The Significance of Erdogan’s Recent Visit to Iraq


On April 22, 2024, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iraq marking his first official visit to the country in more than a decade. During his visit to Baghdad, he met Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid and Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani. Erdogan also visited Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Region where in recent years Türkiye has increased strikes targeting Kurdish rebel groups, particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Iraq and Türkiye signed a strategic framework agreement for joint cooperation during Erdogan’s visit, signaling a commitment to enhancing collaboration across multiple sectors. The agreements encompassed 24 memoranda covering diverse fields including energy, trade and transport, investment, infrastructure, science and technology, agriculture, and water resource management. The agreement on sharing water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and joint projects, including the modernization of Iraqi irrigation systems, would be implemented over 10 years. This aims to ensure the equitable management of water resources, addressing longstanding concerns about Turkish dams impacting water levels and exacerbating Iraq’s drought issues.

As per the official data, bilateral trade fell from $24.2 billion in 2022 to $19.9 billion in 2023. However, during the first quarter of 2023, Turkish exports to Iraq saw a surge of 24.5% while imports declined 46.2%. Dilan Ghafoor, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Iraqi Parliament, emphasized Türkiye’s aspiration to increase the annual trade volume with Iraq to $24 billion.

Both countries have stressed their interest in cooperation on the ambitious Development Road Project which is an initiative that aims to establish a transportation link worth an estimated $20 billion, stretching 1,275 kilometers from Basra, Iraq’s oil-rich southern province, to Türkiye. The project includes Qatar and the UAE as well and both countries have promised financial investments to the development of the road and railway networks. This project holds significance for Türkiye because of its potential role in accentuating trade linkages with the Gulf region and other countries and the diplomatic engagement between both countries has increased in recent years as a result of this convergence.

Türkiye aims to capitalize on its strategic location, especially as it has been excluded from earlier proposals like the India-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC). During the G20 summit in September 2023, Erdogan emphasized Türkiye’s indispensability, stating, “There cannot be a corridor without Türkiye. Türkiye is an important production and trade base. The most convenient line for east-to-west traffic has to pass through Türkiye.” Both routes circumvent the Suez Canal, with the UAE serving as a common partner. The primary distinction between IMEC and the Development Road Project is the involvement of Israel. IMEC sought to complement and expedite the normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, however, Riyadh has maintained its position that no normalization talks would be successful without a fair solution for the Palestinians. The October 7 Hamas attacks and their consequences have changed the regional situation, especially due to the security risks and a polarized political environment. In the present context, the normalization process is halted due to Israeli aggression in Gaza and Israel encounters global condemnation and strong public opposition across the Arab world. Erdogan recognizes the opportunity to advance his plan amidst the current circumstances.

Security was one of the most important issues discussed between both countries as Türkiye has increased its cross-border attacks against the PKK. As per reports, the Turkish Ministry of Defense also discussed with Iraq to provide technical assistance for border security against PKK militants. Iraq had previously voiced criticism against Türkiye’s military operations targeting the PKK in northern Iraq. However, following extensive deliberations last year, Iraq and Türkiye issued a joint statement announcing the designation of the PKK as a banned organization. Türkiye initiated a series of military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq called Claw Lock (April-May 2022) which contributed to the tensions between both countries. Earlier Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler had said that Ankara’s objective is to establish a security corridor along the shared border with Iraq, spanning 30 kilometers to 40 kilometers. The recent decision by Baghdad to ban the PKK reflects its aim to increase security measures amid long-standing concerns about sovereignty violations due to Turkish military activities in Iraq.

With the potential for significant investments in projects like the Development Road Project looming, Baghdad is determined not to forgo these due to contentious issues such as the PKK. Consequently, Baghdad is eager to reach a mutual consensus. Bilateral cooperation, particularly regarding significant infrastructure projects, relies heavily on both domestic and regional security, as well as effective coordination and agreement between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, especially amid prevailing concerns over autonomy. Both Baghdad and Ankara are aware of this dynamic, underscoring the critical importance of discussions on security matters which continues to be the major challenge. The recent meeting in Erbil between Erdogan and Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani, as well as Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, reflects the recognition of the shared advantages of bilateral cooperation. The Iraq-Türkiye oil pipeline has been halted since March 2023 due to legal disputes, with foreign oil firms and Kurdish authorities failing to submit revised contracts, leading to financial repercussions for Iraq. Both countries will likely work to overcome the current impediments or find possible alternate routes. In either case, Türkiye will likely use these projects to complement its attempts to position itself as the regional energy hub connecting the Middle East to Europe.

The recent visit of Erdogan to Iraq marks a significant milestone in bilateral relations, symbolizing a renewed commitment to cooperation. The signing of key agreements, including the ambitious Development Road Project and the strategic framework agreement for joint cooperation, highlights a mutual desire to enhance connectivity, trade, and security between both countries. Additionally, the attempts to resolve longstanding issues like water resource management and the designation of the PKK as a banned organization demonstrate a willingness to address shared challenges and build a foundation for long-term stability.

Editorial Team