Almost 100 years after the Treaty of Ankara (1926), Iraq-Turkey relations remain fraught. Despite various disputes over water rights, territorial violations, unlawful oil trades, and alliances, the overriding reason for tensions remains the problem of Kurdistan.
Today, media headlines across Turkey continue to reflect the nation’s antagonism with the armed groups of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) inside Iraq, a neighboring state in which the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launch military operations with impunity.
But despite the repeated protests of the Iraqi government over these violations of its sovereignty, Turkish presence and operations in northern Iraq continue unabated.
In May last year, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited the Turkish military base Biliç Hill Base in northern Iraq to supervise Turkish troops deployed for an ongoing operation against the PKK.
Furious about the visit, Baghdad summoned the Turkish diplomatic envoy in Baghdad to express displeasure at Akar’s presence inside Iraq without providing prior notice.
Official numbers concerning the presence of TSK in northern Iraq are unclear. According to an Anadolu Agency article back in 2017, TSK had a battalion in the Bamarni Airport, near Duhok, as well as commando units in Kani Masi and Begova in northern Iraq.
In accordance with Ankara’s goal of unilaterally creating a 40km-deep security belt in northern Iraq, TSK has established new bases in the Iraqi regions of Hakurk and Metina.
One source claims that the number of Turkish troops in Iraq has risen to over 10,000, but a news outlet aligned with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) says there are only 2,000 troops, with approximately 500 of them mechanized units in Bamarni, and 400 of them from Bolu Commando Brigade in Kani Masi.
It also claims that there are 130 Special Forces as liaison officers in Erbil, Zaho, Dohuk, Batufa, Sulaymaniyah, and Amadiya. In the town of Simele, Turkish intelligence units are reinforced with new recruits, while military tanks, recently updated by Israel, are deployed in Bashiqa base.
In a rare move, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications published a map in 2020 which showed the positions of Turkish troops in northern Iraq. The map has since been removed.
According to the map, from Zakho to Hakurk in the west–east axis and from Avashin to Erbil in the north–south axis, Turkey has 38 military posts or bases in northern Iraq.
Bargaining chips in northern Iraq and wars on terror
It is quite significant that pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) news outlets portray Iraqi resistance against the US presence – many of them pro-Iran – as an indirect threat to Turkey.
Moreover, it appears that the US has given Turkish military operations a green light inside Iraqi territory, but attempted to create a schism between the PKK and its Syrian militia affiliate, the People’s Defence Units (YPG), with which Washington has common cause – to Turkey’s detriment.
Ankara, which enjoys cordial diplomatic and robust economic relations with Iran, can be just as opportunistic. According to the US’s former Syria special representative James Jeffrey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had personally told him twice that he too “considers Iran a threat.”
Such expressions reflect a constant principle within Turkish foreign policy: If you have problems with the west, turn to the east to create bargaining chips.
In this regard, Turkish hard power instruments in Iraq and Syria work against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), developing elements of pressure against Damascus and Tehran, and creating new opportunities to negotiate with Washington.
A new era for Turkey
During the 1980s, Turkey stepped into a new era marked by two intertwined developments.
The first development occurred when the Stabilization Decisions of 24 January 1980 changed the country’s existing economic model. The external debt of Turkey during the 1970s had triggered a ‘balance of payment’ crisis.
The Turkish bourgeoisie desperately needed both foreign exchange and to transform import-substitution industrialization into an export-oriented economic policy.
Second, the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War created a sense of opportunity for Turkey. Neo-Ottomanism entered the Turkish political scene when the newly established Central Asian and Caucasian republics were seen as ‘Turkic hinterland’ for the post-Soviet order.
Today, among left-wing circles inside Turkey, it is still widely believed that the 12 September 1980 coup d’état was initiated to apply these economic policies.
As a result, the Turkish state re-evaluated its foreign policy in two broad ways: via the economic prism – diversifying export destinations to bolster and transform the economy; and via identity politics, transforming Turkey from a ‘secular’ state and society into a country in which Turkish and Islamic identities were promoted forcefully by the putschist government of the 1980s.
Turgut Ozal, the first post-coup prime minister, and later the eighth President of the Republic of Turkey, implemented these policies to ‘re-orient’ the new Turkey.
Mixed occasionally with both pan-Turkist and pan-Islamist ideologies, neo-Ottomanism became increasingly attractive for Turkey in furthering its economic and political visions.
It is no surprise then, that Erdogan views Ozal as his role model for Turkey. Both figures bind export–growth economic policies with proactive foreign policy adventures.
Along with other neighbors of Turkey, northern Iraq was now being viewed as strategically significant in this new political context. Iraq was the bridge through which Turkey could reach the Persian Gulf. Turkish state and foreign policy were thus restructured along this line in the early 1990s.
The First Gulf War, according to Ozal, was an opportunity for Turkey’s new foreign policy realignments. The president went on to join the US-led anti-Saddam Hussein coalition and began publicly championing the theme of a ‘Greater Turkey’ as the protector of Turkomen and Kurds in northern Iraq.
Although the Turkish army and foreign ministry resisted Ozal’s efforts, Ankara allowed the Poised Hammer force – an aviation unit consisting of American, Australian, British, Dutch and French troops – to deploy in Silopi, Şırnak and operate on Turkish soil.
In the meantime, Turkey continued its armed operations against the “terrorist threat of the PKK,” alongside efforts to legitimize its presence in northern Iraq, which are assessed by the Iraqi government as illegal.
There were two large operations in northern Iraq in the 1990s. In 1995, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched Operation Steel, during which over 35,000 Turkish troops crossed the border.
The second operation, in 1997, was Operation Hammer, and it had two goals: to destroy PKK camps and to strengthen the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the Kurdish civil war.
The anti-PUK strategy overlapped with the PUK’s so-called ‘pro-Iranian’ stance. This was another reason for Turkey to support the KDP against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and occasionally against the PUK, and it has been the repertoire of the Turkish state ever since.
Alongside irredentist claims over Iraq, Turkey began to exploit the post-Soviet world around it, exporting cheap and relatively high-tech Turkish goods to new destinations assessed as crucial areas.
The tide turned in 2008. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), with its neo-Ottoman figures like former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, reversed the Turkish course in Iraq. Ankara started to handpick Sunnis to take under its wings, and to develop solid relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Energy cooperation, particularly oil and natural gas investments, were primary motivations for both these governments. In 2004, Turkey’s exports to Iraq were less than two billion dollars, but by 2013, it had risen over 10 billion dollars, and the destination was the KRG, in particular.
Turkish construction companies earned lucrative contacts in the KRG. Erbil Airport was built by Cengiz İnsaat, which is owned by one of Erdogan’s closest allies, Mehmet Cengiz.
In 2014, despite the protests of Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) started to sell its oil through Turkish ports.
The new Turkey makes a retreat
After 2016, however, Turkish policy towards northern Iraq underwent a re-assessment.
One of the reasons was due to domestic political shifts. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) acquired strong support in the June 2015 general elections, and AKP lost its majority for the first time in 13 years, bringing an abrupt end to the AKP’s so-called ‘Kurdish opening.’
There were strong clashes between pro-Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces and Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in southern parts of Turkey, which paved the way for a return to the old counter-insurgency TSK tactics in regard to the Kurdish question.
Then, on 15 July 2016, a failed coup d’état triggered a further restructuring of the Turkish state.
Another reason for the change in Turkish policy towards Iraq was that foreign policy failures and disappointments had taken their toll on Ankara.
The Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief regional ascendence were snuffed out in Egypt and Tunisia, sending shockwaves throughout the Turkish government, and ending the rise of the Turkish model of a modern Muslim state throughout West Asia.
The Syrian government, with its allies Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, held its ground and the US-backed regime change operation in Syria fell apart.
The so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ group splintered into Qatar-Turkey vs. Saudi Arabia-UAE, and started to fight each other.
The outward flows of Syrian refugees heightened tensions within Turkish society, and fueled both anti-AKP and anti-refugee sentiment.
Importantly, the YPG occupation of northern Syria, and its partnership with the US ‘anti-ISIS’ coalition supported by the PKK, created a ‘national threat’ for the Turkish government.
Turkey then set about modifying its policy on Syria. The result was a retreat from the aim of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the more humble goal of “eliminating the terror corridor alongside [Turkey’s] southern border.”
The paranoia of ‘Iranian influence’
As a result of its hard power policies over the years, Turkey has been denied access via Syria and Iraq to the lucrative markets of the Persian Gulf’s Arab states. These policies include Turkey’s too-cozy relationship with Iraq’s KRG, as well as its economic and sometimes military competition with Iran in Iraq.
Soaring inflation in Turkey also decreased the competitiveness of Turkish goods in regional markets, and the Iraqi government’s protective policies have slowed down Iraq–Turkey trade volume. At the same time, Iranian trade with Iraq began to increase.
Strategic calculations have also played their part. Turkey’s eagerness to wipe out Kurdish militias from northern Iraq’s Sinjar region has caused tensions with both Baghdad and Tehran.
When TSK launched a military operation against the PKK in Gara, northern Iraq, in February 2021, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU, or Hashd al-Shabi) deployed forces in the Sinjar area against Turkish troops.
Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have also been training anti-PKK Iraqi politician Osama al-Nujaifi’s Hashd al-Watani forces in a Turkish base in Bashiqa, near Mosul.
In Sinjar, a tacit alliance between the PMU and PKK-affiliated Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) confronted the TSK-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
For Turkey, this confrontation represents an unholy alliance between Iran and the PKK. When Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, criticized Turkish operations in northern Iraq, then Turkish envoy Fatih Yıldız hit back, saying Masjedi should be “the last person to lecture Turkey.”
Ambitious goals, ambiguous future
Today, officially and firstly, TSK claims that its troops and bases are in northern Iraq for ‘fighting against terrorism’ and maintaining national security.
Secondly, as in the case of Bashiqa, Turkey lays claim to Iraqi Sunnis and legitimizes its assets by exploiting the sectarian fragmentation of Iraqi politics.
Thirdly, as long as the US remains in Iraq and maintains its ‘countering Iran’ policy in West Asia, Turkey will present its policy towards the KRG as a counterbalancing act against the so-called ‘Iranian influence.’
It appears that the KRG, and Sinjar in particular, will be the current focal point for the quarrel between Iran and Turkey. As a distant aim, in the event of the fragmentation of Iraq, Turkey would likely explore the annexation of northern Iraq, where it believes it has historic claims.
With respect to the Iraqi government, options against Turkey’s breaches of sovereignty and territorial integrity are limited. Ankara will remain as a big trading partner for Baghdad, with a staggering trade deficit to the detriment of the latter.
Turkey’s deep reach inside the KRG and warm relations with the ruling Barzani family will allow it to use northern Iraq as a bargaining chip with Baghdad in the post-US era – both unilaterally, and for the benefit of its NATO alliance.
Lastly, the recent thaw between Turkey, some Gulf states, and Israel may force Baghdad to accept the Turkish fait accompli in northern Iraq.
In short, Turkish troops in northern Iraq are useful for three things: Influencing the Kurdish question and directly tackling its PKK problem; boosting Turkish regional ambitions; and establishing a bargaining chip with its western allies.