Will Turkey invade northern Iraq?

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 16 Sep 2022

Turkey has now more troops than ever in northern Iraq, but a full-scale invasion of the enclave will take a very heavy toll, writes Al-Ahram Weekly.

Will Turkey invade northern Iraq
Demonstrations at a Turkish visa centre in Karbalaa


In his memoirs published last month, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani recalls that former Turkish president Turgut Ozal confided in him some 32 years ago that he might invade northern Iraq and annex it to Turkey.

Barzani revealed that Ozal suggested that he should find out if the administration of former US president George Bush, which a few months earlier had succeeded in driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, would endorse such a Turkish move.

“When you go to the United States, ask the Americans about their opinion if Turkey annexes Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey within a federal or confederate system,” Barzani wrote, remembering his encounter with Ozal during a stopover in Istanbul on his way to Washington.

In the fifth volume of his “Barzani and the Kurdish Freedom Movement” published in Kurdish, Barzani wrote that Ozal had made the same request to Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, whom he had met earlier in Istanbul.

“Turkey was subjected to great injustice when the Mosul velayet was taken from it,” Barzani quoted Ozal as saying. The Turkish leader was apparently referring to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which recognised the nation-state of modern Turkey and drew up its borders with Iraq and other countries.

Under the treaty, Mosul, which at that time covered all of northern Iraq and was the last Ottoman velayet (administrative area) to fall in World War I, was given to Iraq but had a particular claim on the hearts and minds of many Turks.

Barzani’s disclosure of Ozal’s intentions comes at a time when Turkey has intensified its cross-border incursions into northern Iraq, claiming its army is pursuing members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who Ankara accuses of using Kurdistan as a base for attacks against Turkey.

Ankara has long moved its anti-PKK operations from southeast Turkey to Iraq. Shortly after the PKK started its guerrilla war against Ankara in 1984, Turkey sought to build a security zone inside Iraq to try to stop the group’s cross-border attacks.     

Following the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey sent large contingents of troops to northern Iraq and opened several bases and outposts along the border, exploiting a power vacuum created by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from northern Iraq.

Turkey expanded its military presence in northern Iraq, and according to a 2020 map released by the Turkish presidency before it was deleted, there are some 40 military bases inside Iraq. In 2015, Turkey built one of its largest military bases in Bashiqa near Mosul and outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

Since 2016 Turkey has reestablished control of urban centres populated by Kurds along the border with Iraq where PKK militants are waging a guerrilla war against Ankara in a bid for autonomy.

Turkey has conducted multiple aerial and ground operations against the PKK inside the Iraqi Kurdish enclave over recent decades. In recent months, it has launched a massive ground and aerial offensive striking targets belonging to the PKK.

The ongoing Operation Claw-Lock is taking place in the Duhok Province, and the Turkish army says it is aimed at PKK militants operating there. Turkish warplanes are routinely striking targets deep inside the Kurdistan Region, killing villagers and destroying infrastructure.

In July, Turkish artillery bombed a recreation park in Zakho, a city on the border, killing or wounding several visitors including children. Iraq filed a complaint to the UN Security Council, but no action was taken against Turkey.

The Iraqi Ministry of Defence reported later that Turkey maintains over 4,000 soldiers inside the country and in some of their operations Turkish troops  penetrated deep about 105 kilometres into Iraqi territories.

This week the powerful head of Turkey’s intelligence agency (MIT), Hakan Fidan, flew to Baghdad to warn the Iraqi leaders that Turkish military operations will continue in Iraq as long as the PKK remains in Iraq.

While Turkey’s aggressive role in northern Iraq is largely about the local power struggle, its ambitions in the larger region remain more territorial and even imperialistic.      

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sending signals that the fate of northern Iraq will be of serious interest for Turkey as long as Iraq remains unstable and its future hangs in the balance.

Erdogan has in the past criticised the Treaty of Lausanne for leaving his country with too little territory. He has also invoked the Misak-i Milli (the National Pact), a 1920 Turkish document that claims the Mosul velayet as part of the former Ottoman Empire.

Erdogan has also spoken of Ankara’s interest in the fate of the Turkoman minority in Iraq, members of which mostly live in the ethnically diverse Kirkuk Province and feel sentimentally attached to Turkey.   

Many in Turkey believe that the Mosul velayet, which includes the Erbil, Suleimaniyeh, and Kirkuk Provinces of today’s Iraq, was unjustly cut off from the territory of the Ottoman Empire, now making up today’s Turkey, and they aspire to see it reconnected to the Turkish homeland.

Turkey continues to use water from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, which descend from the Turkish mountains, directly impacting water flows into Iraq and hence increasing the pressure on the country.

However, in order for Turkey to annex northern Iraq, it needs legal and practical justifications. Many in Turkey have been caught up in the euphoria about Mosul, and they uphold the notion that the Lausanne Treaty is set to expire in 2023, claiming it was intended to last for 100 years only.

This claim is unfounded because the treaty in fact has no expiration date, but there are increasing fears that Turkey will try to seek its termination by claiming that it was meant to exist only on the condition that Iraq remains a sovereign state.

With increasing fears that the deadlock in Iraq over forming a new government since the elections last October could turn violent, the country is entering into a period of political turmoil that is likely to include renewed demands for independence by the Kurds.

Hostilities usually start with a spark, and Turkey’s aggressive interventions and ambitions in Iraq have been piling up. Iraq’s breakup could provide the trigger for an invasion.   

In his memoirs, Barzani did not say whether he and Talabani had acknowledged or protested against Ozal’s bold proclamation, but he admitted that both he and Talabani had relayed the information to Bush administration officials.

The two leading political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Barzani, and the PUK, led by Talabani, have long fought for autonomy from Iraq.

In 2017, an independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region was held, with preliminary results showing approximately 92.73 per cent of votes cast in favour.

Baghdad rejected the referendum and initiated a military offensive in which the region lost 40 per cent of the territory it had earlier seized, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

It is unlikely that the Iraqi Kurds, who have been running a semi-autonomous region since 1991, will welcome Turkey’s annexation of their enclave even if Iraq splinters.

The gravest challenge is the fragile political system in Kurdistan built around the two main ruling families, the Barzanis and the Talabanis, who are famously known for establishing “monarchical-style” clan rule in the region.

Iraqi Kurdistan is divided between the KDP of Barzani with Erbil as its capital and the PUK of Talabani with Suleimaniyeh as its stronghold. The parties have often fought over power and resources, and Turkey may seek to drive more wedges between them.

Turkey, the second-largest military force in NATO, could be tempted to invade by its formidable armies and advanced equipment, giving it leverage over the poorly organised and armed Iraqi security forces. But sending them into the rugged mountains of northern Iraq would make them sitting ducks.

Turkey has been a vital lifeline to the Barzani-ruled part of Kurdistan through close political cooperation and lucrative business ties, including oil and gas deals.

But an all-out Turkish invasion of Kurdistan and any endeavour to annex the region would likely reignite Kurdish national resistance in Iraq and spark a larger regional conflict.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government in Baghdad has demonstrated poor leadership and diplomacy in responding to the Turkish challenge. Iraq’s political elites, ethically divided and politically incompetent, have failed to stand up to Turkey’s ambitions and continue to lose out to Turkey.

While it pursues peaceful means to deal with the disputes with Ankara, including a severe drought caused by water being cut off from Turkey, Baghdad risks being taken off guard, giving Turkey free rein to boost its military, political, and economic presence in Iraq.

Yet, Iraq may be unsettled politically, ethnically, and militarily, but that does not mean that the Iraqis will surrender to Turkey’s military posturing or let it take the lead in remapping their country.   

While war-torn Iraq remains at a disadvantage to Turkey, Ankara may well confront a resurgent Iraqi patriotism if it tries to provoke the country’s break-up and partitioning.

Turkey may thus not try to invade and annex part of Iraq anytime soon, even with many believing that Erdogan, who is heading for re-election next year, may need a major foreign-policy initiative.

However, the diehard Turkish nationalism and the views of Turkish politicians about neo-Ottomanism that started with Ozal and continue with Erdogan are stirring up fears in Iraq about Turkey’s ambitions.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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