02.04.2024 Author: Vanessa Sevidova

Looming Turkish offensive in Northern Iraq: what will change?

Looming Turkish offensive in Northern Iraq

Turkey is planning a massive ground operation in Northern Iraq with the aim of liquidating the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, which it designates as a terrorist organisation. According to Hürriyet, a publication with close ties to the Turkish government, the operation is scheduled for this summer and will be supported by the intelligence services in Baghdad and Erbil, which will also take measures against PKK activity in Sulaymaniye and Sinjar. The operation aims to close off the Turkish-Iraqi border completely and surround PKK militants in the area. An agreement between the central government in Iraq and the local administration in Erbil (controlled by the Barzani family) has already been reached, agreeing to the fortification of Turkish bases in Northern Iraq, elimination of PKK positions in the  ‘al makhlab – al qabl’ (Operation Claw–Lock) area via ground operations supported from the air, as well as the complete closure of the 378km Turkish-Iraqi border with a corridor at a depth of 30–40km, stretching from the Sulaymaniyeh region through Sinjar and up to the border with Syria. Turkey also wishes to extend this corridor into Syria.  Preparations for the operation are under way, with multiple meetings between Turkish and Iraqi officials taking place not only in Baghdad, but in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. This is happening in conjunction with talks on Syria, where Kurdish ‘people’s protection units’ (YPG, wahdat himayat al sha3b), considered by Turkey to be an extension of the PKK, also operate. The planned summer operation will, in effect, be an expansion of ‘al makhlab – al qabl’, that has been ongoing since April 2022. While preparing for the large ground operation in Northern Iraq, diplomacy vis-à-vis Syrian Kurdistan is also being conducted. During the visit of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Hakan Fidan and director of the National Intelligence Operation Ibrahim Kalin to Washington, the planned Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria were among the main topics for discussion.

During his recent trip to Baghdad on the 13th of March, Turkish Minister of Defence Yasar Guler told of plans for future cooperation with Iraq and acknowledged with appreciation Iraq’s recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organisation (for the first time) and the country’s banning of the organisation: “When we went to Baghdad, the Iraqi government both banned it and for the first time acknowledged that it is a terrorist organisation. After this, we will have joint work. We  will establish a joint operations centre”. Talks of creating a joint operations centre were already on the agenda two years ago, yet no practical steps were taken. Erdogan’s visit to Iraq in April is expected to clarify the details of the operation.

Turkish push to strengthen relations with Baghdad and Erbil

With heightened PKK activity, especially in December and January, Turkish-Iraqi contacts in the sphere of security and cooperation on combatting the PKK have increased in the last few months. Within the scope of ‘al makhlab – al qabl’, Turkish forces have already forced PKK militants to flee southward from the Qandil mountains to cities including Asus, Mosul, Kirkuk and others. Turkey has long pushed for a stronger reaction against the Kurds from Iraq; however, the latter has repeatedly taken issue with Turkish military operation inside Iraq, which violate the country’s sovereignty. Relations in general have also seen a deepening, with issues of water, development, energy and infrastructure projects being high on the agenda.

The upcoming Turkish operation aiming to clear the PKK from Northern Iraq also has great significance for the planned ‘Iraqi Silk Road’ trade route from Basra (al-Faw Port will become the biggest port in the Middle East, with 90 berths), via Baghdad, Mosul and then on to Turkey via Ovakoy and later Europe, a part of the greater ‘Development Road Project’, a bilateral Turkish-Iraqi inititative. The efficacy of this potential route is dependent upon smooth operation through Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly as regards the security of the planned railway that will run through Iraq. It is expected that 1,200 kilometres of railways of highways from al-Faw Port will be built. Therefore, the elimination of threats from the PKK must first be undertaken as a first step towards the realisation of this project, which was discussed in detail at the time of the G20 summit in New Delhi in September last year. This Iraqi Silk Road would shorten transportation time between Asia and Europe and would be an alternative to the Suez Canal. The costs of the project are massive; alongside Turkey, investors also include the UAE and Qatar.

Erdogan’s expected visit to Iraq in April may also aid in solving the dispute over oil, tarnishing Turkish-Iraqi relations. In 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan began oil exports to Turkey without Baghdad’s consent, infuriating the federal government and souring bilateral relations. In March of last year, the International Chamber of Commerce ruled the oil exports illegal and that they should be overseen by Baghdad, after which Turkey ceased their import. Turkey was to hand over USD1,5 bn to Baghdad in damages for illegally importing Iraqi Kurdish oil in the period 2014–2018, yet Ankara does not intend to pay and is pushing for the sum to be waived as the condition for the resumption of oil exports. These exports amounted to 450,000 barrels of crude oil per day, i.e. around 0.5% of global oil supply, and the halting of their export has resulted in significant losses for Baghdad and Erbil.

Why is Tehran giving the green light for this operation?

The meeting in Baghdad on the 13th of March was also attended by Faleh al-Fayyad, leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Considering the group’s pro-Iranian leaning, Fayyad’s presence at the meeting signals Tehran’s blessing for the upcoming Turkish operation in Northern Iraq. This is an interesting development, as it is no secret that Iran has maintained strategic relations with both the the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Bafel Talabani, and the PKK to secure its interests in Iraq and Syria, i.e. balancing Turkey and maintaining control over logistical lines connecting Syria and Iraq (mihvar muqavamet), particularly in Sinjar. The relationship between Iran and the PUK balances that of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which maintains closer links to Israel and the US. The PKK relies on Iran-backed groups operating within Iraq for support in the Sinjar region, as well as operations against the KDP. Furthermore, maintaining links to the PUK grants Iran more influence vis-à-vis YPG in Syria. The Turkish operation will weaken the PKK, an outcome less favourable for Iran, so why is Tehran giving the green light for this operation? According to as-Sharq al-Awsat, which cites an unnamed Iraqi Shi’a politician, Iran’s backing of this operation is not decisive: “Tehran stands before a good deal with Turkey, but it won’t sign a blank check and jeopardise its armed influence in Iraq…Iran is observing everything and may change according to how developments unfold. All we know now is that a limited settlement is in place in Sinjar”. Sinjar, located on the Syrian-Iraqi border, remains an obstacle to Turkish plans; the PKK and PMF have enjoyed years of close cooperation in the area, particularly against Daesh* (banned and classified as a terrorist organisation in the Russian Federation). Sinjar is a PKK stronghold, and the Iraqi army was twice defeated by them in Sinjar during former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s time in office. It is difficult to evaluate the exact nature and closeness of the relationship between the PKK and PMF and their strength in the area. This leads to the question: how would the PMF, considering its relationship with the PKK and Iran, be used against the PKK? Adding to this: if Iran has, indeed, given the green light and al-Fayyad’s attendance of the consultations about the Turkish operations were a sign of support for it, what is the deal for Iran? Could the deal perhaps include an agreement on a reconfiguration of influence on the ground, with Iran getting control over more territories in Iraq and/or Syria, or does the agreement have to do with decreasing Turkish military activity in Syria? At present Iran’s reaction to and scope of involvement in the looming Turkish operation in Northern Iraq remains unclear.


Vanessa Sevidova, intern at the Institute of International Studies of the MGIMO MFA of Russia, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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