Turkey’s military has escalated attacks against Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and northeast Syria in recent months.
The increase in strikes follows the Turkish elections in May and comes ahead of an expected upcoming visit to Baghdad by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish drone strikes have targeted fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, as well as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria. However, they have also caused civilian casualties.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, there have been more than 665 Turkish airstrikes and drone strikes in northern Iraq and Syria in the first half of 2023.
The airstrikes, which according to local and international mediahave killed and wounded dozens of PKK and SDF fighters, as well as civilians, have escalated since Iraq announced earlier this month that it would host the Turkish president to discuss key bilateral issues.

Since 2015, the Turkish Armed Forces have killed up to 129 civilians and wounded up to 180 civilians in northern Iraq, monitoring group Community Peacemaker Teams (CPT) Iraqi Kurdistan reported last year.
The aim of Erdogan’s visit, expected in the coming weeks, is to settle frozen bilateral issues between the two countries, mainly the presence of the PKK in mountainous regions in northern Iraq, water scarcity in the country, and investment opportunities for Turkey, Iraqi officials said.
The PKK, a leftist armed movement, was formed in the late 1970s by its now-imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan. It has fought a bloody four-decade war against the Turkish state demanding greater autonomy for Kurds in the southeast of the country. At least 40,000 people from both sides have died since 1984.

Turkey argues that the PKK is launching cross-border military operations against the Turkish army and civilians inside Turkey. The Turkish state also claims that the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have failed to expel the PKK from a mountainous triangle area that stretches from Iraq’s eastern borders with Iran to the northern borders with Turkey.
As a result, Turkey, with the green light from Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has established hundreds of military posts and permanent bases inside Iraqi territory. Turkey and its Western allies consider the PKK to be a terrorist organisation.
In mid-June, the PKK ended a unilateral ceasefire with Turkey announced after the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on 6 February.

“Turkey-Iraq relations are complicated. They involve Turkish military activities and a footprint inside Iraq, trade in goods and energy, and water flows. The balance of power is mostly in favour of Ankara, but Iraq is finding a footing,” Bilal Wahab, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The New Arab.
“First, in contrast to the previous utter silence, voices in Baghdad are rising against the Turkish military presence and activities, especially at the tri-border area with Syria. Moreover, Ankara was taken aback by Baghdad’s pressure over the Iraq-Turkey pipeline arbitration. And Baghdad seems to be wooing Ankara to invest in the port and rail projects in the south.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in March this year paid a two-day official visit to Turkey after an invitation from Erdogan. Sudani asked Erdogan to allow the flow of more water to Iraq during the hot summer season.

Climate change, a reduction in rainfall, and upstream damming by Turkey have caused drought conditions in both Iraq and Syria.
Another source of tension between Ankara, Baghdad, and Erbil is a nine-year-long dispute over sales of crude oil from the Kurdistan region to Turkey.
On 25 March, the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) ruled in favour of Baghdad’s right to insist on overseeing all Iraqi oil exports.
It ordered Turkey to pay Baghdad damages of $1.5 billion for allowing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to export oil between 2014 and 2018 without the Iraqi government’s consent.

Iraq has officially asked Turkey to resume the export of crude oil from the Kurdistan region through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. However, Ankara has yet to facilitate the resumption, instead insisting that Iraq spare it from paying fines based on the international tribunal’s ruling.
Iraq and the KRG have lost millions of dollars due to the suspension, which led to a rise in oil prices as Kurdish exports represent some 0.5 per cent of the global oil supply. The resumption of crude oil is expected to decrease global oil prices. 
Other issues on the table include Iraq’s ambitious plan unveiled in June for a $17 billion project to turn itself into a regional transportation hub by developing its road and rail infrastructure linking Europe with the Middle East.
The 1,200-kilometre (745-mile) project known as the ‘Route of Development’, stretches from the northern border with Turkey to the Gulf in the south.

“Erdogan feels emboldened by his election victory despite Kurdish support for his opposition. To rule in peace, however, he’ll need a new peace deal with the PKK, but not before he has weakened it. Hence the increased tempo of attacks inside Iraq and Syria,” Wahab added.
“Reading the global room, Ankara feels the war in Ukraine and NATO’s needs buy him international tolerance for actions taken against the PKK and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).”
The SDF is a US-backed and Kurdish-led militia that controls northeast Syria. Ankara considers it an extension of the PKK.
The group spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State (IS) with the backing of a US-led coalition in Syria and drove the extremists from their last stronghold in the country in 2019.

The Islamic State proclaimed itself as a ‘caliphate’ following a meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria in 2014 that saw it conquer vast swathes of territory. It was eventually defeated in Iraq in 2017.
“Turkey regards the Kurds in Rojava, as well as the South of Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan) as its enemy, and never accepts any achievements for Kurds. Consequently, it has exacerbated its attacks against both regions because the international community is silent towards the Turkish aggressions,” Fethullah Husseini, a representative of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava, told TNA.
“Iraq has initiated the project of the Arab countries to normalise relations with the Syrian regime. The project does not favour Turkey, rather it is at the cost of rapprochement between the Syrian regime and the Turkish regime.”

He clarified that Syria’s condition for any agreement with Turkey is that Ankara should withdraw from all Syrian territories it occupied under the guise of fighting terrorism. So far, Ankara has rejected Syria’s condition.
“Turkey is ready to do anything in order to maintain its war with the PKK, including blackmailing Iraq and Syria with a reduction in water flows to both countries. Turkey had agreed with Russia and Iran to continue its war with Syrian Kurds, so it is possible that Ankara could reach an agreement with Iraq as well by using water as a weapon,” Husseini added.
“Water is very important for Iraq and Syria, the Turkish regime since last month has created a humanitarian crisis for civilians in Hasaka by restricting the water flow from the Alok water station in the city of Sari Kani (Ras al-Ayn) that is occupied by pro-Erdogan Islamic militias.

The New Arab Newspaper