Turkey keen to expand its links with Iraq and KRG
Turkey’s foreign policy regarding Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been guided by a wide range of factors. Ankara not only shares a border with Iraq, but also common water sources, mutual concerns and common stakes. Needless to say, Iraq occupies a critical place in the Turkish foreign policy agenda.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, along with his entourage, this week paid a visit to first Baghdad and later Irbil. He had a busy agenda. In Baghdad, he came together with senior Iraqi officials, including President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Defense Minister Jouma Anad, and Interior Minister Othman Al-Ghanimi. While in Irbil, he met with KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, former President Masoud Barzani, and current President Nechirvan Barzani.
Combating terrorism was the main focus of the talks, as well as cooperation between Turkey and Iraq/the KRG. The Ankara-Baghdad and Ankara-Irbil cooperation will pave the way for important developments in fighting terrorism in the coming period, according to Akar. While stating that key successes have been achieved against Daesh in Iraq, he expressed his belief that the parties would gain further important successes in fighting other terror groups.
Turkey’s foreign policy toward Iraq is mostly shaped and directed by the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Akar reiterated Turkey’s plan to eliminate this threat through unity and solidarity to ensure border security and peace with its neighbors. Ankara has become aware that its traditional security-oriented approach to the PKK, without a correlation with regional actors, cannot achieve success. The PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US, the EU and Turkey, among others, has long used the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, which are just across the border from Turkey, as a shelter. The Turkish army, which regularly conducts cross-border operations in northern Iraq, has targeted the PKK’s positions in the Qandil and Sinjar mountains, as well as other locations where the group has a presence.
Akar pointed out that Iraqi, Turkish and Kurdish officials should strengthen their cooperation and take a decisive stand against the PKK, while his main reference point was the Sinjar area. The PKK managed to establish a foothold in Sinjar in mid-2014 under the pretext of protecting the local Yazidi community from Daesh. Since then, it has reportedly established a new base for its activities in Sinjar.
Last October, Iraq and the KRG reached an agreement to restore and normalize the situation in Sinjar district. The deal was widely welcomed by local and international actors. Turkey also expressed its hope that the deal would enable the reinstatement of Iraqi authorities’ control over Sinjar and lead to the eradication of Daesh and PKK from the region. Akar this week reportedly discussed the possibility of a joint military operation in Sinjar with Baghdad and Irbil. It was possible to read this from between the lines in Akar’s statements. “We can say that we are determined to wipe out the terrorists as a result of our cooperation with both the regional administration and Baghdad,” he said.
Several reports claimed that the Irbil-Baghdad deal on governance and security in Sinjar has not been implemented properly, and that Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and the PKK still have a presence there. Baghdad is already losing patience with the PKK’s presence in Iraq and the issues it causes in its ties with Ankara. In recent months, there has also been increasing discomfort in the KRG regarding the PKK, particularly after the Sinjar deal was signed. Al-Monitor last month reported that the KRG had formally asked the US to deploy observers to patrol its border with the Kurdish-controlled northeast of Syria, where US-backed groups have been dominant since 2012.
Ankara’s foreign policy toward Iraq is mostly shaped and directed by the threat posed by the PKK.
Another aspect of Akar’s trip was the bilateral relations between the KRG and Turkey, particularly in regard to economic cooperation, such as trade and investment. Energy and construction have been the key elements of Turkey’s economic pivot to Iraq and the KRG. However, this area is not without competitors. Turkey last month lost out on a major construction bid to a French company. Ankara has recently been at odds with Paris over influence in the Middle East and North Africa region. The French ADP Group won the contract to renovate Mosul International Airport — a project Turkey had been eagerly eyeing since 2019 as part of its ambitious plans to be heavily involved in the reconstruction of Iraq following its liberation from Daesh. Turkey, the biggest donor with its $5 billion loans and investments pledge at the 2018 Kuwait conference, was planning to play a major role in Iraq’s reconstruction process through several projects, such as the renovation of Mosul and Kirkuk airports.
Turkey is wrestling for a presence in Iraq and its northern Kurdish region in political, economic and security terms.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz