Turkey Continues to Exploit Iraq Crises to Create Safe Zone

Arab Weelky
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar meets with military personnel at a command centre, in Ankara, April 18, 2022. (Reuters)Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar meets with military personnel at a command centre, in Ankara, April 18, 2022. (Reuters)

ANKARA – Turkey is reportedly seeking to create a safe zone in northern Iraq, just as it did in Syria, where it succeeded in controlling a strip of land that includes Kurdish areas and villages that were later handed over to its allied Syrian militias to be managed.

Turkish reports said that Ankara is racing against time to impose an area extending to a depth of 60-70 kilometres, across which it will establish “temporary military bases” and military checkpoints, taking advantage of the absence of an official Iraqi response.

Turkey, experts say, knows that the Iraqi political class, whether in Baghdad or the Kurdistan region, is mired in domestic crises in the absence of political settlements. This means that neither Baghdad nor Erbil is currently able to push back against the Turkish military presence, not even politically, especially since Ankara succeeded in wooing Masoud Barzani, the strong man in the Kurdish region.

The Turkish Operation Claw-Lock in northern Iraq was launched two days after a rare visit by the prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Masrour Barzani, suggesting that he had been briefed on Ankara’s plans. In Ankara, Barzani had reportedly met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the head of Turkish intelligence Hakan Fidan.

Barzani said after his talks with Erdogan that he welcomes “the expansion of cooperation to enhance security and stability” in northern Iraq.

Turkish websites quoted military and political officials as saying that the “single goal” set by Ankara for its ongoing military Operation Claw-Lock is to “clear the terror corridor in Matina, Al-Zab, Avashin and Bassian and establish a safe zone.”

Experts believe that the security aspect is not the only goal of Turkey’s operation and that there is a Turkish plan to seize gas production in the Kurdistan region in coordination with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, in a way that makes Turkey the only gateway for exports and at prices that take into account the interests of Ankara.  A direct military presence would secure the success of this plan and prevent any attempt to counter it from either the Kurdish side or the Iraqi government.

Over the last few years, the Kurdistan government has increased its sales of oil independently of Baghdad and hopes to substantially increase gas production and exports as it seeks independence from Baghdad economically and perhaps politically.

European gas companies consider the Kurdistan region a potential source to supply gas to Europe via Turkey. Such supplies could help the continent reduce its heavy dependence on Russian gas.

Kurdish politician Muhammad Amin Panjwani said that Turkey is using the war on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a pretext to control oil wells and natural gas supplies in southern Kurdistan.

He added that “Turkey is preparing to invade the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk” in 2023 and that the goal behind this invasion would be to impose a fait accompli on Iraq and then later control the production of oil and gas in the north of the country.

Panjwani considered the recent Turkish military operation as preparation for a comprehensive operation to control Iraqi territory in the coming year.

“I think Operation Claw-Lock is a preparation for the potential comprehensive operation announced by Erdogan, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and the head of intelligence. That’s why they are planning to launch a large-scale attack to invade Kurdistan from Mosul to Kirkuk,” he said.

Turkey last week summoned Baghdad’s top envoy to defend its decision to launch the military campaign against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.

Iraq’s chargé d’affaires was called in a day after officials in Baghdad denied President Erdogan’s claim that they backed the offensive.

Turkey launched its third campaign in northern Iraq since 2020 on Sunday, using Special Forces and combat drones to attack PKK fighters.

Erdogan said on April 20  that Turkey’s push into the mountains of northern Iraq was being conducted in “close cooperation with the central Iraqi government and the regional administration in northern Iraq.”

The Iraqi foreign ministry said Erdogan’s claim was “not true.”

The ministry for Iraqi peshmerga fighters in the country’s autonomous Kurdish region also denied any cooperation or participation in the Turkish offensive.

Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a softly-worded statement saying it called in Baghdad’s envoy to convey its displeasure with the “unfounded allegations” made in the wake of Erdogan’s statement in Iraq.

“As long as the Iraqi authorities do not take concrete and effective steps (against the rebels) and the threat posed by them from Iraq continues, our country will take the necessary measures on the basis of its right of self-defence,” Turkish ministry said.