Turkey Seeks Stronger Ties with Iraq: What It Means for the PKK and Regional Security

Written by Camilla Jessen

Apr.22 - 2024 2:37 PM CET

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Iraq seeks to reset relations and strengthen cooperation on security.

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan began a rare visit to Iraq on Monday, aiming to reset ties between the Middle East neighbors by signing various agreements covering security cooperation against Kurdish PKK militants, energy, and trade.

According to Reuters, this visit marks the first by a Turkish leader since 2011, following years of rocky relations as Ankara increased cross-border operations against PKK militants based in mainly Kurdish, mountainous northern Iraq. Turkey's operations against the PKK have caused tension with Iraq, which claims such actions violate its sovereignty and have caused civilian casualties.

Turkey justifies its actions, pointing to the threat posed by the PKK, designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and other countries.

Focus on Security and Economic Cooperation

Turkey is planning a new operation against the PKK this spring and has sought Iraqi military cooperation, including a joint operations room, and recognition from Baghdad that the PKK poses a threat to Turkey.

The discussions also include major economic projects. Iraq's $17 billion Development Road project aims to transform the country into a transit hub, connecting Asia and Europe with a link between Iraq's Grand Faw Port in the oil-rich south and Turkey in the north. Additionally, Baghdad seeks a deal to secure a larger share of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which originate in Turkey and are key sources of freshwater for drought-stricken Iraq.

Iraqi and Turkish officials have indicated that more than 20 memorandums of understanding will be signed during Erdogan's one-day visit. Bilateral trade was worth $19.9 billion in 2023, down from $24.2 billion in 2022, according to official Turkish data. In the first three months of 2024, exports to Iraq rose by 24.5%, while imports fell by 46.2%.

"The visit comes after nearly a year of preparations by both sides tackling the longstanding issues that complicated the relationship in the past," said Farhad Alaaldin, foreign affairs adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid in Baghdad before heading to Erbil, the provincial capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, to meet with Iraqi Kurdish officials.

Context of the PKK Conflict

The PKK began its armed conflict against the Turkish state in 1984, leading to over 40,000 deaths. While the conflict was primarily centered in southeastern Turkey, it has increasingly shifted to the mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Since 2019, Turkey has launched a series of cross-border operations, collectively known as "Claw," targeting PKK bases in northern Iraq.

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