No Breakthrough in Iraq but Insights for Turkey’s Upcoming Summer Offensive

April 26, 2024
by Mustafa Enes Esen published on 26 April 2024
No Breakthrough in Iraq but Insights for Turkey’s Upcoming Summer Offensive

President Erdoğan's long-anticipated visit to Iraq unfolded on Monday, where he was warmly welcomed by Iraqi President of Republic Abdul Latif Rashid and Prime Minister Sudani in Baghdad. The visit culminated in the signing of 26 memoranda of understanding in various fields including energy, trade, water management, security cooperation, military training, and agriculture. Later on the same day, he also paid a visit to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. 

Erdoğan has engaged different powerful actors in Iraq in this visit. Nonetheless, the fact that Ankara has to deal with several stakeholders who mistrust and undermine each other makes any real progress sluggish, at best, in Iraq for Turkey.  

Turkish Summer Offensive to Iraq

The primary expectation from Erdoğan's visit was to secure the Iraqi government's consent for a large-scale summer military operation in Northern Iraq, in consistent with Turkey’s strategy to establish a buffer zone in northern Iraq and Syria to counter the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or other affiliated organizations such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The summer offensive will probably involve the expansion of Turkey's existing troop presence in the region, supported by both Erbil and Baghdad. Under the framework of military operations dubbed as "claw" since 2019, the Turkish army has been actively engaging with the PKK in northern Iraq. For Ankara, the political and diplomatic support of the Iraqi government holds greater significance than its troop contributions, as Ankara seeks recognition of the legitimacy of its operations 40 km deep within Iraq. At least, this is what Turkey expects from its Iraqi counterparts. 

While Baghdad has recently taken a firmer stance against the PKK and designated it a banned organization, it lacks the capacity and willingness to assist in a prospective military operation with Turkey. Nonetheless, Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler confirmed an agreement between Turkey and Iraq to establish a joint military operations center to identify actionable measures for mutual cooperation. On the other hand, Iraq's desire to mediate between Turkey and the PKK is a non-starter, given the current state of affairs in Ankara.

Will the oil flow resume from Iraq to Turkey soon?

Another hot topic was the resumption of oil through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline (ITP). This pipeline was constructed in 1976 to transport Iraqi oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea, boasting a capacity of 1.4 million barrels per day. Damage inflicted by ISIS in 2013 to the section passing through Mosul disrupted the flow from Kirkuk. Nevertheless, the Kurdish government in the north has built a connection to the pipeline, commencing oil exports without the consent of the Iraqi Central Government in Baghdad. 

The purchase of Kurdish oil was legally contentious, resulting in limited buyers in the international markets, with Israel being a notable exception. By mid-2015, Israel was reportedly importing up to three-quarters of its crude oil needs from the KRG. Notably, in February 2023 alone, Israel imported approximately 183,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Kurdish oil, of its consumption averaging around 210,000 bpd. However, this flow came to a halt when the International Court of Arbitration in Paris ruled in favor of the Iraqi Government against Turkey in March 2023. Turkey was ordered to pay a fine of $1.5 billion, covering the period from 2014 to 2018, with a second arbitration case pending for the period after 2018.

Although Turkey was not happy with the ruling and used the earthquakes in February 2023 as a pretext to extract some concessions, it has later signaled its readiness to resume the oil flow, contingent upon an agreement between Erbil and Baghdad. Yet, due to the political impasse and mutual distrust between the parties, neither side in Iraq is willing to make concessions. Complicating matters, Iraq is already surpassing its OPEC+ quota by 200,000 barrels per day, further diminishing its urgency to restart the flow.

This issue was also raised during Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani's visit to Washington D.C. on April 15, where discussions with President Biden underscored the importance of ensuring Iraqi oil reaches international markets. The joint statement following their bilateral meeting emphasized their mutual desire to reopen the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline.

On the other hand, it is notable that oil trade between the KRG and Turkey persists unabated through crude oil smuggling via trucks. It is estimated that Turkey imports between 200,000 and 250,000 barrels daily using this method,enjoying a $25 discount compared to global prices.

The Iraq Development Road project

The most tangible outcome of this visit was the signing of a transportation agreement, the Iraq Development Road project, involving Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE. This project is positioned to compete with the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) initiative, which currently excludes Turkey and Iraq. While the Iraq Development Road project holds the promise of generating tens of thousands of new jobs in Iraq, skepticism lingers regarding its feasibility as a viable alternative to the well-established trade routes in the region. Nevertheless, the Turkish government is poised to embrace the $17 billion worth of construction projects that can be partially undertaken by Turkish companies as part of this initiative. 

President Erdoğan's recent visit to Iraq was marked by the signing of numerous agreements and high honors. Nonetheless, there was no breakthrough in key issues such as military operations against the PKK, the resumption of oil flow via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, and water resources. And it is unlikely that Turkey will reap lasting economic benefits without solving the underlying mistrust between Erbil and Baghdad. However, the visit provided Turkey with valuable insights regarding its anticipated military operation in Northern Iraq. 

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