10.04.2024 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iraq-Turkey: points of convergence and disagreement

Iraq-Turkey: points of convergence and disagreement

Most politicians and experts would agree that over the past 15-20 years relations between Turkey and Iraq, even leaving aside the historic Mosul issue, have had their ups and downs, mainly as a result of three different problems. The first of these is Turkey’s military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, the second is the sharing of water resources in trans-boundary rivers, and finally there is the issue of Kurdish oil exports through Turkey.

Turkey’s military presence in Iraq

Turkey’s cross-border operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began in 1983, with up to 5,000 Turkish troops involved in the fighting. Operations on Iraq’s borders peaked in the 1990s, when the Turkish army conducted 42 operations. In the 2000s, Ankara continued its operations on the border with Iraq and subsequently established bases on the border and began to station troops there on a permanent basis.

Iraqi Chief of General Staff Abdel Emir Yarallah, who gave a speech in Iraq’s parliament in 2022 about the Zakho incident, said that Turkey has 5 main bases in northern Iraq, with more than 4 thousand troops stationed in these bases. He added that Turkey has established more than 100 military stations in the Zaho, Dohuk and Al-Imadiyah regions and stated that the army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces should be placed in these regions.

Ankara has linked its operations and troop presence in Iraqi territory to the PKK’s activities in the region. Despite all appeals from the Iraqi government, Turkey seems determined to maintain its military presence in Iraq. If Turkey and Iraq reach a compromise on this issue in the near future, Turkey’s policy for dealing with the Kurdish issue will be determined. However, this problem appears extremely difficult to resolve in the short term, and extensive negotiations between the two neighboring countries and involving the Kurdish authorities will be required.

On March 14, 2024, following a Security Mechanism meeting between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Iraq the two countries issued a joint statement. According to the statement, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein held a meeting in Baghdad.  In the meeting, they stressed that the PKK poses a threat to the security of both Turkey and Iraq, and noted that the presence of its members on Iraqi territory is a violation of the Iraqi constitution. Turkey has welcomed the decision by Iraq’s National Security Council to declare the PKK a prohibited organization in the country. The two sides discussed measures to be taken against this organization and its splinter groups, which are mounting attacks on Turkey from Iraqi territory.

Problem of transboundary river water resources

Turkey and Iraq have a long history of disputes over their shared use of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Tensions increase especially during periods of drought, when many Iraqi lakes and small rivers flowing from the Tigris and Euphrates dry up. Iraq claims that dams in Turkey have reduced the flow of water in these two great rivers, while Turkey claims that Iraq’s irrigation systems are out of date and in poor condition.

Another major source of disagreement between Turkey and Iraq over the use of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is the question of how the two rivers should be evaluated in terms of international law. While Ankara views the rivers as transboundary waters, Baghdad argues that they are international and the problem should be solved under international law. International rivers are rivers whose catchment areas fall within two or more States, or rivers forming a boundary between them. Turkey argues that the Tigris and Euphrates are not international rivers, as the watersheds of both rivers are predominantly in Turkish territory. In terms of water resources, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, which are upstream, are in a more favorable position than Iraq, which is further downstream.

When Iraqi President Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani visited Turkey for talks with Turkish president Recep Erdoğan in April 2023, water resources was one of the main issues on the agenda. In that meeting Erdoğan said: “Even though Turkey is facing its worst drought in 62 years, we have decided to increase the amount of water discharged from the Tigris River for one month.” There is an inverse correlation between water resources and population growth. Population increases and droughts in both countries could lead Turkey and Iraq into much more serious confrontation in the medium to long term. In the long term, the water issue could even lead to war between the two countries.

Sale of Kurdish oil through Turkey

The third factor complicating relations between Turkey and Iraq is the transportation of Kurdish oil to international markets through Turkey. Baghdad alleges that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been illegally selling oil through Turkey without federal government approval since 2013. According to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, 17 percent of Iraq’s budget revenues should be transferred to the KRG. In 2012 and 2013, when oil prices were high, the KRG’s coffers received $13 billion a year from central government. During the same period, at least 37 billion dollars in domestic and foreign investment flowed into the Kurdistan region, leading to increased prosperity and unexpected development in Kurdish-controlled areas. In November 2013 KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani signed a 50-year oil and gas sales agreement with the Turkish government. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by suspending budget allocations to the KRG government from February 2014.

The Iraqi government filed a $26 billion claim with the International Chamber of Commerce Arbitration Court in Paris against the KRG for its sale of oil and gas via Turkey. The case, which lasted about 10 years, was concluded in March 2023 and the court ordered Turkey to pay $1.4 billion in compensation. The court also fined the Iraqi government $500 million dollars for failing to address the effects of sabotage on Iraq-Turkey oil pipelines in time. Following the court ruling, on March 25, 2023 Turkey stopped supplying 450,000 barrels of oil per day to its port of Ceyhan. On May 11, 2023, after the pipeline had been closed for seven weeks, the KRG made a formal request to Turkey to reopen it. Turkey, however, views the oil dispute as an internal Iraqi matter and wants the party benefiting from the exports to pay the fine. Turkey’s losses from the disruption of oil supplies amount to just over $1 billion, while those of the KRG and Iraq’s central government are much higher. As a result of the dispute between the parties the supply of crude oil to world markets has been reduced by some half a million barrels a day.

While the central Iraqi government is trying to neutralize the KRG by means of political and economic embargoes, Turkey is aware that Iraqi oil and gas will not flow steadily to international markets if the Kurdish administration is completely bypassed. Iraq cannot resolve this ongoing problem with Turkey until it has reached an agreement with the KRG administration that satisfies both sides. However, Erbil and Baghdad have a long history of disputes on many issues and it is unlikely that all of these will be resolved in the near future.

In conclusion, in view of the problems described above it is likely that Turkey’s relations with Iraq will be characterized by periods of ups and downs in the near to medium term. In addition to these problems, another factor that will shape Turkish-Iraqi relations is the increasing role played by Iran in Iraq’s politics. Since the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, the Shiite-dominated government has gradually fallen under Iranian influence. When civil war broke out in Syria after the Arab Spring revolutions, Tehran’s influence in such capitals as Damascus and Baghdad increased, just as it did during the Persian Empire. As Iraq’s central government falls under Iran’s influence, Turkey’s relations with the KRG, surprisingly, are likely to improve. In the contest for regional leadership, Turkey is a rival to Iran, which wants to export its regime into neighboring countries and seeks to include the Mediterranean in its “Shia Crescent” project. However, the Iraqi Kurds represent a potential obstacle to Iran’s plans, and as such they are likely to become allies of Ankara, at least for a while.


Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: