Why Iraq and Turkey's ties are at a historic low point

6 min read
03 August, 2022
Analysis: A deadly attack at a tourist site in Iraqi Kurdistan in July marked a turning point in bilateral ties, but the diplomatic crisis was decades in the making.

On 20 July, Iraqi tourists escaping the blistering heat of southern and central Iraq for the relatively cool climate of the Parakh tourist resort in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Zakho district suddenly found heavy artillery shells raining down around them.

The bombardments killed nine, including a one-year-old baby, and injured over 30. A tranquil respite had turned into hell, leaving the entire country outraged.

The straw that broke the camel's back

The Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish government condemned the strike. Turkey denied responsibility, dubiously claiming that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was behind the atrocity.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that “terrorists” carried out the attack to harm Iraq-Turkey relations. 

"The 20 July massacre follows the unprecedented penetration the Turkish military has made into northern Iraq, primarily Iraqi Kurdistan, in recent years"

Iraqis didn’t buy it. They promptly held demonstrations demanding the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador and burned Turkish flags in anger. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi even said Iraq maintains its “right to retaliate” against the “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.

Armed groups have also targeted a Turkish base in northern Iraq and its consulate in Mosul since the attack. 

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein went to the UN Security Council and demanded that Turkey withdraw all its troops from Iraqi territory. “Turkey must stop bringing about suffering against the people of Iraq,” he declared. 

Iraq and Turkey have clashed over the latter’s troop presence on the former’s soil in the past. Civilians have also been killed in Iraqi Kurdistan by Turkish strikes before. So, what makes this particular incident so different? 

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In December 2015, a diplomatic crisis between Baghdad and Ankara ensued after Turkey deployed special forces and tanks to its base near the town of Bashiqa in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province. The following year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi to “know his place” after Iraq again raised the issue. 

In January 2019, in a wholly unprecedented move, enraged Iraqi Kurds ransacked a Turkish military base in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Duhok province after Turkish airstrikes in the area killed six civilians the previous week. The protesters were fed up with the Turkish-PKK conflict claiming innocent lives, depopulating hundreds of villages, and rendering large tracts of agricultural land unusable. 

The Parakh massacre was in some ways distinguishable from these precedents. For one, there is rare unity between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil and Baghdad on the matter.

During Baghdad’s dispute with Ankara over the Bashiqa deployments, for example, Erbil defended Ankara, emphasising it was training Sunni and Kurdish troops to fight the Islamic State (IS) on the base.

A picture shows a view of an Iraqi mountain tourist spot which was hit with artillery bombardment in the Zakho district village of Parakh in the north of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on 20 July 2022. [Getty]

Also, when Turkey launched new air and ground operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad usually raised its objections while Erbil often remained relatively mute or merely called on the PKK to vacate the autonomous region.

In the 2019 incident, the civilians killed were local Kurds, which meant the backlash was relatively localised and ultimately short-lived. In Parakh, the majority killed were Shia Arab Iraqis vacationing on Kurdish soil, which sparked a far more general and widespread response and condemnation.

But this outpouring of anger and grief was, arguably, a long time coming, with this incident, for these reasons, possibly being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

"The Parakh massacre was in some ways distinguishable from past precedents. For one, there is rare unity between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and Baghdad"

Turkey's unprecedented military penetration into Iraq

The 20 July massacre follows the unprecedented penetration the Turkish military has made into northern Iraq, primarily Iraqi Kurdistan, in recent years.

Of course, the Turkish military presence in Iraq isn’t anything new. In 1995 and 1997, Ankara launched large-scale cross-border offensives against the PKK, deploying about 30,000 troops each time. A brief February 2008 incursion also saw Ankara criticised by both Baghdad and Erbil. 

However, since 2018, Turkish ground offensives have advanced increasingly deeper into Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has also consolidated the incremental gains it has made in successive operations (since 2019, all of them codenamed some variation of Claw; Claw-Tiger, Claw-Eagle, and Claw-Lock) by establishing a large number of military outposts and keeping troops stationed in the region rather than mounting temporary incursions and then withdrawing. 

“There is a need for sending combatant troops in the Iraqi Army as well as (the) Kurdish Peshmerga forces to those areas in order to expel Turkish forces from the outposts and impose Iraq’s control over them,” said the Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Army, Lieutenant General Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah, following the 20 July attack. 

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In his statement to the Security Council, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hussein said there had been 22,700 violations of Iraq’s sovereignty since 2018. He also noted that Baghdad has no deal with Turkey that permits Ankara to pursue PKK fighters into Iraqi territory, noting that an agreement signed by then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in 1984 only covered that year.

Furthermore, that deal only allowed Turkish forces to advance only five kilometres into Iraqi territory. Turkish forces are much deeper than that today, 105 kilometres, according to the Iraqi defence ministry, and their presence is anything but temporary.

As Turkish forces advance deeper into Iraq, they have pushed PKK fighters closer to urban centres, increasing the risk of civilian casualties and raising concerns in Baghdad and Erbil. 

In June 2020, a Turkish airstrike targeting a pick-up truck in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kuna Masi in Sulaymaniyah province injured six people near a water resort where 40 civilians were present. The previous October, a Turkish drone targeted two PKK fighters in a popular resort on Mount Azmar over Sulaymaniyah city.

And of course, there were the deaths of six civilians in Duhok in January 2019 that sparked the furious backlash. With these precedents, the July 2022 massacre seemed somewhat inevitable in retrospect. 

Iraqi security forces stand guard outside the Turkish visa office in Baghdad on 21 July 2022 during a demonstration against an attack on the country's autonomous Kurdistan region blamed on Turkey. [Getty]

What's next?

While Iraqi outrage over the Parakh massacre is no doubt genuine, there is little either Baghdad or Erbil can do about Turkey’s ongoing campaign in the country aside from raising objections in the UN and to the international community.

And with Turkey needed in the West arguably more than ever in light of the Ukraine crisis – especially for its role with the UN brokering an agreement with Russia to allow Kyiv to export its grain – the international community is not likely to reprimand Turkey in any significant way.

Furthermore, Iraq has failed to form a government almost ten months after its last parliamentary elections. The political situation there is presently in turmoil, with the risk of widespread political violence seemingly higher than ever. 

But it’s not only the Turkish military presence in Iraq that’s a major bone of contention. Turkey’s construction of large dams upstream of Iraq’s two iconic rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, are taking a heavy toll on the country.

"While Iraq may not be able to do anything concrete in response to Turkish actions, the collective backlash from otherwise disparate factions in Iraq should, nevertheless, give Ankara pause for thought"

Ankara opened a large dam, the Ilisu Dam, on the Tigris in 2018. The reduced water levels in Iraq from the construction of such enormous dams have predictably led to significant shortages in water for drinking and irrigation – the latter being essential for agriculture at a time when the Ukraine war endangers food security in the region.

Furthermore, Iraq has experienced an unprecedented number of severe sandstorms since the beginning of 2022, which have forced airports, government offices, and schools to close, negatively affecting the economy. 

While Iraq may not be able to do anything concrete in response to such Turkish actions for the foreseeable future, the collective backlash from otherwise disparate factions in Iraq should, nevertheless, give Ankara pause for thought about the wisdom of continuing policies that are causing such widespread resentment against it in its volatile southern neighbour.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon