Turkiye, Iraq strengthen ties amid regional challenges

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, right, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a welcoming ceremony at Baghdad International Airport, in Baghdad on April 22, 2024. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 April 2024

Turkiye, Iraq strengthen ties amid regional challenges

  • Baghdad’s acquiescence to backing Ankara’s fight against PKK will likely determine extent of cooperation on other thorny issues such as water and oil, analyst says
  • Senior officials in Ankara have recently hinted at plans for a major military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq this summer

ANKARA: As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a much-anticipated visit to Iraq on Monday, the first in 12 years, the two countries are expected to deepen security and economic cooperation while seeking ways to promote regional stability.

Erdogan’s delegation includes the country’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya, Defense Minister Yasar Guler, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, his Chief Adviser Akif Cagatay Kilic and other ministers.

The president’s itinerary includes key meetings with his Iraqi counterpart Dr. Abdullatif Rashid before talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani.

In the afternoon, Erdogan was to meet with Kurdish officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital Irbil.

Experts say the visit will mark a positive shift in Turkish-Iraqi relations.

Addressing Iraqi concerns over water resources and signing strategic agreements on security, energy, trade, transportation, and health are also expected to lay the framework for future avenues of cooperation.

Water supply has become a sticking point in recent years, with Baghdad demanding more water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — two main rivers that flow from Turkiye to the Arabian Gulf and account for more than 90 percent of Iraq’s freshwater resources.

In his meetings with Iraqi and Kurdish officials, Erdogan is seeking support for counter-terrorism efforts by jointly tackling the threat posed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.

Dr. Bilgay Duman, coordinator of Iraq studies at the Ankara-based ORSAM think tank, said Turkiye’s aim with the visit was not to outdo any regional player, Iran or otherwise.

He told Arab News that Ankara “wants to create a regional dynamic given the current tension between Israel and Iran, the regional crises in the Red Sea, and the lack of a solution in Syria, which have necessitated some bilateral cooperation with Baghdad and Irbil.”

Berkay Mandiraci, a senior Turkiye analyst at the International Crisis Group, says a key question will be how Baghdad will support Turkiye’s campaign against the PKK.

Last month, Iraq’s National Security Council declared the PKK an outlawed organization in Iraq, signaling a growing willingness by the Iraqi authorities to fight the terrorist group. But now, the focus is on how Iraq can limit the PKK’s mobility on its territory.

Fidan, the foreign minister, and intelligence chief Ibrahim Kalin visited Baghdad last month. 

“As Turkiye, we will work for the stability of Iraq,” Fidan said recently.

“We don’t want Iraq to be associated with internal conflicts.”

For Mandiraci, Baghdad’s acquiescence to backing Turkiye’s fight against the PKK will likely determine the extent of cooperation on other thorny issues such as water and oil.

A series of operations launched by Ankara since 2019 succeeded in pushing the PKK from the northern mountainous regions to Iraq’s southern urban areas, such as Kirkuk, Sinjar and Sulaymaniyah.

“The PKK began to confront the Iraqi central authority while also posing a greater threat to Baghdad. But Iraq has no such experience in confronting the terrorist group on a large scale. That is why it needs to cooperate with Ankara in developing measures and increasing the capacity of its armed forces to fight the PKK more actively. Baghdad is striving to become a state that has full control over internal threats by suppressing the factors of instability,” Duman said.

However, bilateral cooperation should not be limited to the joint fight against the PKK, as it will encompass a broader agenda for regional development.

During the talks, the Turkiye-Iraq Development Road project, which will stretch some 1,200 km and aims to link Iraq’s nascent Grand Faw port to Turkiye’s southern border and then to Europe via railways and highways, also featured on the agenda as it opens a new page in Ankara-Baghdad relations.

According to Duman, Turkiye could propose enlisting the support of the UAE and Qatar in this project by preparing a four-way agreement and actively participating in creating industrial cities and trade centers along this route. This would boost economic dynamism and undermine instability factors by creating wealth.

Turkiye has significantly increased its exports to Iraq this year, with sales rising by nearly $691.5 million from January to March.

Baghdad and Ankara “share an interest in the progress of the Development Road project. As a new trade route, it could play a significant role in stabilizing Iraq in the longer term and bring important economic dividends to both countries,” Mandiraci said.

But he added that building the project would not be easy, with Iran worried about its territory being bypassed.

“And Iran could play spoiler,” Mandiraci said, adding: “It will require careful and multi-vector diplomacy to reduce and manage the security and geopolitical risks associated with the initiative.” 

During his visit, Erdogan planned to meet with the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani, while talks were also expected with officials of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and Turkmen community leaders.

Through this visit, Duman said that Turkiye would mediate between Irbil and Baghdad on many fronts, as consensus between the two is crucial in the fight against the PKK and in the continuation of the Development Road project, as security must be restored in the regions crossed by the road. 

Senior officials in Ankara have recently hinted at plans for a major military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq this summer. 

Turkiye is also seeking to establish a 30-40 km security corridor along its border with Iraq and to supplement it with military installations in coordination with Baghdad. 

“For Turkiye, Irbil and Baghdad are not alternatives but complementary,” Duman said.

“During this visit, I expect a joint large-scale operation between Turkiye and Baghdad to eradicate the PKK’s presence in the region to be discussed. But such a joint effort is not limited to the military struggle because, at the same time, the PKK is trying to gain a foothold through civilian formations based in Iraq.

“As its military reach shrinks, it tries to infiltrate the civil and political sphere. Iraq and Irbil may try to deepen cooperation with Turkiye in this area.”

WHO says no medical supplies received in Gaza for 10 days

Updated 18 May 2024

WHO says no medical supplies received in Gaza for 10 days

GENEVA: The World Health Organization said Friday that it has received no medical supplies in the Gaza Strip for 10 days as Israel pursues a new offensive against Hamas.
Israel’s closure of the Rafah crossing into Gaza has caused “a difficult situation,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. “The last medical supplies that we got in Gaza was before May 6.”
Israeli troops entered the city of Rafah on May 7 to extend their offensive against Hamas over the militant group’s attacks seven months earlier. They closed the Rafah crossing into Egypt that is crucial for humanitarian supplies.
With UN agencies warning of a growing risk of famine in Gaza, the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings from Israel are also virtually shut down.
Jasarevic said the biggest concern was over fuel needed to keep clinics and hospitals running. Gaza’s health facilities need up to 1.8 million liters of fuel a month to keep operating.
The spokesman said only 159,000 liters had entered Rafah since the border closure. “This is clearly not sufficient,” he added, highlighting how only 13 out of 36 hospitals across the Palestinian territory were now “partially” operating.
“Hospitals still functioning are running out of fuel, and that puts so many lives at danger,” said Jasarevic. “Current military operations in Rafah are putting countless lives at risk.”
The Hamas attack on October 7 resulted in the death of more than 1,170 people in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures. Out of 252 people taken hostage, 128 are still held inside Gaza, but the army says 38 have died.
More than 35,300 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the Palestinian territory since the war broke out, according to data provided by the health ministry of Hamas-run Gaza.

Hezbollah uses new weapons in Israel attacks

Updated 18 May 2024

Hezbollah uses new weapons in Israel attacks

  • The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded in an attack on Thursday
  • Hezbollah has a large arsenal of weapons, that it has expanded significantly in recent years

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s powerful armed group Hezbollah announced on Thursday it had used a drone capable of firing rockets at a military position in one of its latest attacks in northern Israel.
Israel and Hezbollah have been involved in near-daily exchanges of fire since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out on October 7.
Hezbollah announced it had used an “armed attack drone” equipped with two S-5 rockets on a military position in Metula in northern Israel.
The Iran-backed group published a video showing the drone heading toward the position, where tanks were stationed, with the footage showing the moment the two rockets were released followed by the drone exploding.
It was the first time they had announced the use of this type of weapon since the cross-border exchanges with Israel erupted in October.
The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded in Thursday’s attack.
Hezbollah-affiliated media said that the drone’s warhead consisted of between 25 and 30 kilogrammes (55 and 66 pounds) of high explosive.
Military analyst Khalil Helou told AFP that the use of drones offers Hezbollah the ability to launch the attack from within Israeli territory, as they can fly at low altitudes, evading detection by radar.
Hezbollah also announced on Wednesday that it had launched a strike using “attack drones” on a base west of the northern Israeli town of Tiberias.
That attack was the group’s deepest into Israeli territory since fighting flared, analysts said.
In recent weeks, the Lebanese militant group has announced attacks that it has described as “complex,” using attack drones and missiles to hit military positions, as well as troops and vehicles.
It has also used guided and heavy missiles, such as Iran’s Burkan and Almas missiles, as well as the Jihad Mughniyeh missile, named after a Hezbollah leader killed by Israeli fire in Syria in 2015.
Helou, a retired general, said that depite its new weaponry, Hezbollah still relied primarily on Kornet anti-tank missiles with a range of just five to eight kilometers.
They also use the Konkurs anti-tank missile, which can penetrate Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Hezbollah has a large arsenal of weapons, that it has expanded significantly in recent years.
The group has said repeatedly that it has advanced weapons capable of striking deep inside Israeli territory.
Analysts have described the skirmishes between Israel and Hamas as a war of “attrition,” in which each side is testing the other, as well as their own tactics.
Hezbollah has expanded the range of its attacks in response to strikes targeting its munitions and infrastructure, or its military commanders.
One such Israeli strike on Wednesday targeted the village of Brital in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, with the Israeli army later announcing it had hit a “terror target related to Hezbollah’s precision missile project.”
Helou said Hezbollah’s targeting of the base near Tiberias and its use of the rocket-equipped drone “can be interpreted as a response to the attack on Brital, but it remains a shy response compared to the group’s capabilities.”
He suggested that the Israeli strike likely hit a depot for Iranian missiles that had not yet been used by Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah does not wish to expand the circle of the conflict,” Helou said.
“What is happening is a war of attrition through which it is trying to distract the Israeli army” from Gaza and seeking to prevent it from “launching a wide-ranging attack on Lebanon.”

US officials held indirect talks with Iran on avoiding regional escalation: report

Updated 18 May 2024

US officials held indirect talks with Iran on avoiding regional escalation: report

Two top Biden administration officials held indirect talks with Iranian counterparts this week in an effort to avoid escalating regional attacks, Axios reported on Friday.
The conversations marked the first round of discussions between the US and Iran since January, according to Axios.

One Palestinian killed, eight wounded in Israeli strike on West Bank refugee camp

Updated 18 May 2024

One Palestinian killed, eight wounded in Israeli strike on West Bank refugee camp

  • Israel has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry

RAMALLAH, West Bank: At least one person was killed and eight wounded on Friday in an Israeli air strike on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry and Israeli military said.
The Palestinian health ministry said the eight wounded people were in stable condition and receiving treatment at hospitals. Reuters could not immediately confirm their identities.
The Israeli military said a fighter jet conducted the strike, a rarity in the West Bank, where violence had been surging long before the Gaza war.
Residents of the refugee camp said a house was targeted.
The West Bank is among territories Israel occupied in a 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians want it to be the core of an independent Palestinian state.



Trapped US doctors are out of Gaza, White House says

Updated 18 May 2024

Trapped US doctors are out of Gaza, White House says

  • The Palestinian American Medical Association, a US-based non-profit, reported that its team of 19 health care professionals, including 10 Americans, had been denied exit from Gaza after their two-week mission
  • Israel has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

WASHINGTON: A group of US medical workers left the Gaza Strip after getting stuck at the hospital where they were providing care, the White House said on Friday.
Reports emerged earlier this week of American doctors being unable to leave Gaza after Israel closed the Rafah border crossing, including 10 from the US-based Palestinian American Medical Association, who had intended to leave after a two-week mission at the European Hospital in Khan Younis, a city near Rafah in southern Gaza.
On Friday, 17 American doctors and health care workers, out of a total of 20, got out of Gaza, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.
“I can assure you that any of them that wanted to leave are out,” Kirby said.
A State Department spokesperson told Reuters that some of the doctors that had been stuck made their way to safety with assistance from the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Three of the US doctors chose not to depart Gaza, a source familiar with the situation said, adding that the doctors who stayed behind understood that the US Embassy may not be able to facilitate their departure as it did on Friday.
The Palestinian American Medical Association, a US-based non-profit, reported that its team of 19 health care professionals, including 10 Americans, had been denied exit from Gaza after their two-week mission.
The organization said on social media on Wednesday that it had a more doctors waiting to enter Gaza to replace the workers trying to leave.
Israel seized and closed the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on May 7, disrupting a vital route for people and aid into and out of the devastated enclave.
Gaza’s health care system has essentially collapsed since Israel began its military offensive there after the Oct. 7 cross-border attacks by Palestinian Hamas militants on Israelis.
Aid deliveries began arriving at a US-built pier off the Gaza Strip on Friday.