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Three top Turkey officials to visit Iraq as Erdogan threatens Kurdish militants

The officials’ visit signals a fresh drive to dial up pressure on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which Ankara accuses of collaborating with Kurdish militants.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Yasar Guler, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Ibrahim Kalin, head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency, met in Ankara on March 11, 2024.

ANKARA — The Turkish foreign policy, defense and spy chiefs will travel to Baghdad for counterterrorism talks on Thursday, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dials up threats against the outlawed Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.

Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Defense Minister Yasar Guler and Intelligence Chief Ibrahim Kalin will discuss security and military cooperation as well as “concrete steps” that can be taken in Turkey’s fight against terrorism, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oncu Keceli said on Wednesday. The talks will mark the second round of the “security summit” that the three held with their counterparts — Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Mohammed Hussein, Defense Minister Thabet al-Abbasi and other high-level officials — in December, Keceli added. 

The visit comes as Erdogan escalates his nearly daily threats to launch a fresh military operation against outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets during his election rallies across the country for the upcoming local polls on March 31. Headquartered in Mount Qandil in northern Iraq, the PKK has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984 and is designated as a terror organization by Ankara, Washington and the European Union.

“We will not allow the establishment of a ‘terroristan’ along our southern borders under any circumstances,” Erdogan said on Tuesday during a fast-breaking dinner, or iftar, with foreign ambassadors in Ankara. He echoed a similar message on Wednesday while speaking at a rally in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Sirnak on the Iraqi Kurdistan border.

Kalin and Guler paid separate visits to Baghdad in January amid the increasing PKK attacks on Turkish military outposts in the northern region. More than two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed in the attacks since December in the region. Turkey retaliated with large-scale airstrikes against the PKK positions in northern Iraq.

Thursday’s talks follow Kalin’s and Fidan’s high-level meetings in Washington last week. 

“The United States has troops in Iraq. Therefore, we are holding talks with them too over our fight against the PKK,” Keceli said Wednesday when asked whether the issue was raised during Fidan's and Kalin’s visits. 

But he added that those talks weren’t aimed at seeking Washington’s greenlight for a potential operation. 

“If we are going to carry out an operation against a terrorist organization that threatens our security, the only authority which we will seek permission from is Article 51 of the United Nations Charter,” Keceli added, referring to the document’s provision outlining the legality of self-defense.

Erdogan is also expected to travel to Baghdad in April, the Turkish president said last month. 

Sulaimaniyah under radar

Analysts believe that improved weather conditions in spring may allow the Turkish military to launch a limited incursion in the region with harsh terrain in a bid to reinforce Turkish military outposts and prevent further attacks. Turkey has hundreds of outposts scattered along a large territory stretching from Iraqi Kurdistan’s border with Iran in the east and with Syria in the west. 

The central Baghdad government deems Turkey’s military operations and expanding military presence in the country a violation of its sovereignty and doesn’t consider the PKK a terror outfit, despite repeated calls from Ankara to designate it as such. Yet in a joint communique issued after the first round of the talks in December, the Iraqi side for the first time acknowledged the outlawed militant group as a “threat.”

Erdogan last month committed to drive the PKK out of the region before summer. 

Such an operation could also enhance the chances of Erdogan's ruling coalition ahead of key nationwide elections by riding nationalist waves in the country. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and their nationalist allies are seeking to recapture metropolises — particularly Istanbul — from the opposition. 

The hardening rhetoric is also aimed at piling pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which controls the northern Iraqi province of Sulaimaniyah. Ankara accuses the PUK — one of the two dominant political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan — of cooperating with the PKK. 

Erdogan openly threatened the party last month, saying that “Sulaimaniyah administration continues to support the terrorist organization despite our repeated warnings. … We have zero tolerance when it comes to our national security. We will do whatever is necessary.” 

Keceli said on Tuesday that the PUK had not taken the steps to "bring our relations back to the point they were a few years ago."

Turkey’s air space at the international Sulaimaniyah airport has been closed to inbound and outbound flights since April in a move that aims to turn the heat up on the PUK, which is led by the family members of late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

A few days before the flight ban, Turkey also conducted a drone strike in Sulaimaniyah near a convoy carrying Commander in Chief of the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazlum Kobane as well as US officials. While there were no casualties, the attack was seen as a warning message to both the PUK and the United States. Ankara has repeatedly asked Washington to cut off its alliance with the SDF, citing its ties to the PKK.