On April 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a landmark visit to Baghdad after 13 years with a sizable delegation of high-ranking Turkish officials accompanying him.  The last meeting of the President to Baghdad took place in 2011 during his tenure as the Prime Minister of Turkey. The landmark visit, in fact, was expected to take place for almost a year. However, regional developments, specifically the outbreak of the Gaza war, delayed the meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani. Following the meetings with Iraqi officials, Turkey signed 26 memoranda of understanding with the Iraqi side, including a strategic framework agreement. The agreements in question aim at fostering collaboration between the two sides in different realms ranging from trade&economy to education&security that can contribute to the stability and development of Iraq.

Primary Topics of the Visit

During President Erdoğan’s visit, the discussions between the two sides primarily revolved around the following topics: The Development Road project, security, and water sharing.

The Development Road Project

On the sidelines of President Erdoğan’s visit, Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding for the long-spoken Development Road project. This project is of high importance given its giant economic size. The project in question aims at connecting the Gulf countries through Iraq to Europe via land (Istanbul) and sea (Ceyhan). A port named al-Faw is currently being constructed in Basra, which will become the biggest port in the Middle East once it is completed. The development road project, previously known as the ‘Dry Canal Project’, foresees the construction of a 1200-kilometer-long highway and railway lines from Southern Iraq to Turkey. The project will start from Basra, continue through Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, and Mosul, and end in Ovaköy, Turkey, bypassing the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Given the massive cost of the project (More than 20 billion dollars), Turkey has long wanted the Gulf States to be the project’s stakeholders. As a result, Qatar and the UAE have become signatory states, along with Turkey and Iraq, in the memorandum of understanding of the giant project. The Development Road will diversify Iraq’s economy, create tens of thousands of jobs, and help many Iraqi cities flourish. Thus, Iraq is exceptionally eager to realize the project as it contemplates the importance of a post-oil economy. The Development Road project is expected to generate 4 billion dollars in annual revenue.

Nevertheless, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is worried about the realization of this project as it bypasses the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Baghdad presents the terrain of the KRI as an obstacle in front of becoming a stakeholder in the giant project. Yet, it is evident that Baghdad is using this pretext to undermine the KRI autonomy further.

Erbil thinks that in the case of a probable political crisis similar to the 2017 referendum with Ankara, Turkey may use the mentioned alternative crossing point (Ovaköy). This means that if the project is realized, the Ibrahim Khalil crossing point in the KRI may lose its relevance. Hence, the Kurdish officials are expected to continue to force the Iraqi and Turkish sides to be stakeholders in this project. Ever since the referendum in 2017, Turkey has proposed the establishment of a new border crossing that can bypass the KRI.

For the abovementioned reason, and due to the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP)-the dominant party in Erbil-decision to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections in the KRI, President Erdoğan also visited Erbil in the wake of discussions in Baghdad. He was welcomed by the KRI President Nechirvan Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, and many KRG ministers. Erdoğan also met with the former KRI President Masoud Barzani, and the sides talked about the Turkish officials’ meetings in Baghdad, per the KRG sources.

Since the controversial 2017 independence referendum in the KRI, the power balance between Erbil and Baghdad has tilted towards the federal government in Baghdad. The Iraqi Federal Supreme Court, acting under the influence of Iran, undermines the autonomy of the KRI through numerous verdicts. As a result, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is politically and economically cornered. Hence, the KDP decided to boycott the elections that are scheduled for June. This decision may create problems in the Iraqi political scene and put the country’s federal political system at stake. KDP, as a matter of fact, is fighting against Tehran’s influence in Iraq, as the KDP-dominated areas are the last places where Iran cannot project power as Tehran wants.

Having said that, the Development Road project can be an alternative to the US-backed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) project that bypasses Turkey. Iran has not commented on this project yet. Economic-wise, the mentioned project can be a better alternative to many countries at a time when the Red Sea is not a proper route due to Yemeni Houthi attacks on ships within the framework of the Gaza War. The realization of this project may decrease the costs of shipments of goods by sea. Of note, in the long run, the US may also become a part of this project. Washington has declared that it supports ‘‘all efforts to diversify Iraq’s economy and promote regional integration’’ following President Erdoğan’s visit to Baghdad. This project may also be connected to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China will surely want to seize this opportunity.

Fight Against the PKK

For a very long period, Ankara demanded Baghdad to officially declare the PKK as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, this did not take place for a number of reasons, including Iran’s influence on the Baghdad government and Iran’s good relationship with the PKK, as well as the minimal Baghdad influence in the KRI areas. Baghdad has long viewed the PKK issue as a problem between the Kurds and Turkey and refrained from directly engaging it. However, when Ankara had undertaken military operations on Iraqi soil, different political factions in Baghdad spoke out against Turkey on the grounds that Iraq’s sovereignty was being violated. In the face of this criticism, Turkey put forth that the Baghdad government was unwilling to act against the PKK, meaning that Ankara was compelled to act by itself.

That being said, despite this massive divergent approach to the PKK, Turkey has consistently separated the security and economic files in its Iraq policy. Namely, irrespective of the political problems, the trade volume between the two sides has always been ongoing. At the end of 2023, the trade volume reached 20 billion USD, and Turkey is keen to increase this number. Iraq continues to remain a big market for Turkish exports.

It is equally important to note that the Turkish approach of separating the economic file from the security one comes to an end. The Development Road project is not only an economic project but also a security one due to the PKK presence in some parts of the project road, especially after Mosul. Namely, PKK must be cleared from some areas for the realization of the project. The PKK, over the years, has increased its influence not only in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, especially in Suleymaniyah, but also in areas under the control of the Iraqi government, such as Mosul and Kirkuk. Thus, due to this increased influence and the security of the Development Road project, which will boost the Iraqi economy, the Baghdad government added the PKK to the list of ‘banned organizations in Iraq.’ This falls short of Turkey’s expectation from Iraq to designate the PKK as a terrorist organization. However, for the time being, Turkey seems to be content with this decision, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision.

Turkey’s ultimate expectation from Iraq is a joint struggle against the PKK.  Ankara wants the Iraqi army/security forces to fight alongside the Turkish army in Ankara’s operations against the PKK on Iraqi soil. However, this goal does not seem to be realized soon due to Baghdad’s unwillingness to do so. Despite this, Baghdad can help Turkey in logistical supply and intelligence gathering to Turkey in the PKK issue. Moreover, Baghdad can act against the PKK-affiliated figures in Iraq. Such a collaboration would suffice for Turkey, at least in the near future, at a time when a massive Turkish ground offensive against the PKK is expected to be initiated in the KRI areas this summer.

It is also important to note that a very hectic shuttle Turkish diplomacy played a key role in Iraq’s decision to add the PKK to the list of banned organizations. After assuming the foreign minister post, Hakan Fidan visited Baghdad many times starting from August 2023, with many high-ranking officials accompanying him. The Turkish Chief of Staff, Intelligence Chief, Deputy Interior Minister, and Turkish Defense Minister all had meetings with the Iraqi side on different visits.

Moreover, Turkey had many meetings with the leaders of the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces in Ankara and Baghdad to establish a working relationship with all sides of the Iraqi government. The meetings seem to have yielded positive results, given that Iran-backed figures have largely toned down their criticism of Turkey.

Water Share

The water share between Ankara and Baghdad has long been a bone of contention. In the past, the Iraqi side repeatedly accused Turkey of filling the dams on the Euphrates River and depriving the Iraqi side of a fair share of its water needs. On the other side, Turkey consistently rejected the accusations and claimed that climate change has impacted the amount of water that was flown from Turkey to Iraq. President Erdoğan has also repeated this narrative in his landmark visit. Although the two sides seem quite willing to work on a comprehensive water agreement that would foster collaboration between the two neighbors rather than confrontation, the resolution of the issue does not seem to be within reach for the time being. The longstanding bone of contention appears to continue to be an obstacle in bilateral relationships for the upcoming period.

A Crucial File Which Expects to be Resolved: Energy

The KRG sold its oil through Turkey without the approval of Iraq for almost ten years, starting from 2014 at a time when ISIS was seizing large swathes of territory in Iraq. After the rise of ISIS in 2014, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline was closed, and the KRG started to sell the oil on its own. For this reason, Iraq sued Turkey at the International Chamber of Commerce and won the case. The court ruled against Turkey, and Ankara was supposed to pay considerable compensation due to the court’s decision. Parallel to this development, the oil flow from the KRI to Turkey was stopped for over a year. This costs billions of dollars to the KRG and Iraq. 

Having said that, after agreeing to Baghdad’s terms, KRG agreed to send the oil revenues to Baghdad to restart the oil flow. Despite this situation, Baghdad has not allowed the oil flow to restart. It remains to be seen when the oil flow will restart. Moreover, it is also vague from which pipeline oil will start to flow again. During President Erdoğan’s recent visit, this issue was expected to be discussed. Yet, there seems to be no progress on this file.

All in all, President Erdoğan’s visit is undoubtedly crucial for fostering collaboration between the two neighbors. Nonetheless, some thorny issues, like the flow of oil and water share, will continue to be bones of contention between Ankara and Baghdad.