A Summer Offensive? Explaining Turkey’s Saber-rattling on the Iraqi Border

Aron Lund

Analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI)



In March of this year, Turkish hints about upcoming military operations led many to assume that Ankara will launch a major anti-PKK offensive in Iraq during the summer. Some fighting is likely, but the saber-rattling may have been an exercise in coercive diplomacy, setting the stage for negotiations in Baghdad. While several Turkish-Iraqi agreements were concluded, including on security, their significance has likely been oversold, and Turkey’s ambition to enlist Iraqi and Kurdish support against PKK remains a work in progress.


The Issue

This spring, Turkey seemed to be beating the drums of war. “Hopefully, this summer, we will have permanently resolved the issue regarding our Iraqi borders,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in March, warning that Turkey will never tolerate a “terroristan” on its southern border. Soon, speculation was rampant about an upcoming major offensive.

Since 2015, when talks collapsed and fighting resumed, Turkey has made slow but steady progress in its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In fact, most of the fighting now plays out on foreign soil, as Turkey launches cross-border interventions and uses drones to attack PKK strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Violent incidents in the Turkey-PKK conflict, 2016–23 (Events per month, 12-months moving average) S
Violent incidents in the Turkey-PKK conflict, 2016–23 (Events per month, 12-months moving average)Source: ACLED/ICG

In northern Syria, the PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) controls significant territory under US—and to some extent Russian—protection. But even though the SDF statelet is a source of new power and influence, Iraq remains more fundamental to the PKK’s survival. The mountainous Iraqi border has been the PKK’s entry point to Turkey since the 1980s, and its leadership is based at Qandil Mountain, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Northwestern Iraq, near Sinjar and the triborder area, is the SDF’s lifeline to the world and critical for US military access. Should that border be blocked, the SDF would crumble.

Turkey’s relations with Iraq are complex and involve both the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, which is often at odds with Baghdad. The regional government is a vehicle for two party-militias, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Turkey has good ties with the KDP, but Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan recently branded the PUK “a national security threat” due to its collaboration with the SDF and the PKK.

To go after the PKK in Iraq, Turkish forces fight on both sides of the border and have unilaterally established dozens of outposts on Iraqi soil, while a relentless drone campaign kills both PKK leaders and civilians. In the past few years, hundreds of villages have reportedly been depopulated as Iraqi Kurds flee the Turkish operations. Turkey’s aggressive tactics have strained its ties with Iraq’s federal government, which includes PUK and KDP representatives. But while PKK-related disputes tend to take center stage, Turkey and Iraq have many other disagreements in need of resolution.

Civilian harm claims resulting from alleged Turkish actions, 2015–24. Source: Airwars
Civilian harm claims resulting from alleged Turkish actions, 2015–24. Source: mapping and data provided by Airwars to SUITS (May 2024)

Most notably, the two countries have quarreled for decades over how to share the water of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which Turkey diverts with upstream dams. Climate change has made the problem more urgent, especially for Baghdad, which suffers economic crisis and social protest and cannot also afford the destabilizing impact of drought.

Then there’s the oil problem. For years, the Kurdistan Regional Government sold oil through a pipeline to Turkey, which brushed aside Baghdad’s objections in the interest of energy security and profit. In 2023, however, Iraq won an international arbitration case and $1.5 billion in damages, which Turkey refuses to pay. Exports ground to a halt as negotiations began over how to resolve the dispute between Baghdad and Ankara, on the one hand, and Baghdad and Erbil, on the other. The delay has been especially painful for Iraqi Kurdistan, whose economy depends on the oil rent. In early April 2024, Baghdad announced that it is repairing another defunct pipeline to bypass Kurdish-controlled infrastructure.

As much as they may disagree with each other, pressure on Erbil serves both Ankara and Baghdad

Recently, Turkey also latched on to Iraq’s Development Road project, an ambitious plan for overland transport between Europe and the Persian Gulf. While economically seductive, the project suffers from regional opposition, conflict risks, and Iraq’s corruption-riddled politics. Turkey has also linked the Development Road to its own security concerns, noting that goods would need to transit areas now under PKK influence and calling for the group’s removal.

In early March, Turkey began to hint at plans for a major offensive, albeit without initiating any visible preparations or force buildups. The saber-rattling came at an opportune moment for Erdoğan, serving to highlight his government’s nationalist credentials in the run-up to hotly contested local elections on March 31. As it turns out, it was also a prelude to diplomatic engagement.

On March 14, Fidan led a top-level security delegation to Baghdad. A joint communiqué noted that Turkey and Iraq will set up institutions to enable security cooperation and that Iraq now considers the PKK an illegal organization.

On April 22, Erdoğan touched down in Baghdad for his first visit since 2013. The trip produced some 26 bilateral agreements and memoranda on matters large and small, including a ten-year deal on water resources and a quadrilateral agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to support the Development Road. Erdoğan then went on to Erbil, meeting KDP leaders. On his return home, he made hopeful statements about Iraq’s new view of the PKK.



Many in the media and in the analyst community seem to take for granted that Turkey will launch a large summer offensive in Iraq. The warlike Turkish rhetoric is not, however, a very reliable indicator. Erdoğan has repeatedly made explicit attack threats in the past, particularly in Syria, only to quietly shelve his plans when opposition proves too strong or other opportunities emerge. 

While an operation may still happen, it seems possible that the March-April saber rattling was an exercise in coercive diplomacy, intended to jump-start security talks and soften up Iraqi positions as Erdoğan readied for a visit of state.

That interpretation is reinforced by the fact that much remains undecided after the Baghdad talks. The much-touted water agreement is apparently just a framework deal that aims to improve Iraq’s own water management, and the Kurdish pipeline dispute has yet to be resolved.

To what extent Turkish and Iraqi views converge on the PKK is unclear. At the time of Fidan’s visit in March, senior Iraqi figures pointed to a 2023 Iranian invasion scare as a possible model for how to address Turkey’s demands: when faced with Iranian threats, Baghdad and Erbil had made a joint effort to demobilize Iranian-Kurdish rebels, defusing the crisis. But such an approach seems unworkable against the PKK, which is much stronger and more intransigent than the Iranian-Kurdish factions.

Iraqi and Kurdish sources speaking to the Qatari-owned daily al-Arabi al-Jadeed have claimed that Erdoğan won Iraq’s approval for a summer intervention. But the paper also cited a Turkish source who disputed that notion, saying there’s only a general agreement on security cooperation, without operational details. The source outlined Turkish hopes for a 40-kilometer “security zone” inside Iraq (similar to Turkish plans in Syria) and said Ankara wants the Iraqi Army to block PKK access to Syria while Kurdish forces should contain the group in Iraqi Kurdistan.

While this may be a realistic portrayal of Turkey’s ambitions, it’s not clear that Iraqi actors could deliver on the request and even less clear that they want to. 

Notably, Turkey’s calls for PKK to be not just outlawed but also listed as a “terrorist organization” have gone unheeded since the Baghdad meetings, despite public reminders from Erdoğan. Such lingering disagreements do not lend credence to the idea that Iraq has secretly offered Turkey a carte blanche for intervention.

In sum, whether or not Erdoğan intends to revive the idea of a summer offensive, Turkey likely has some way left to go before it can count on meaningful support from Iraq or even the KDP.



Continued fighting in the borderlands is a safe bet. Drone strikes have not ceased, and Turkey is unlikely to abandon its outposts in Iraq. Given that the mountain terrain makes both insurgency and counterinsurgency a seasonal affair, an uptick in violence over the coming months seems certain.

That does not necessarily mean a major offensive is in the works. It may take place, or similar action may be taken in Syria. Ankara could also threaten an attack to win additional concessions. Conversely, however, Turkey may eschew unilateral escalation to safeguard its nascent security collaboration with Baghdad, or it may opt to explore Iraqi proposals for trilateral cooperation with Syria.

Ultimately, the coming months are unlikely to see a Turkish bid for final victory over the PKK in Iraq but likely to feature a combination of incremental military action and continued engagement with Baghdad and Erbil.



  • Turkey has inflicted significant damage on the PKK in recent years and uses drones to pursue the group at depth, pushing the fighting deeper into Syria and Iraq.
  • While the creation of a US-backed proxy statelet in civil-war Syria has boosted the PKK’s fortunes, northern Iraq is of greater overall importance to the group.
  • Turkey may or may not launch a major offensive in Iraq this summer, but the saber-rattling in March and April bore the hallmarks of coercive diplomacy to strengthen Erdoğan’s hand as he readied for talks in Baghdad; it may also have served domestic electoral ends. Even absent a major offensive, however, some fighting is likely.
  • The agreements concluded with Iraq in March and April do not appear to have delivered major breakthroughs on any topline issue: water, oil, transport infrastructure, or the PKK problem. 
  • While Iraqi rhetoric on the PKK has shifted, Baghdad has not committed itself to fighting the group. To date, Iraqi-Turkish security cooperation remains undeveloped and untested.

Further Reading


About the author

Aron Lund is an analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), focusing on conflict and security in the Middle East, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean region. He is a fellow at Century International and the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, and an associate fellow with the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).

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