Economically and diplomatically, Iraq and Turkey have a healthy and vibrant relationship. Yet serious points of tension complicate the overall bilateral picture. Along with water and border issues, the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and Turkey’s military operations against the organization on Iraqi soil constitute major sources of friction between Baghdad and Ankara. Beginning last month, Turkey has been waging Operation Claw-Eagle 2 in Iraq’s region of Gare, resulting in both Turkish and Iraqi loss of life and heating up some tensions between Baghdad and Ankara.
Resource management has been a chronic source of dispute between Turkey and Iraq. With the Euphrates and the Tigris originating in its territory, Turkey has emerged a “water superpower.” Hinting at the future of resource management, former Turkish President Turgut Özal once stated: “Some countries sell oil. We will sell water.”
Conversely, Iraq has increasingly struggled with scarce, unreliable, and unsafe water. While Iraq currently requires roughly 71 billion cubic meters of water annually, by 2035 Iraq will receive only an estimated 51 billion cubic meters per year due to the completion of Iranian and Turkish damming projects. Combined with a projected population growth of 25 percent, this presents significant cause for concern.
Additionally, Baghdad’s investment in infrastructural projects to alleviate its water scarcity have been curtailed by the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on oil prices and, consequently, on state revenues. Also, as TRT World’s Yusuf Erim put it in an interview with Inside Arabia, “droughts, climate change, and a growing population will limit supply while increasing demand . . . [and] create stress on the [Iraq-Turkey] relationship from time to time.”
Experts have warned that the only long-term solution to Iraq’s brewing water crisis lies in water-sharing agreements with Turkey and Iran.
Experts have warned that the only long-term solution to Iraq’s brewing water crisis lies in water-sharing agreements with Turkey and Iran. Iraq has already confronted Turkey over its Ilisu Dam project, which risks preventing water from flowing downstream into Iraq. More recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed mutually conciliatory tones on water management, stressing that it should be a “field for cooperation” rather than a “factor for disagreement.” However, Ankara has so far not committed itself to the water-sharing agreement that Iraq needs. Instead, limited promises have been made to help Iraq improve its irrigation techniques, leaving its water supply largely vulnerable to Turkish demands and pressure.
Turkey’s Military Interventions Against the PKK in Iraq
Dating back to the 2000s, Turkey’s military activities on Iraqi soil (or at least Ankara’s threats to carry them out) have been a sensitive issue between the two neighbors. Dr. Abbas Kadhim, who is the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative, told Inside Arabia that “the PKK exists in Iraq not with the approval of the Iraqi government, but as a fact of life.”
For years, Ankara’s position has been that Turkey is within its right to carry out counter-terrorism operations against the PKK in Iraq if the Iraqis don’t neutralize the militant group. Ever since the US- and UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the PKK has been able to maneuver more easily in northern Iraq, naturally causing grave concerns in Turkey for the past 18 years.
Iraqi authorities see these Turkish military operations, which are carried out against Baghdad’s will, as highlighting the central Iraqi government’s inability to control Iraqi land near the Turkish border, raising basic questions about the Iraqi state’s own sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Iraqis have chosen to prevent their strong opposition to Turkey’s military presence in parts of their country from undermining Baghdad and Ankara’s ability to improve relations in other domains such as trade, reconstruction, and energy. In general, Iraq wants more cooperation, as opposed to confrontation, with Turkey.
The Iraqis have chosen to prevent their strong opposition to Turkey’s military presence in parts of their country from undermining Baghdad and Ankara’s ability to improve relations in other domains.
Officials in Baghdad have also vowed to their Turkish counterparts that they will work to prevent groups that are hostile to Turkey from enjoying safe havens in Iraq. While Kadhimi was in Ankara in December 2020 on his first visit to Turkey since taking office seven months earlier, he stated in a joint press conference with Erdogan that “Iraq’s position is very clear: There is no question of tolerating any organizations that threaten Turkey’s national security on our territory.”
Indeed, as analysts have noted, the PKK lacks popularity in Iraq. A major reason has to do with the Turkish military actions that the organization attracts whether on Turkish, Iraqi, or Syrian territory, making the PKK a group that the vast majority of Iraqis want nothing to do with. “I believe that Iraq is beginning to view the PKK more and more as a national security threat,” Erim told Inside Arabia.
“The presence of a heavily armed non-state actor that operates domestically and also provokes and threatens a powerful neighbor creates many more problems for Baghdad. The growing divide between the PKK and Erbil also threatens stability in the north of the country as well,” Erim added.
The experience of fighting ISIS has heavily informed the central Iraqi government’s view of the PKK as well as Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, more specifically, how to deal with such non-state actors. “Baghdad had to condone PKK and Hashd al-Sha’abi [Popular Mobilization Forces or PMK that are mostly composed of Iraqi Shi’a militias] while they were taking down ISIS forces much better than the Iraqi Army,” explained Esra Pakin Albayrakoglu, a professor at Bahçeşehir University, in an interview. Both the PKK and the Iraqi Shi’a militias resisted pressures to evacuate from their positions in contested areas of Iraq such as Sinjar, raising tensions between these two groups and Erbil.
Within this context, sensitive issues surrounding the PKK and the Turkish military’s presence in northern Iraq are set to remain a challenge to the relationship between Baghdad and Ankara notwithstanding Kadhimi’s pledge and the two countries’ ability to somewhat compartmentalize the issues. As Kadhim stated, these problems between the Iraqis and Turks constitute a “complex situation” that needs “delicate handling with a lot of expertise,” possibly “international law, and more resolve from the Iraqi government—all of that is [currently] absent. . .”
The Regional Equation
Some governments across the wider Arab world fear Turkey and see the perceived threat of Ankara’s expansionism as necessitating a response. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Libya’s eastern administration in Tobruk, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have, to various extents, looked to each other in order to foster greater unity against Ankara among Arab regimes and societies. This trend began to gain momentum in October 2019 with Abu Dhabi’s response to Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” which entailed the Emirati leadership drawing together a relatively strong pan-Arab opposition to Ankara’s military actions in northern Syria.
A question for Iraqi policymakers is: Should Baghdad turn to fellow Arab states like the UAE for greater support against Turkish incursions into Iraq’s northern territory? Kadhim advises Baghdad to avoid this path. “The UAE has no business in this bilateral dispute because the UAE is doing it not out of love for Iraq, it is doing it out of hate for Turkey,” he said. As the Atlantic Council scholar explained, further Emirati involvement will serve to “unload [Abu Dhabi’s] dispute with Turkey—ideologically and politically—on Iraq, and Iraqis don’t need that.”
“The UAE has no business in this bilateral dispute because the UAE is doing it not out of love for Iraq, it is doing it out of hate for Turkey.”
Baghdad and Ankara’s PKK-related problems constitute “a bilateral dispute best solved between Iraq and Turkey, and if any other entities are to be a part of this, they should be neutral, respectable, credible, international organizations such as the United Nations . . . that is the credible way to do it, [but] bringing a country like the UAE into the mix is going to be nothing but bad news for Iraq and for Turkey,” Kadhim insisted.
As Iraqis look back on the past several decades, they know how much suffering from wars, sanctions, occupation, and terrorism their country has experienced. Today Iraq is striving for a future where peace can thrive within its own borders. From Baghdad’s perspective, achieving this goal requires positive bilateral relations with all of Iraq’s immediate neighbors, including Turkey.
Although officials in Baghdad are likely to remain indignant at Ankara for taking actions that highlight the Iraqi government’s weaknesses in defending the territorial integrity of the nation-state, they will probably continue efforts to prevent areas of serious friction from damaging the two countries’ otherwise vital relationship.
Co-author: Anastasia Chisholm is a Research Intern at Gulf State Analytics and a postgraduate student at King’s College London studying Conflict, Security, and Development.