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Türkiye-Iraq Relations: A New Era?

26 Apr 2024

Türkiye-Iraq Relations: A New Era?

26 Apr 2024

Iraq’s heightened importance

The Middle East never seems to drop from the headlines. Civil unrest, humanitarian crises, and armed insurgency, if not outright conflict, are all part of the daily normal, and even more so now. Rising tensions after the Gaza war, the Houthis in Yemen and the Red Sea, Türkiye’s quest to crush terrorist insurgents in Iraq, great power rivalry between the U.S. and China, and the Iran-Israel standoff keep the region’s recurrent conflicts and crises on top of the global agenda. Iraq is heightened in importance almost overnight in April 2024 due to its geostrategic location as a transit corridor and a military hub in the arm wrestling between Türkiye, Iran, and Israel. They are striving to secure their peripheries and advance their interests, often at the other’s expense. In this context, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trip to Iraq on 22 April 2024 after twelve years, was the first such presidential visit to Baghdad since the 1980s and bore great importance for the constellation of regional powers within a tense atmosphere.

To be sure, Iraq is an oil-rich country and the second-largest producer after Saudi Arabia in OPEC. It holds the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves, at 145 billion barrels, representing 17% of proven reserves in the Middle East and 8% of global reserves.[1] It is a critical supplier of oil to Turkey, Israel, and Europe. Plus, it possesses 4 trillion m3 of gas reserves, the twelfth largest in the world.[2] From a historic perspective, Iraq has been grappling with violence and turmoil since the U.S. invasion in 2003. The collapse of the central government and subsequent lack of control created a power vacuum, splitting the country along national and sectarian lines, pitting parties with competing interests in a complex interplay of push-and-pull relationships and proxy warfare. Türkiye has fought a grisly campaign against the outlawed PKK in the north; Iran-supported Shi’a militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) not only to quash ISIS but also to drive the U.S. out of Iraq; and, aside from Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), there’s the Peshmerga that operate autonomously under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. Other factions, such as the nationalist-Shi’a movement of Moqtada Al Sadr and Turkmens in Kirkuk, add to this composition of internal rivalries.

Despite the residual presence of American troops in Iraq for advisory and counter-terrorism missions, the U.S. drawdown in 2011 and the pivot to Asia Pacific in the era of rising great power competition have affected the perception of Washington’s security guarantees for Iraqi sovereignty, territorial integrity, and stability. At the foundation of this threat is also the sad reality that the U.S. invasion of Iraq reversed the Ottoman gains of Yavuz Selim I at Çaldıran in 1514 by leaving a power-vacuum for Iran to re-extend its influence into the Fertile Crescent.[3] This has heightened Türkiye’s security concerns related not only to the PKK’s separatism in the north but also Iranian encroachment into the wider theater from Basra to Lebanon. Lack of a powerful authority and identity-related conflicts created the breeding ground for non-state actors and their state sponsors to expand their reach within and beyond Iraq and conduct cross-border operations with relative ease: Türkiye frequently clashes with the PKK, Iran is bent to undermine the U.S.-Israeli presence, the KRG’s armed groups are divided among each other, inter-Shi’a strife creates political upheaval,[4] and the Iraqi central government’s conflict with the KRG over oil concessions cripples the country’s already battered economy.

Turkish policy toward Iraq

Türkiye and Iraq have had a bumpy relationship since 2003. In the first half of the ruling AKP era, Ankara supported strong federalism and a close partnership with the KRG. The liberal mentality in the AKP at the time had put Türkiye on the map as an important player in energy geopolitics, acting as a transit route between Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The transport of crude oil to Israel and Europe through Türkiye’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan via a pipeline from the KRG had underscored Ankara’s tactical maneuverability and keen interest in consolidating its influence and soft power as an economic hub in the Eastern Mediterranean.[5] Türkiye then prioritized pragmatism and considered Iraq a key partner in its vision for bridge-building in the post-Ottoman hinterland, especially in the Arab Middle East.

But the Syrian war and the resultant complex security environment created uncertainties and changed Ankara’s calculus toward Iraq. The failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 and intense counter-terrorism operations against an emboldened PKK/YPG were other key dimensions that helped bring security back on top of the agenda in the Ankara-Baghdad axis. Although relations were strained due to Türkiye’s frequent incursions into Iraqi territory to fight the PKK, Ankara supported the Iraqi central government’s objections against the KRG’s independence in 2017 and looked the other way when the ISF captured Kirkuk, which President Erdoğan called “historically a Turkmen city.”[6] Altogether, amidst the recent rapprochement with the two capitals, four main agenda items featured high on Erdoğan’s historic visit: security cooperation, energy flows, water resources, and trade partnership. The goal is to reach a comprehensive agreement on all aspects through careful consideration of both sides’ interests.

As before, security undoubtedly tops Ankara’s concerns. Over the past four years, Türkiye formed a 30km-deep security belt along the border with Iraq through military operations dubbed Pençe-Kilit (Claw-Lock). Erdoğan recently vowed to permanently resolve the terrorist threat and secure Türkiye’s border with Iraq by the summer.[7] As intergovernmental relations take a positive turn and the Turkish army prepares for a major assault on what remains of the PKK in northern Iraq, Ankara is keen to open a new chapter with Baghdad. In March 2024, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, National Intelligence Chief (MİT) Director İbrahim Kalın, and Defense Minister Yaşar Güler agreed in principle with their Iraqi counterparts to coordinate counterterrorism, military training, and cooperation. Still, much remains in the air. Baghdad’s ban on the PKK but reluctance to designate it as a terrorist organization speaks not only to Iraq’s inability to enforce its authority but also to facts on the ground: the PKK still garners considerable support among Iraqi Kurds, not to mention its Western backers. Ankara closed its airspace for planes destined for Sulaymaniyah last year due to intensified activity there by the PKK[8] and extended the flight ban until mid-2024.

Asked how likely is this protocol to materialize in practice and what potential roadblocks may arise, Barın Kayaoğlu, an associate professor of world history at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), and non-resident fellow for the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, said, “The major sticking point will be whether Ankara can place Baghdad’s pledge with a legal framework in the shape of a bilateral agreement of the sort that Iraq signed with Iran in 2022 and used to disarm the Iranian Kurdish groups within the KRG fighting Tehran”. Many analysts/observers point out that Iran has used the PKK and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) as leverage to undermine Turkish presence in Iraq while shoring up its own proxies like the PMF (also known as Haşdi Şabi). Even if Iran stands by, given the state of positive relations with Ankara, unknowns remain, such as “the location of the proposed Turkish-Iraqi joint operations center and the parameters of Türkiye’s ‘hot pursuit’ policy against the PKK within Iraq”, adds Kayaoğlu.

Aside from bilateral relations, there’s the regional dimension. As the latest round of hostilities between Iran and Israel demonstrates, Iraq has a crucial place in the balance of threats among opposing regional poles, if not their global backers. Both Tehran and Tel Aviv use Iraq as a launch pad to attack and defend against each other. Here, Türkiye’s interest is in a stable country with territorial integrity and agency in the region, not a proxy entity with its interests dictated from elsewhere. Ankara shares this position with Tehran for a united Iraq, in contrast to Israel and the U.S., which prefer a divided loosely federated entity with further autonomy or even independent statelets. Enhanced trade partnerships and security cooperation require a stronger central government with resources in Baghdad. This might involve setting up special units/forces to protect energy and trade routes against the PKK and Iranian proxies.

Water, energy, and trade partnerships

Türkiye signed 26 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with Iraq in energy, water, agriculture, defense, healthcare, and education, among other fields, which raises hopes on both sides to reach a “win-win” package deal. It is important to note that these are not concrete agreements but rather expressions of intent. For water resources, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani’s earlier visit to President Erdoğan in March 2023 created a positive atmosphere, where Türkiye committed to increasing the amount of water released through the Tigris River to drought-hit Iraq for one month.[9] It may again offer temporary relief as needed, but the two sides are yet to agree on an “equitable and fair share of water,”[10] where Iraq depends on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for 98% of its fresh water demand.[11] Although Türkiye releases a substantial amount down the line, the situation is worsening rapidly on the Iraqi side due to climate change, deficient infrastructure, and overpopulation in urban areas. A base agreement and a commitment to implement it are the bare minimum that both capitals should focus on going forward.

The energy sector carries perhaps the greatest potential for economic benefit to both sides in the short-to-midterm. Iraq’s political authority depends on controlling energy resources.[12] Aside from oil, the country has the potential to produce 88 bcm/year of gas and export about 60% of it, helping resource diversification and green transition beyond the region.[13] Türkiye has investments in a total of six oil/gas fields in northern Iraq and Basra. However, relations turned sour last year when the International Chamber of Commerce’s Court of Arbitration ordered Türkiye to pay Iraq US$1.5 billion to compensate for losses incurred by unauthorized oil exports from the KRG. As the pipeline was shut down in March 2023, the bill of halted oil sales climbed to more than US$14 billion in lost revenues for Iraq.[14]

The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which dates back to 1970s, is an important supply line for world oil markets. It was interrupted from time to time, partly due to war and terrorist attacks, but the Turkish part of it that runs for 650km has been repaired after the earthquake damage in 2023.[15] When the court in Paris ruled against Türkiye to pay compensation to the central government in Baghdad, Ankara halted the flow of 450,000 barrels per day (b/d) of oil through the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Türkiye also won nearly US$600 million in counterclaims to Iraq and can even recover the net amount of $900 million from the KRG based on a protection clause in the 2013 export contract.

The issue persists as a source of friction in the region and casts a shadow over Ankara’s otherwise improving relations with both Erbil and Baghdad. After a year since the pipeline ceased operations, there is still no progress on restarting the flow, although the U.S. has also stepped in to put the pipeline back into operation. Turkish Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar stated in a recent interview that the pipeline is technically ready to operate since 4 October 2023 with a 1.4 million b/d capacity.[16] However, legal issues on marketing and sharing of oil revenue between the KRG and Baghdad remain unresolved. It is unlikely that parties will resolve their disputes in the near term, although Erdoğan’s visit to both Baghdad and Erbil brought positive momentum, and tensions will subside over time as areas of common interest are greater than differences.

On trade partnership, the “Development Road” stands out as a mega 1200km road and railway project from Basra-Iraq to Ovacık-Türkiye that connects the Gulf to Europe. Erdoğan’s visit facilitated the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries, along with the UAE and Qatar.[17] Turkish Contractors Association (TMB) President Erdal Eren also met with the Iraqi authorities to discuss the infrastructure part of the project and stated that the UAE, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia are interested to provide financing for the US$5 billion initial phase.[18]

The preliminary understanding between Iraq, Türkiye, Qatar, and the UAE to cooperate on the project, as shown in Figure 1 below, has the political backing of China and directly competes with the IMEC (India-Middle East-Europe Corridor), supported by the U.S. and Israel. If realized, this would be a game changer for Iraq by reducing its dependence on foreign influencers like the U.S., Israel, and Iran. Türkiye will provide security for the transport corridor together with the ISF. Asked what Iran’s position on the project would be, given heightened tensions in the region, Kayaoğlu said that much will depend on the psychological state of Iranian leaders in the days and years ahead. “If they carry a sense of relative security, they will not make much trouble for the Development Road. After all, the project would expedite southwest Iran’s overland trade to Türkiye and Europe. If, however, tensions between Iran and U.S./Israel rise, then the project will face additional hurdles”, he added.

Figure 1: The Development Road Project

Source: Anatolia News Agency,

Roadmap for Türkiye-Iraq relations

The security landscape in Iraq has improved dramatically since the defeat of ISIS and the restoration of government authority in some parts of the country. Although there is a constructive momentum after years of strife, Ankara maintains its sensitivity to the presence of insurgents and the lack of state authority in northern Iraq; thus, it understandably puts special emphasis on counterterrorism operations. At the very least, Türkiye wants Iraq to declare the PKK a terrorist organization and help to uproot it from the Qandil and Sinjar regions. While it would be unrealistic to expect such a development soon, the holistic approach to tackling outstanding issues jointly creates a positive atmosphere.

The litmus test for this engagement will be Erdoğan’s planned (but might be cancelled) visit to Washington DC on 9 May and how that effects (or not) Ankara’s strategic position and ability to formulate a “win-win” scenario in the regional balance between the U.S.-UK-Israel and Iran-Russia-China camps. The second will be a show of support (or lack thereof) from actors in both northern Iraq and Baghdad for Türkiye’s military operations in the north. Türkiye can help protect the KRG from terrorist organizations such as the PKK and PYD on the condition that it permanently abandons the quest for independence.[1]

If Türkiye can realize its vision and ensure stability in Iraq, it will facilitate reaching the objective of increasing bilateral trade volume to US$15 in the near term and US$20 by 2030 after the completion of the Development Road project. Iraq needs significant infrastructure rebuilding after years of conflict, and Turkish construction companies have expertise that could be valuable in this process. That goodwill might also facilitate the re-opening of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which once handled 0.5% of global oil supply.

Besides politics and business, Türkiye and Iraq share a rich historical and cultural connection. Promoting cultural exchange programs, tourism, and academic research initiatives can foster better understanding and goodwill between the people of both nations. Overall, Iraq’s strategic location and resource wealth have thrust it back into the spotlight as a battleground for regional influence. Turkish President Erdoğan’s historic visit to Baghdad and Erbil reflects this heightened importance. While tensions persist, particularly regarding the PKK and control of oil and water resources, there’s a newfound momentum for cooperation and much-needed attention to iron out the details of preliminary agreements between the two sides.


[1] Oğuzhan Akyener, “Irak-Türkiye Arasında İş Birliğini Geliştirmek,” TESPAM (blog), June 22, 2023,

[1] “International – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA): Iraq,” U.S. Energy Information Administration: Iraq, February 14, 2024,

[2] “Güvenlik, enerji, su… Erdoğan’ın Irak ziyareti neleri değiştirecek / Al Ain Türkçe Özel,” Al Ain Türkçe, April 22, 2024,

[3] Hanna, ““Conflict and Order in the Middle East – The Future of Warfare in the 21st Century,” Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), Abu Dhabi, April 10, 2013.

[4] Max Boot, “How Inter-Shia Strife Is Threatening Iraqi Security,” Council on Foreign Relations (blog), August 31, 2022,

[5] S. Süha Çubukçuoğlu, “Turkey’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean Sea: The Case of Kastellorizo” (Medford, MA, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, 2014), 35.

[6] Mehmet Uyanik, “Turkey and the KRG After the Referendum: Blocking the Path to Independence,” CSIS (blog), November 22, 2017,

[7] Odatv, “Erdoğan yaz aylarında bitecek dedi, işareti verdi: Plan ortaya çıktı… Süleymaniye detayı,” Odatv, March 6, 2024,

[8] Sinem Cengiz, “Three Ways for Turkiye and Iraq to Boost Cooperation,” Arab News, April 7, 2023,

[9] Alaca Mehmet, “Long-Running Turkey-Iraq Oil Dispute Continues to Simmer, Despite Court Decision,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (blog), April 20, 2023,

[10] Sinan Mahmoud, “Iraq Seeks ‘fair and Equitable’ Share of Water from Turkey in River Conflict,” The National, December 24, 2023, sec. Iraq,

[11] Zeinab Shuker, “The Drying Land: Iraq’s Worsening Water Crisis – Troubled Waters in Conflict and a Changing Climate: Transboundary Basins Across the Middle East and North Africa,” Carnegie Middle East Center (blog), February 12, 2024,

[12] Serhat Erkmen, “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan’ın Irak Ziyareti: Yeni Dönem, Fırsatlar, Zorluklar – Fikir Turu,” Fikir Turu (blog), April 22, 2024,

[13] “Güvenlik, enerji, su… Erdoğan’ın Irak ziyareti neleri değiştirecek / Al Ain Türkçe Özel,” op. cit.

[14] “Turkey’s Erdogan in Rare Iraq Visit to Discuss Water, Oil, Security,” Gulf News, April 22, 2024,

[15] “Haberler,” NTV: Röportaj (Istanbul, Turkey, April 20, 2024).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ragıp Soylu [@ragipsoylu], “BREAKING — Iraq, Turkey, Qatar and UAE Sign a Memorandum of Understanding to Cooperate in Iraq Development Road Project That Links Gulf to Europe during Erdogan’s Visit to Baghdad: Statement Https://T.Co/BhMax9kp4f,” Tweet, Twitter, April 22, 2024,

[18] “Türk müteahhitlik sektörünün gözü Kalkınma Yolu Projesi’nde – Ekonomi Haberi | Yirmidort,” 24TV, April 20, 2024,

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