Turkey & Iraq: Tailoring a “Security” Partnership

By Shoresh Darwish

Turkey has shifted its foreign policy focus to Iraq, following rumors that the US-led Coalition forces may soon withdraw. Looking to fill the potential void, Turkey is ready to adopt a new approach to Iraq based on broadening the fields of trade and security-based economic projects and codifying their military occupation of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). For their part, Iraq is trying to use this opportunity to solve some of their outstanding grievances with Turkey, such as them not receiving their share of water downstream from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and preventing the continued violations of Iraq’s sovereignty by Turkey’s military, which are embarrassing the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani.

To accomplish these objectives, Iraq will try and emphasize their “Development Road Project”, a 1,200-kilometer railway and highway system connecting the Great Faw Port on Iraq’s Persian Gulf with Turkey. The $17 billion multi-decade project is meant to be a new Iraqi “Silk Road” and save time and costs by shortening the distance between China and Europe compared to the sea route passing through the Suez Canal. Baghdad will also want Turkey to focus on economic issues, such as the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, which is Iraq’s largest export line of crude oil.

However, while Iraq wants to foster a business relationship, Turkey is more concerned with forging a security partnership. Nonetheless, what both countries do agree on is the desire to weaken the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Baghdad has recently succeeded in neutralizing Erbil’s ability to manage oil exports through decisions by the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court and the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which ruled in Iraq’s favor in the arbitration claim it lodged against Ankara in July 2023 regarding exporting oil from the KRI through the Turkish Ceyhan Port.

With regards to both decisions, Turkey seems to have accepted the rulings. The KRG was disappointed with this outcome, as it was relying on Turkey rejecting the Arbitration process because exporting oil from the KRI through Turkey has always formed the primary basis for a stable relationship between Ankara and Erbil. Now that Ankara can bypass Erbil leaders and get oil directly from Baghdad, the KRG loses much of their leverage in negotiations with Turkey on other matters, such as lessening Turkish military incursions into their territory.

‘Divide and Conquer’ Against the KRG

The aspirations of Al-Sudani’s government in Iraq are centered on continuing to weaken the government of KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, not only internally but also externally, most notably with Turkey. Consequently, Iraq wants to restrict Turkish decision-making processes to direct negotiations with Baghdad only, as a way of sidelining Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Controlling oil exports and that process of exportation is one of the primary ways to achieve that. Expecting this, the KDP have themselves tried to form their own security relationship with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Erdogan, which Barzani’s government has repeatedly collaborated with, despite such actions not being popular amongst most of the Kurdish population in the KRI.

The chief pillar of this arrangement between the AKP and KDP has been allowing the establishment of up to 20 Turkish military bases throughout the KRI and not halting attacks against the Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq. This ability to unrestrictedly pursue and bomb PKK guerrillas is the primary concern of Turkey’s government, but it is also a cause of domestic unrest for the KRG when Turkish attacks harm Kurdish civilians in the process. The intense rivalry between Erbil and Baghdad is one of the reasons why the KDP allows such an arrangement, as they believe it continues to make them a relevant player directly with Ankara.

But there are also internal domestic benefits, as the KDP similarly has a competition for power in the KRG with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Sulaymaniyah—the “second city” in the KRI and the biggest competition for the KDP’s hold on power. Relatedly, the PUK’s relations with Turkey have dramatically worsened in recent years, in particular because they object to Turkish military attacks against the PKK in areas they control. Whereas the KDP views Turkey’s attacks as increasing security in the KRI, the PUK views them as sowing internal divisions, which are not healthy for broader Kurdish unity across all the regions of Greater Kurdistan. Moreover, to counter KDP closeness with Turkey, the PUK often seeks its own leverage with Baghdad. As a result, all of these geopolitical maneuverings often create a fluid situation that can drastically change month by month as the different parties jockey for influence to gain a strategic advantage over each other.

When War Means Business

Always willing to gain their own advantage, Turkey sees the internal Kurdish feuds within the KRG and the KDPs struggle with Baghdad for central authority as a way to consolidate their own permanent place inside Iraq. Recently, Turkish state officials visited Iraq in meetings that were supposed to be traditional diplomatic envoys related to trade and business but quickly took on a security and militarized nature. This is because the delegation was led by Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, who comes from a security background as the former head of Turkey’s MIT Intelligence Agency. Joining Mr. Fidan were Turkey’s Defense Minister Yasar Guler and new MIT head Ibrahim Kalin, displaying the true non-economic priorities of Turkey’s focus on their dealings with Iraq.

While Baghdad may have seen this as an opportunity to discuss railway construction or trade, Ankara was clearly more focused on how Iraq could help them go after the PKK inside what is legally their national territory (despite the semi-autonomous status of the KRG). In relation to that goal, it seems that the Al-Sudani government has displayed an unprecedented acquiescence towards Turkish concerns for an Iraqi leader. Indeed, following his meeting with Mr. Fidan, the Iraqi National Security Council banned the PKK from operating in the country. Although the decision is more symbolic than based on reality, as neither country has the capability of removing them, it does show that Baghdad is increasingly willing to bend towards Turkish concerns and allow them to outweigh Turkish violations of their own sovereignty.

In this calculation, Turkish bombings against the KRI, which are technically an illegal violation of Iraqi sovereignty, get overlooked as justifiable concerns by a friendly neighbor concerned for their national security. Of note, following the declaration, the Turkish Defense Ministry published photos purportedly showing a top Turkish commander meeting with KRG and Iraqi military commanders in the Kurdistan Region, tweeting out, “The operations we conduct in northern Iraq are carried out in close coordination with Iraqi security units.”

The Al-Sudani government has also stated they may be willing to establish a joint Turkish-Iraqi operations center and establish a buffer border zone as drawn up by Turkey inside the Iraqi northern border. This is significant, as the week before the visit by the Turkish “Security Troika” (Fidan, Guler, and Kalin), Erdogan announced the possibility of expanding Turkey’s invasion of northern Iraq in the coming summer.

Iraq’s Al-Sudani and Turkey’s Erdogan during a March 2023 joint press conference.

So, while Iraq hopes to relieve its chronic problems of water and energy shortages by providing economic lures in the field of trade and exchange, such as raising the ceiling of mutual investments and granting priority to Turkish real estate development companies, all of those “carrots” will be attached to the “sticks” and sovereignty compromises that Turkey wants militarily.

Gambling Away Sovereignty

Since the KDP governing the KRG has also been providing such security assurances to Turkey, the Turkish government has created a situation where both Baghdad and Erbil are in a competition to “outbid” each other and show they will give Turkey even more of what they want with regards to carrying out attacks inside Iraq against the PKK. This process will likely mean continuing concessions by Prime Ministers Al-Sudani and Barzani, without Turkey having to give up anything.

This dynamic also creates an awkward, contradictory irony, where Baghdad is providing sovereignty concessions to Ankara—which legitimizes their presence in the KRI—but that in turn legitimizes the KRG, whose ruling KDP is also setting up its own arrangements with the Turkish military. In effect, in their quest to weaken the KRG, Iraq ends up weakening themselves simultaneously.

Moreover, in their mission to stop Turkish breaches of “Iraqi” territory, Baghdad is merely shifting the authority they would like to see taken from the KRG to the Turkish state itself, trading an internal competitor with an external one. Similarly, with Iraq banning the PKK, though they did not list them as a “terrorist organization” as Turkey wanted, Baghdad has codified justification for future Turkish incursions and attacks on Iraq, even ones they may disagree with. The proverbial “cat” is now out of the bag, and Ankara can now play the “PKK card” anytime they want to interfere with Iraqi internal affairs.

Al-Sudani has a further objective, however, in conceding to Turkey, which is inducing a US military withdrawal from Iraq. By building “bridges” with Turkey, Al-Sudani hopes that it will dispel US concerns about Iraq being an Iranian vassal state of Tehran. Baghdad, by showing a willingness to coordinate with NATO ally Turkey, is trying to offer a retort to the accusation that if America leaves Iraq, it will hand the country over to Iran. Related to this, Al-Sudani voiced concerns about preserving security in the KRI after Iranian ballistic missile strikes were carried out on Erbil in early 2024, as he knew such an action would further fuel the US justification for staying in Iraq (or at least in the Kurdish north). However, Washington does not trust such calculated actions, as they know the geopolitical chess game that is being played. Additionally, a US withdrawal from Iraq, which leaves the country to be split up between Turkey and Iran, might foster deep cooperation between the two countries, making the Turkish state a rogue ‘Iran-ally’ inside of NATO and thus limiting US sanctions on Tehran. Turkey is in an enviable spot, where they have placed themselves in a position to manipulate all the states involved by playing them off of one another.

Risks & Rewards of a Dangerous Game

One wildcard is whether Al-Sudani’s government will eventually become so unhappy with Turkey not addressing the water shortages in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers by opening up their damns that he calls off cooperation with Erdogan. One of the reasons why Turkey will be reluctant to open the spigot of water for Iraq is that, by doing so, such water from the Euphrates River will also flow downstream into the Autonomous Administration areas in North and East Syria (Rojava). Turkey’s release of Iraq’s share of water will mean granting Rojava their fair share, too, a situation the Turkish government does not want. In addition, Turkey itself may find that stability in the oil market and more “security” through cooperation are not desirable, as there are Turkish businessmen close to the AKP party who benefit financially from such uncertainty where they have established their own parallel black market.

Ultimately, while Iraq wants to secure money, Turkey wants to control Iraqi territory, so it is hard to predict how this arrangement will work. For instance, would Iraq rather Turkey semi-annex parts of northern Iraq just to keep the Kurdish KRG from governing it? Iraq also must be weary of Turkish intentions, as regionally expressed “brotherhood” always comes with caveats. While Baghdad is hoping that Ankara will help secure the funds for the “Development Road Project,” which Iraq cannot afford on its own, Ankara may realize the idea is more of a wish than a reality in the foreseeable future.

Beyond all of this, Turkey has already made northern Iraq into its own security buffer zone and is threatening a wider invasion in the months to come. Coinciding with a military occupation of Kurdish areas in the north, it is almost certain that Turkey is likely to want to begin interfering with Iraqi domestic politics by seeking more power for Iraq’s Sunni population in Baghdad or using Turkmen minorities as leverage in places like Kirkuk. In this way, Iraq, in their quest to rid themselves of the US military presence, may merely be replacing it with a Turkish one, who has their own self-interests and plans to reshape Iraq in their image.


  • Shoresh Darwish

    Shoresh Darwish is a Syrian writer, journalist, political researcher, and lawyer. He writes about the Syrian issue and the Kurdish question, in addition to his interest in studying the political and social formation of the region. He is a research fellow at the Kurdish Center for Studies.

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