On August 11, a Turkish drone strike in north-eastern Iraq killed two Iraqi border guards who were returning from an alleged conflict resolution meeting with representatives of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara, the US, and the European Union. Since last June, Turkey has been conducting a new and more ambitious military operation against the PKK deep into Iraq’s northern territories, with the aim of establishing a security corridor – up to 50 kilometres-deep – south of its southern borders, disrupting the PKK’s logistic and recruitment networks and forcing Kurdish militants to backtrack. Dubbed “Operation Tiger Claw”, this multi-stage offensive is only the latest of several incursions carried out by Turkish troops against PKK targets in Iraq since, at least, 2016.
Against a backdrop of relative acquiescence in the past, however, this time Iraq’s reaction has been more vocal and concrete, with Baghdad that summoned the Turkish ambassador – the third time since the beginning of Operation Tiger Claw in April 2019 –, cancelled the official visit of the Turkish Defence minister scheduled for August 13 and officially demanded the end of all Turkish actions within its borders. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi defined the fact as “unacceptable”, echoing the Iraqi Military’s accusation of “flagrant aggression”. Even more important, the Iraqi parliament has addressed several complaints to the UN Security Council and sought diplomatic support from the Arab League, confirming a tangible impatience with Ankara’s cross-border operations.
Nevertheless, when considering the “PKK factor”, the fact that Iraq’s diplomatic reactions have been time and again rather moderate suggests Baghdad’s need to avoid feuds with Turkey and preserve crucial bilateral ties, especially from an economic standpoint. Iraq represents the third market for Turkish exports, with $10.2 billion in 2019, which accounted for 5% of Turkey’s total exports and recorded an 8.3% increase in 2019. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, trade cooperation was one of the key issues discussed during several high-level bilateral meetings, including one between presidents Barham Salih and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which they set the goal of raising trading interchange from $13 billion to $20 billion in the near future. As Iraqi exports to Turkey were also increasing before the virus, surging by 29.6% in the first quarter of 2019, positive trade relations remain essential for the two countries’ economies. Turkey’s activism in Iraq also includes financial and development support. At the beginning of 2019 Turkey was eager to commit a $5 billion loan to support reconstruction in Iraq, confirming Ankara’s interest in cementing its influence on its southern neighbour.
Although such strong ties should deter any Iraqi retaliatory measure that goes beyond the diplomatic sphere, Baghdad has recently adopted a more cautious approach toward the flood of Turkish products on its domestic market, banning the importation of assorted agricultural and processed food products – especially eggs and pasta – for one year, in order to further a supposed strategy of progressive self-sufficiency in these sectors. Such a decision has since put bilateral trade relations to the test while casting some shadows on Iraq’s real intentions when it comes to its economic cooperation plans, as other countries may benefit from Turkey’s fading market share in Iraq. Among them Iran, which heavily depends on the Iraqi market for exporting its products at a time in which relentless US sanctions are paralyzing the Iranian economy. Moreover, Iraq still imports a significant share of its electricity from the Islamic Republic, and in a recent visit to Baghdad by Iran’s Minister of Energy Reza Ardakanian, Tehran managed to secure a new agreement on exports of electricity to its neighbour for the next two years. With such a strong economic interdependence, and also considering Iran’s influence on some Iraqi political factions and paramilitary formations within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the Iraqi authorities’ decision to ban Turkish products may therefore indicate a significant political choice.
But other actors as well are vying for a greater role in Iraq. The Arab Gulf countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are keen to revive their cooperation with Iraq while keeping Baghdad away from Turkish (and Iranian) influence. This trend of geopolitical rivalry over Iraq has tangibly emerged after the accidental killing of the two Iraqi military border guards by Turkish drones, with several Arab countries, including Egypt, Kuwait and the UAE, that harshly accused Turkey of wreaking havoc in the region and pledged support to Iraq within the Arab League. The Egyptian government, for instance, is trying to exploit the incident to boost economic and security cooperation with Iraq at Turkey’s expense.
also depend on the ties Ankara is cultivating with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its two main political entities: the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In recent weeks KRG officials have become more vocal against Ankara’s military operations, echoing Kurdish citizens’ outrage for civilian casualties and material damages caused by Turkish airstrikes. Yet, beneath a layer of official condemnation, the two parties remain distant in their approach towards Turkey and the PKK. The KDP, characterized by a strong traditional and conservative orientation, maintains close and amicable relations with Ankara, while being at odds with the PKK due to obvious ideological and political divergences, and the two sides have clashed repeatedly over time. On the other hand, the PUK has often been criticized by Turkey for its bonds with the PKK. Talabani’s party has indeed a long history of cooperation with the PKK, including against Barzani’s KDP during the Kurdish civil war in the late 1990s, but the current party leadership is trying to normalize its relations with Ankara. Above all, such a difference is motivated by different economic and political interests. Turkey entertains strong economic relations with the KRG and remains its main energy partner, with some 450 thousand barrels of oil per day being exported to Turkey via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, whose revenues are largely monopolized by the KDP. The PUK does not enjoy such profitable ties and has usually prioritized its relations with neighbouring Iran. Against this backdrop, Baghdad looks at the KDP-Turkey axis suspiciously, and has so far turned a blind eye to the PKK presence in the north, which may also serve as a strategic counterweight against Turkey’s political influence and military presence in the strategic Nineveh governorate, once a vibrant vilayet of the Ottoman Empire.
Overall, the dossiers, and the economic fallout of the virus may soon force Ankara to reconsider its priorities in Iraq. Besides the security domain, economic and political factors should not be disregarded, as growing trade and energy linkages in the region are powerful variables informing the two countries’ relations.
 Some PMU groups linked to Teheran have already established their economic networks and could eye new lucrative opportunities in agriculture and food processing activities now that Turkish products are boycotted. As Iran seeks to cultivate and strengthen its vital economic interest in Iraq for its own survival, economic competition with Turkey in the land of two rivers is likely to increase in the next future.
 Last April, KRG president Nechirvan Barzani, also a KDP member, called on the PKK to end its “illegitimate” presence in northern Iraq, while using a far more tepid tone to condemn Ankara’s drone strikes. See, for instance: https://www.duvarenglish.com/politics/2020/04/20/barzani-pkks-presence-in-iraqs-kurdish-region-is-not-legitimate/