and air strikes against PKK armed groups in the area.

Consequently, Iraq’s decision to ban the PKK is more than a simple coincidence. Prior to Fidan’s visit to Baghdad, in which the foreign minister was accompanied by Turkey’s Director of National Intelligence Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans to conduct a massive military operation against the PKK and the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) in northern Iraq and Syria. The announcement came after the Turkish Armed Forces crossed the Iraqi border in the aftermath of the PKK’s January 13 attacks in Syria, which targeted a Turkish military base in northern Iraq and killed six soldiers. The potential repercussions of Turkey’s military intervention on Iraqi soil explain a willingness in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), to cooperate with Ankara to address its security concerns and avoid direct confrontation. In this regard, officials in Baghdad might move to further accommodate Turkey’s concerns and provide additional space to fight against PKK forces.

Partnering with the Lesser Evil

Baghdad’s and Erbil’s willing collaboration with Turkey—a foreign power—to neutralize the PKK threat within their sovereign territory speaks to the threat that the PKK poses to Iraq’s already fragile domestic security situation. However, whether Baghdad and the KRG in Erbil will provide intelligence to Ankara is unclear, and it is unlikely that such assistance would prove decisive in any case. With or without the support of its Iraqi partners, Turkish forces are more than capable of successfully infiltrating into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq and carrying out military operations there.

The Turkish delegation’s visit to Baghdad, combined with Iraq’s demonstration of support for Turkey’s campaign against the PKK, bolsters Ankara’s hand when it decides to launch its campaign. The forthcoming operation in Iraq will see Turkey establish a secure buffer zone in northern Iraq between 30 and 40 kilometers deep in order to prevent the infiltration of PKK militants into Turkey. Despite its security benefits to both Ankara and Baghdad from this arrangement, large-scale foreign military operations in northern Iraq will do little to assuage the concerns of various political groups within Iraq, which only recently achieved victory against the Islamic State (ISIL) terrorist group and has grown weary of further armed conflict. Over time, this growing discontent could strain diplomatic relations between the two states, imperiling the cooperation that led to the joint statement in the first place.

Interestingly, Iraq’s accommodation of Turkey received quiet support from Iran, another leading regional actor with a colorful and occasionally combative relationship with Ankara. The Islamic Republic itself contains a large Kurdish minority that has long maintained deep suspicion of the central government; Mahsa Amini, the namesake of Iran’s massive 2022-2023 protests, was an Iranian Kurd from the northwestern city of Saqqez, and the city became the epicenter of the anti-government protests that followed her death at the hands of Iranian morality police. From the regime’s perspective, Iranian Kurds could prove susceptible to Kurdish nationalist sentiments emanating from Iraq and Syria, and Tehran has responded violently to perceived secessionist provocations in both countries. In 2023 and early 2024, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) conducted several missile attacks against Kurdish militant positions in Iraqi Kurdistan without seeking the consent of officials in Baghdad. Thus, despite opposing one another across the region, Iran supports Turkey’s ambitions to thwart PKK influence in its own backyard, reasoning that doing so serves its interests as well.

Though it may have received the green light from Iraq and tacit support from Iran, Turkey may yet face opposition from other key actors. Indeed, Ankara must negotiate the specifics of its military operation with the United States and Russia. Washington’s traditionally strong backing of non-PKK Kurdish forces, and Moscow’s concerns over Damascus’s sovereignty in northern Syria, suggest that many political and strategic obstacles remain before Turkey can fully flex its military might across its southern border.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: Iraq

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Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.


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