First visit by Turkish president since 2011

Security, water, oil top agenda for Erdogan visit to Baghdad

NEWSROOM – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leading a large government delegation, arrived in Baghdad for an official visit where border security, water, and oil exports took precedence in discussions between Turkey and Iraq.

In a meeting with Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid, Erdogan articulated Turkey’s expectations concerning the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, stating, “Iraq must be rid of all forms of terrorism.”

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state advocating for Kurdish rights within Turkey.

Erdogan’s visit precedes the expected launch of an extensive Turkish military incursion into the Kurdistan Region aimed at pursuing PKK guerrillas. Reports suggest that the Turkish army aims to establish a 40-kilometer deep security buffer zone along its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, a demand persisting since the 1990s when the Kurdistan Region gained autonomy from the Iraqi government. The ensuing Iraqi Kurdish civil war and chaos provided the PKK with an opportunity to entrench itself in the Kurdistan Region and gain greater operational freedom.

Iraq has expressed readiness to collaborate with Turkey on border security. However, it remains uncertain whether Iraqi and Kurdish authorities approve of Turkey’s deep incursion into Kurdistan Region’s territory, which could pose significant challenges to future relations between the two countries.

Turkey’s expectations of the Iraq to control the PKK have heightened following measures by Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities last year to restrict the activities of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups and withdraw their armed forces from border areas with Iran. However, neither Baghdad nor Erbil have authority over the PKK, as the group and its leaders operate in remote mountainous terrain beyond their control.

In an appearance alongside the Iraqi prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani in Baghdad on Monday, Erdogan stated, “We discussed joint measures that can be taken against the PKK and its allies which target Turkish territory from inside Iraq.” He emphasized his belief that the PKK presence in Iraq should end promptly and advocated for its classification as a terrorist organization.

Iraq recently moved to address some Turkish concerns by banning the PKK in Iraq, although falling short of labeling it a “terrorist” organization as desired by Turkey. Al-Sudani spoke on Monday about “bilateral security coordination” aimed at meeting the security needs of both Iraq and Turkey.

The KRG also perceives the PKK’s presence and activities within its territory as destabilizing, given past conflicts between KRG Peshmerga forces and the PKK. However, KRG’s Interior Minister Reybar Ahmed refrained last week from categorizing the PKK or Iranian Kurdish parties as “terrorists,” instead referring to them as “opposition” groups.

Turkey has established numerous military outposts and bases in northern Iraq over the past three decades under the pretext of combating the PKK. Turkish military operations, which occasionally penetrate deep into Iraqi territory, have consistently strained bilateral relations, with Ankara seeking increased cooperation from Baghdad in its efforts against the PKK.

In a televised interview in March, Iraqi Defense Minister Thabet Al-Abbasi dismissed the possibility of “joint military operations” between Baghdad and Ankara. Instead, he proposed establishing a “coordination intelligence center at the appropriate time and place.”

While security remains its primary concern, Ankara also aims to capitalize on Iraq’s growing investment and business opportunities, notably the 1,200-kilometer Development Road. Framed as a strategic transit route connecting the Gulf region with Turkey and Europe, the project is touted for its significant promise for economic growth. President Erdogan aims to secure substantial contracts for Turkish companies in this ambitious $17 billion-dollar endeavor. Iraq is equally eager to attract Turkish investment and expertise for the project’s success. However, the reaction of Kurdish authorities to the Road remains uncertain, given its design to bypass Kurdistan Region territory except for a short stretch near the Turkish border.

During a meeting attended by Erdogan and Al-Sudani on Monday, ministers from Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding on project, aimed at stimulating economic growth and fostering regional and international cooperation through economic integration, according to an Iraqi statement.

While the Development Road project holds significant importance for Iraq, the water issue takes precedence for Baghdad due to its direct impact on the livelihoods of millions of Iraqis in the southern and central regions. A United Nations’ report identified Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, with water scarcity posing a significant challenge across much of the nation. Baghdad has voiced strong criticism against Turkish dams upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, citing reduced flow exacerbating water scarcity in Iraq. Erdogan acknowledged that both Turkey and Iraq are “negatively affected by the climate crisis,” emphasizing the importance of efficient water use and waste reduction.

But while Baghdad and Ankara address their priorities, the KRG seeks to resume its international oil exports via Turkey’s Ceyhan port. KRG’s oil exports through Turkey ceased in March last year following a ruling by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration, declaring the exports illegal and imposing a $1.5 billion fine on Turkey to be paid to Iraq.

The KRG has faced significant financial strain since then, as oil exports constituted the major revenue source for its salaries and projects. The Association of the Petroleum Industry of Kurdistan recently estimated that Iraq lost approximately $14 billion in revenues due to the halt in KRG oil exports. This contradicts earlier assertions by Baghdad that Ankara’s refusal to pay the fine delayed the resumption of Kurdish oil exports. According to APIKUR, the negotiation impasse between Baghdad and Erbil primarily revolves around the terms of the KRG’s contracts with foreign oil companies, particularly regarding production fees. Baghdad aims to compensate oil companies at around $6 per barrel of oil produced, whereas the international oil companies reportedly demand around $20 per barrel.

Erdogan also traveled to Erbil on Monday evening for meetings with Kurdish leaders. Security and oil are expected to top the agenda, with Erdogan seeking cooperation from the KRG on the PKK issue, while the KRG aims to enlist Erdogan’s support to resume oil exports.

Despite expressions of optimism and the signing of 26 memoranda of understanding across various areas during Erdogan’s visit, significant challenges persist in Turkish-Iraqi relations. The extent to which the two countries can make substantial progress in their areas of priority remains uncertain.