Turkey sounds the war drums in northern Iraq 


Turkish officials have been ‘rolling deep’ in Iraq this week. The foreign minister, defence minister, and intelligence chief have all hit Baghdad for meetings ahead of a planned visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan next month. 

That’s a conspicuously senior guest list for talks on ‘energy and security cooperation’, per the initial public line. It makes more sense amidst reports Turkey has decided to launch a new offensive into Kurdish-populated northern Iraq this summer to push the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) further south.

Does this mean there’ll be another war in the Middle East? 

Turkey has been conducting strikes against outposts of Kurdish separatists like the PKK in northern Iraq for decades. In fact, the PKK has long been designated a terrorist organisation in Turkey and across much of the West.

But as Turkey pursues the PKK deeper into Iraqi territory, it’s also built dozens of unsanctioned bases there.

And Ankara is now looking to create a full 30-40km buffer in northern Iraq, with Erdoğan saying, “hopefully, this summer, we will have permanently resolved the issue regarding our Iraqi borders.

So it appears the phalanx of senior Turkish visitors to Baghdad this week is really to seek Iraq’s support (or at least its acquiescence) for this move against the PKK.

But why now?

First, recent attacks in the area have left some 20 Turkish soldiers dead. 

Second, Erdoğan has said Turkey’s local elections on 31 March will be his last before he becomes term-limited in 2028. He’s not a candidate, though he sees this local ballot as key to his succession plan, and he’s criticised opposition/Kurdish links at campaign rallies. A tough line on Kurdish separatists could help Erdoğan and his party win major opposition-held cities like Istanbul, where the mayor is a political rival.

Third, the PKK is seen as a hurdle (one of many) for the Iraq Development Road, an ambitious $17B Iraqi plan to connect the Persian Gulf through Iraq to Turkey and on into European markets. Turkey has its own interests (particularly after the US and other partners announced a parallel corridorthat excludes Turkey), but it’s presumably also using this project as leverage in its PKK talks with Iraq.

And all along, the international community has remained relatively quiet, partly because it’s distracted by conflicts elsewhere (including in Gaza) and partly because the US is backing other anti-ISIS Kurdish groups next door in Syria.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

We mentioned yesterday how the debate around TikTok looks like an early test of what it means to be a sovereign state in the 21st century.

Today’s briefing is a reminder that, while we grapple with these new-fangled tech challenges, we’re still also grappling with what it meant to be a sovereign state in the 20th century, as borders continue to blur behind a bewildering network of alliances, rivalries, dependencies, ambitions, and grievances.

Also worth noting:

  • Turkey and Iraq just released a joint statement in which Iraq says it’s listing the PKK as a banned organisation for the first time.
  • The US and Iraq are in talks about a potential withdrawal of the ~2,500 US troops still on Iraqi soil. 
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