Head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan’s recent visit to Baghdad was an attempt to heal wounds that were opened during a diplomatic row between Turkey and Iraq over a July 20 incident in which the Turkish artillery struck a tourist resort in Zakho, in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, killing nine Iraqi tourists. In the wake of the attack, Iraq pulled its chargé d’affaires from Ankara and demanded that Turkey issue an official apology for what it described as a “heinous crime committed by the Turkish troops, which has topped its continuous aggressions on the sovereignty of Iraq and its territories.” The Turkish government, meanwhile, has denied responsibility for the attacks, claiming that it would investigate who was behind the bombardment, and insinuating that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was responsible. Although the UN announced on July 27 that Turkey and Iraq were ready to support a joint investigation into the attack, Turkey has not yet sent an official note to Iraq on the matter.
Frustrated with the Turkish narrative, Iraq had taken the issue to the United Nations Security Council, demanding a major investigation into the deadly attacks and claimed that Baghdad has proof of Ankara’s involvement in the shelling. Although Turkey’s military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq have been a constant occurrence over the past three decades—and more than 1,000 civilians have lost their lives as a result—the Zakho massacre touched Iraq’s nationalist nerve, especially because many of the victims were not Kurds, but Arabs. Even Turkey’s relatively warmer ties with Shia cleric and prominent Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr have not saved Ankara from facing strong reactions across the political spectrum. Sadr, for example, called for all security arrangements with Turkey to be canceled, for the cessation of air and land traffic between the two countries, and for action to be taken against Turkey at the United Nations. Turkey was also reprimanded by the Arab League, which issued its “rejection of the Turkish aggression on Iraqi sovereignty, which represents a clear violation of international law, and a flagrant violation of the principles of good neighborliness.”
Turkey’s soft power in Iraq is waning since Ankara’s belligerence provides pro-Iran militias an opportunity to portray themselves as legitimate defenders of the Iraqi people.
Turkey’s Iraq strategy is currently facing a twofold deadlock, even from a traditional Turkish foreign policy perspective. First, Turkey’s soft power is waning since Ankara’s belligerence provides pro-Iran militias an opportunity to portray themselves as legitimate defenders of the Iraqi people. Second, Turkey’s never-ending expansion into Iraqi Kurdistan elevates the PKK to a role that the organization has never before enjoyed. Although the PKK was never a popular party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) acquiescence regarding Turkish military operations has harmed the KRG’s public image in the eyes of Kurds, and thereby strengthens the PKK’s narrative about its carrying out what it calls “defensive warfare.”
If the goal behind Turkey’s cross-border operations was meant to weaken the PKK, Ankara is sleepwalking into a future wherein, ironically, the PKK gains further legitimacy and allure. Considering the Turkish state’s experience with PKK insurgency in southeastern Turkey in the 1990s, the current situation in Iraq may look like déjà vu. When Iraqi Kurdish villagers are uprooted from their land, when children are killed by errant bullets, and when extreme securitization disturbs civilian life and results in the deaths of Arab tourists, public opinion is ready to blame the bellicose Turkish state and its military operations. Turkey is now witnessing a new dynamic in the region. Following Turkish airstrikes in Duhok in 2019, for example, it was enraged local Iraqi Kurds, not the PKK, who stormed a Turkish military base in the area. It is also facing the growth of both Kurdish anger and pro-Iran militias, thereby undermining the very reason behind its initial military intervention in the country and weaking its own regional status.
The Turkish Military March on Iraqi Soil
Turkey’s initial footprint in northern Iraq was minimal. In 1984, Baghdad under the Saddam Hussein regime agreed to allow Turkish forces to advance five km into Iraqi territory in their fight against the PKK. Although the agreement was only for one year, Ankara often received tacit approval from the Baathist government for its military operations in Iraq, which were often conducted immediately following PKK attacks that killed Turkish police or soldiers inside of Turkey.
During the 1990s, as Baathist Iraq’s troops were withdrawing from Iraqi Kurdistan, the PKK took the opportunity to establish numerous camps that stretched deep into Iraqi terrain, including the Qandil mountains and the Makhmour refugee camp, which respectively lie roughly 50 and 180 km from the Turkish border. In response, Turkey began to erect permanent military posts in the area, sending Turkish troops farther into Iraqi territory—up to 50 km—in its pursuit of Kurdish guerilla fighters.
According to a recent Iraqi Defense Ministry report, Turkey has set up more than a hundred military bases and outposts in Iraq, extending as much as 105 km from the border. It has also deployed more than 4,000 troops alongside heavy artillery, tanks, and helicopters.
In the past decade, Turkey’s military assertiveness on Iraqi soil has reached extraordinary levels. According to a recent Iraqi Defense Ministry report, Turkey has set up more than a hundred military bases and outposts in Iraq, extending as much as 105 km from the border. It has also deployed more than 4,000 troops alongside heavy artillery, tanks, and helicopters. Unlike in the 1980s, Ankara has not sought Baghdad’s consent for the recent expansion of its cross-border activities. The Turkish government’s close relations with the KRG in Erbil have proven to be useful in allowing this expansion without raising much international attention, given that most of these territorial incursions have happened in the autonomous Kurdish Region. To justify its military operations, Turkey has cited Article 51 of the UN Charter, which outlines sovereign nations’ right to self-defense. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, regularly submits to the UN memoranda of protest against Turkish intrusions. Nearly 300 memoranda have been submitted for more than 22,700 alleged violations against Iraqi sovereignty that occurred in the past five years.
Although the US Army’s intelligence sharing was a critical factor in aiding Turkish ground incursions into the Kurdistan Region, Turkey has since developed strategies that allow it to rely on its own sophisticated drone technology to become less dependent on the United States. In fact, Turkey’s drone revolution is one of the factors that convinced the Turkish political elite to adopt a militaristic vision regarding the PKK. Turkish drones’ combination of a high precision rate with a low risk of collateral damage gave Ankara the confidence to pursue an unprecedented approach: Turkey began to target PKK leaders—even in populated urban areas—and significantly increased the number of drone strikes that reach far beyond the Kurdistan Region. Turkish drone attacks hit targets in Sinjar and Mosul, striking as far as 280 km inside Iraqi territory. This ambitious pursuit understandably raises warranted fears among the Iraqi civilian population. In addition to the July 2022 Zakho resort bombardment, in June 2020, a Turkish airstrike targeting a pick-up truck in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region injured six people near a water resort. And during another operation a drone targeted two PKK fighters while they were in a popular resort on Mount Azmar just outside of Sulaymaniyah.
Turkish Militarism: A Reason for Pro-Iran Expansion?
The security dilemma that placed Turkey and Iran at loggerheads in Syria and Iraq also deserves close attention. While Turkey has developed strong antagonism toward pro-Iran militias, the Turkish cross-border military expansion has simultaneously provided the ultimate pretext for Iran’s mounting intelligence operations in the Kurdistan Region, as well as for the growth of pro-Iran militias’ militant activism in both Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. To put it simply, Turkey’s military intervention in the Kurdistan Region in order to combat Kurdish opposition has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more Turkey becomes involved in Kurdistan and Iraq, the more opposition it faces. And while KRG and Iraqi sovereignty have continued to waver, Turkish and Iranian expansionism have fed one another.
Turkey’s military intervention in the Kurdistan Region in order to combat Kurdish opposition has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more Turkey becomes involved in Kurdistan and Iraq, the more opposition it faces.
Turkey’s self-fulfilling prophecy is best exemplified by events that occurred in the wake of the Zakho massacre. Despite Ankara’s denying responsibility for the attacks, Turkey’s blatant militarism in the region was convincing enough for Iraqi popular anger to turn against it. Pro-Iran militias then immediately seized the opportunity to defend the Iraqi nation against what they called “Turkish occupation” by calling for resistance, with one group ominously threatening “killing for killing, drone for drone, rocket for cannon.” Within 24 hours, militias launched drone and rocket strikes on Turkish military bases in the Duhok and Nineveh provinces. And a few days later, militias also targeted the Turkish Consulate in Mosul with rocket attacks. Because many of the victims of the Zakho massacre were Shia Arabs, the militias’ resistance discourse has resonated with the Iraqi masses. As a result, pro-Iran militias’ competitors in Iraqi politics—the very actors with whom Turkey has been aiming to cooperate—felt the need to deploy harsh criticism against Ankara. All in all, Turkey’s loss of ground from all sides here is tragic, and its pursuit of self-interested militarism is helping to dissipate its soft power gains in Iraq on a daily basis.
Given the current turmoil in Iraqi domestic politics, it is reasonable to expect Turkish diplomatic efforts aimed at courting various actors. However, Ankara’s steps raise serious doubts about Turkey’s policy perspective. For example, it was Turkey’s top intelligence official, and not a Turkish diplomat or politician, who paid a visit to Baghdad following the Zakho massacre—and he did so while also delivering the message that Turkish cross-border operations would continue as long as the PKK remains in Iraq. The Turkish government clearly ignores emotional aspects and the rebuilding of bilateral trust and instead fosters the perception of insecurity and threat, which is what has been driving anti-Turkey propaganda in Iraq.
In February 2021, a series of rocket attacks suspected to be carried out by pro-Iran militias on Erbil International Airport, which killed a US military contractor and wounded six others (including an American soldier), made global headlines. What received less attention was how the militias presented their mission as “resistance” to a Kurdish audience by distributing messages that denounced both Turkish militarism and the KRG authorities that support Turkey’s military operations. As analysts have noted, these militias seek to “undermine Erbil’s faith in the ability of Washington and Baghdad to curb the violence—thereby forcing the KRG to seek Tehran’s help in halting attacks.” Turkey’s meddling in the Kurdistan Region creates a political opportunity for pro-Iran militias, whose activity enables Iran to exert an influence over Iraqi politics. Ironically, such an outcome is at odds with Turkey’s interest in aiding the formation of an Iraqi government that it hopes would restrain the country’s pro-Iran militias. Turkey’s earlier diplomatic efforts to bring Sunni leaders, the KRG, and the Sadrist movement together is now threatened by Turkey itself, and specifically by Turkish militarism in the Kurdistan Region, and now in other parts of Iraq as well.
Washington’s Ambiguous Playbook
Turkish militarism and its drone attacks in northern Syria have generated criticism in Washington, especially due to American forces’ partnership with Kurdish fighters in an effort to stabilize the region. However, the Biden administration—much like the Trump administration before it—is reluctant to criticize Turkey for its military operations in Iraq. Part of the reason is the complex relation between two issues: First, in order to appease Turkey, the United States gave Ankara a blank check in its fight against the PKK in Iraq, while simultaneously maintaining a partnership with the People’s Protection Units—a PKK-affiliate—in Syria. Second, the assumption of good relations between Ankara and Erbil made such a contradictory policy appear reasonable to American policy makers.
Contradictions in US policy became more apparent when Turkish operations began to damage both the KRG’s authority and Baghdad’s territorial sovereignty in the eyes of the Iraqi people.
Contradictions in US policy became more apparent when Turkish operations began to damage both the KRG’s authority and Baghdad’s territorial sovereignty in the eyes of the Iraqi people. With Turkish and Iranian expansionism feeding each other, the most damaging outcome is the shrinking of Iraqi Kurdish territory, which affects Washington’s ability to influence dynamics in Baghdad. American interests are not well-served when pro-Iran militias’ discourse of resistance is legitimatized by Turkish militarism, which further validates the militias in the public’s view. The cycle of escalation and insecurity is especially dangerous in Sinjar, where Turkish attacks on the PKK’s Yazidi fighters are often reciprocated by PKK attacks on Turkey’s Zilkan military base in Iraq’s Nineveh province. The Zilkan base has long been a matter of debate between Baghdad and Ankara, and has gradually become a symbol of the Turkish “occupation.” In recent months, the number of attacks on the base has increased, as has the level of sophistication of the rocket launch systems used in the attacks. If Washington decides to reconsider its current strategy, bringing Ankara and Baghdad to a negotiable solution over the Zilkan military base may be a good start.
Turkey’s foreign policy has undergone serious changes—and even outright about-faces—as of late. It appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s concern about next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections has become a decisive factor in how Ankara addresses its regional environment, and specifically Syria and Iraq. But the militaristic way in which Turkey is dealing with Iraq is helping to legitimize militias that claim to defend the country’s sovereignty, which is a clear disservice to Turkey’s long-term strategic interests. By acting as it does, Turkey is in fact helping further the very problem it once claimed to be seeking to solve.
Featured image credit: Turkish Ministry of Defense/Twitter