Turkey’s Goals in Iraq


2012-08-05 By Richard Weitz

Turkey views Iraq as a key area of interest and influence.

Turkey has several core interests in Iraq:

  • Cultivating ties with the various Iraqi factions,
  • Preventing terrorists from using northern Iraq as a base of operations;
  • Balancing the influence of Iran;
  • Securing access to Iraqi oil and other economic opportunities;
  • And generally seeking to promote stability in a key neighboring region.
Turkish policy makers want an Iraqi regime that can keep “peace at home, peace in the world” and not fall under the control of another foreign government, in this case Iran. Now that all U.S. combat troops have withdrawn from Iraq, that country’s neighbors are positioning themselves to manage the resulting transformation in their regional security environment, including by intervening in Iraqi internal politics on behalf of various allies and proxies. Image Credit: Bigstock

The Turkish government has employed several tools in pursuit of these goals in Iraq—diplomatic initiatives, economic ties, and when necessary military power.

Turkey suffered security and economic problems from the 2003 Iraq War, but the conflict did enhance Ankara’s regional influence by deepening the power vacuum that had emerged after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Since then, Turkey has obtained strong influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, but Iraqi Sunnis still gravitate more toward the Persian Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia.

Relations with Baghdad have deteriorated in recent years, with the two governments disputing al-Malaki’s policies towards the Iraqi political opposition, Turkey’s economic ties with Kurdistan, and the level of Iranian influence in Iraq.

Most recently, the two governments’ diverging views regarding the Syrian civil war have become a source of tension.

Although Turkish policy makers opposed the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, they have not welcomed the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq, completed mid-December 2011. They share concerns in the Persian Gulf, the United States, and elsewhere that the new Iraqi government and military is too weak to govern the fissiparous Iraqi state effectively.

Turkish policy makers want an Iraqi regime that can keep “peace at home, peace in the world” and not fall under the control of another foreign government, in this case Iran.

The governments of Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Persian Gulf minorities consider Turkey a useful ally for promoting moderate Sunni causes in Iraq against either Sunni extremists belonging to al-Qaeda or Shiite militants backed by Iran.

Relations on the Rebound

The 1991 Operation Desert Storm resulted in the U.S.-led coalition driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, severely weakening Iraq’s military, and subsequently containing Iraq’s regional influence. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) reinforced these tendencies by shattering Iraqi military power and Iraqi political unity.

Turkey’s government has filled the vacuum created by Iraq’s collapse by extending its influence in many neighboring countries in what some observers describe as a “neo-Ottoman” policy, a label rejected by AKP leaders.

Now that all U.S. combat troops have withdrawn from Iraq, that country’s neighbors are positioning themselves to manage the resulting transformation in their regional security environment, including by intervening in Iraqi internal politics on behalf of various allies and proxies.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been the most active neighboring countries seeking to influence events in Iraq, but Turkey’s influence in Iraq has grown considerably in recent years.

The nadir of Turkish influence in Iraq occurred during and after the Anglo-American invasion of March 2003.

Despite the offer of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, the Turkish parliament voted against a reluctant proposal by the new government, led by the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), to allow the U.S. military to attack Iraq through Turkey’s southeast border during OIF. Instead, the Pentagon had to spend considerable time repositioning its troops to enter Iraq through that country’s southern border. The Bush administration partly blamed the Turkish parliament’s decision for the subsequent emergence of the anti-Western insurgency in Iraq. In 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that, “If we had been able to get the 4th infantry Division in from the north through Turkey . . . the insurgency would have been less.”

By then, Turkish public opinion had turned solidly against Washington’s Iraq policies. Turks perceived the U.S. promotion of an autonomous Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, as inspiring Kurdish separatism in Turkey and providing a de facto sanctuary for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Kurdish: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK). The group’s terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians escalated following the Anglo-American invasion.

A related worry was the general upsurge in sectarianism, terrorism, and other disorders in all of Iraq, which disrupted that country’s economic ties with Turkey and constantly threatened to devolve into a failed state on Turkey’s borders.

Another source of concern was how Turkey’s exclusion from the occupying coalition combined with the tensions between Ankara and Washington had minimized Turkish influence in post-Saddam Iraq.

Starting in 2007, the Turkish and U.S. governments cooperated more effectively with the Turkish military to counter PKK activities in northern Iraq.

Until then, Ankara had complained repeatedly that Washington was paying insufficient attention to Turkey’s security interests in northern Iraq, especially PKK activities in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But the deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers in a border clash in October 2007 led the United States to provide more intelligence and other assistance to the Turkish military, which then began to conduct more effective air and ground attacks against PKK targets. The more precise Turkish attacks also minimized Kurdish civilian casualties and therefore KRG complaints.

Since then, in line with the AKP’s “zero problems” with neighbors policy, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and other Turkish policy makers have conducted a sustained Turkish campaign to improve ties with the KRG, balancing unilateral military action with the application of soft power means of influence, primarily by deepening cultural, education, and business ties with Iraqi Kurds and, where possible, other Iraqis.

The latter efforts bore some fruit when, in July 2008, Turkey and Iraq signed a joint political declaration that established a high-level strategic cooperation council aimed at cementing a “long-term strategic partnership.”  The agreement also calls for joint efforts to prevent terrorists and illegal arms from moving across their border. The council has since served as a discussion forum for the prime ministers and other high-level government officials of both countries. They have met several times a year to improve cooperation regarding energy, security, diplomatic, and economic issues.

The reorientation in Turkey’s policy toward Iraq culminated in President Gul’s March 23-24, 2009 trip to Baghdad, the first official presidential-level visit to Iraq for 33 years.

Strengthening Economic Ties

The Ankara government has made a vigorous effort to expand Turkish-Iraq economic ties.

In addition to commercial considerations, Turkish officials have sought to make Iraq’s economic health depend more on its sustaining good relations with Turkey, which increases Ankara’s leverage over Baghdad’s policies. Most of Iraqi Kurdistan’s trade and foreign investment involves Turkish firms, but even Iraqis located elsewhere understand that Turkey is the most prosperous and industrialized of Iraq’s neighbors, offers routes to and from Western markets, and provides an exit to the Mediterranean Sea for Iraqi hydrocarbons.

Furthermore, economic exchanges with Iraq benefit Turks, especially those living in southeastern Turkey, a region that is less developed that western Turkey and where much of Turkey’s discontented Kurdish population lives. One means of reducing their dissatisfaction, which can manifest itself in support of PKK terrorism, is to improve theoir standard of living.

Between 2003 and 2010, overall yearly bilateral trade between Iraq and Turkey increased from $940 million to $6 billion. The figure for 2011 was $11 billion.

The two-way trade between the two countries should approximate $14 billion in 2012, making Iraq Turkey’s second largest trading partner, after Germany.

More than half of Turkey’s trade with Iraq involves the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkish policy makers would like to increase Turkish-Iraq two-way trade to $25 billion in five years.

Iraqis buy various materials, machinery and construction products, basic food and cleaning materials, and electrical and electronic products from Turkey. In contrast, almost all of Turkey’s imports from Iraq consist of oil and fuel oil. In particular, Turkey is helping bring Iraqi energy to European markets.

The oil pipeline that runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan in Turkey transports one fourth of Iraq’s crude oil exports.

The flow assures both the authorities in both Kurdistan and beyond considerable revenue while helping secure Turkey’s position as major energy bridge between the Middle East and Europe.

Starting in 2009, after Baghdad politicians could not agree on a new hydrocarbon law due to disputes over revenue sharing and other issues, Turkey began importing oil directly from the KRG. Baghdad continues to object to Turkey-KRG energy deals that circumvent the authority of Iraq’s central government, but lacks the means to block it.

Turkey and Iraq now exchange oil at the rate of 450,000 to 500,000 barrels a day. If Iraq doubles or triples its current level of daily oil exports of some two million barrels, then Turkey may benefit from having access to more easily imported oil, the extra revenues Turkey would earn as a transit country for Iraqi oil flowing to European markets, Iraqis’ increased ability to purchase Turkish goods, and from the Iraq government’s having more funds available for internal security.

Another future development that could have the same effect would be if the long-planned Nabucco gas pipeline is constructed. Turkey has agreed that the pipeline could traverse its territory as it conveys natural gas from Iraq and other Middle Eastern as well as Caspian Basin countries to Europe.

The only scenario that could ruin this rosy picture would be if the oil and gas in northern Iraq were to flow through Syria instead of Turkey, but the chaos in that country has prevented such a development.

Meanwhile, Turkey is helping Iraqis meet their own energy demands.

Turkish firms have invested in oil and gas exploration and production projects throughout Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq relies on Turkey to provide 250 megawatts of electricity each day. Turkey plans to increase the megawatts of electricity it sells to Iraq to 1200 mw/h, which would meet one-fourth of Iraq’s electricity requirements. The Electricity Ministry of Iraq signed a $900-million contract with three Turkish companies to install 20 gas turbines and increase Iraq’s power-generating capacity by 2,500 megawatts.

Even excluding the oil sector, Turkey has become Iraq’s largest commercial investor. Turkish firms have invested in hotels, housing, and the energy sector in Iraq. These companies provide manufactured goods and other products. Hundreds of Turkish contractors are currently in Iraq working on approximately $16 billion worth of projects. More than half of the foreign firms now in Iraq are Turkish-owned.

In addition to using its military, economic, and energy assets as tools of influence regarding Iraq, Turkey has been using “soft power” to elevate its status and attractiveness in Iraq.


For example, Turkey helped double the number of out-of-country training opportunities that NATO could offer Iraqis in 2010 for internal security training. In December 2005, Turkey encouraged efforts in Iraq to bring together the Sunni Arab Party representatives and U.S. ambassador in Istanbul in an effort to head off the burgeoning Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq. Turkey also hosted programs to train more than 500 Iraqi politicians in democratization issues; the politicians came from all of Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian political parties. In August 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu unsuccessfully sought to mediate between Iraq and Syria after Iraqi officials blamed the Syrian government for helping several massive bombings in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Turkish diplomacy regarding Iraq initially focused on the occupying powers, especially the United States, but later extended to encompass the newly reconstituted Iraqi government, and the regional authorities in southern and northern Iraq. In 2009, Turkey opened consulates in Erbil, Basra and Mosul—major regional centers of Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni influence, respectively—in a tangible display of support for a unified Iraq.

Within Iraq, Turkish leaders first developed extensive ties with Iraq’s Sunni minority, which until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003 ruled over Iraq’s other minorities as well as its Shiite majority. Turkey then improved relations with the leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish minority, who prudently distanced themselves from the PKK and embraced the economic opportunities offered by the Kurds.

In addition to reaching out to Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, the AKP has also attempted to develop ties with Iraqi Shiites, including by reaching out to populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr by training lawmakers belonging to al-Sadr’s party in parliamentary protocol. Furthermore, a Turkish consortium participated in an $11-billion renovation project in Sadr City, Baghdad’s largest Shiite neighborhood. In October 2009,Turkey opened a consulate in Basra, a Shiite-dominated southern port city and Iraq’s only large seaport in a major oil-producing region. To further sigal his government’s desire to reach out to Iraqi Shiites, Erdogan became the first modern Turksih leader to attend the Shiite commemoration of Ashura (in December 2010) and visit Hz. Ali’s tomb in Najaf (in March 2011), one of the most important Shiite sites in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the recurring Turkish military interventions in northern Iraq have underscored that Turkey still relies on military power as its ultimate security instrument in northern Iraq.

Turkish officials have complained that security along the Iraq-Turkish border has declined with the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops in Iraq in late 2011 and that the PKK has been exploiting this opening to intensify attacks against Turkey.

On October 29, 2011, the PKK launched its most successful attack to date and killed 24 Turkish soldiers, and wounded many more, in an ambush in Hakkari province. In response, around 10,000 Turkish security personnel, including elite special forces units in addition to regular conscripts, engaged in a major military operation in the border region against the PKK. Although most Turkish forces stayed inside Turkish territory, some 2,000 Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq to search and destroy PKK units and facilities.

Ankara has sought to minimize its costs and rely on Iraqi forces to deal with the PKK fighters inside Iraq. The leaders of both the Iraqi central government and the KRG in northern Iraq have denounced the PKK attacks and not resisted Turkish military operations on their territory, but they lack the means to eliminate the PKK forces in Iraq.