President Erdogan’s Historic Visit to Kurdistan Region

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 22 traveled to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region for the first time in 13 years and received a warm welcome in Erbil, with the Erbil

President Erdogan’s Historic Visit to Kurdistan Region
June 13, 2024

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 22 traveled to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region for the first time in 13 years and received a warm welcome in Erbil, with the Erbil citadel adorned in the colors of the Turkish flag.

“We had very fruitful, favorable, and sincere talks in Erbil following our visit to Baghdad. I once again offered my gratitude to our Iraqi brothers, who welcomed us with affection,” President Erdogan told reporters on May 6.

Historical relations

This is not President Erdogan’s first visit to the Kurdistan Region. In 2011, he became the first Turkish leader to visit the Kurdistan Region in his capacity as the then-Prime Minister of Turkiye and attended a ceremony with then-Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani to celebrate the opening of Erbil’s airport and of the Consulate General of Turkiye in Erbil.

Since that visit in 2011, economic relations have flourished between the Kurdistan Region and Turkiye.

Ahead of the visit on April 22, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani underlined that President Erdogan’s historic visit to Baghdad and Erbil came at a critical time in the region. “It highlights the strong political, economic, and security ties between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region with Turkiye.”

I look forward to welcoming President Erdogan to Erbil and to discuss pressing issues, including peace, stability, and economic development.”

The Kurdistan Region President, alongside Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, personally received President Erdogan at the Erbil International Airport upon his arrival on April 22.

“Alongside President Masoud Barzani, President Nechirvan Barzani, and other officials, I was pleased to welcome President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan back to the Kurdistan Region,” Prime Minister Barzani posted on X on April 22.

“We engaged in a fruitful exchange on a range of regional and bilateral matters.”

After being received at the airport, President Erdogan attended a meeting that included several cabinet ministers and discussed ongoing issues between Baghdad and Erbil and trade ties.

Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University David Romano added that, “at a time when relations between Baghdad and Ankara are experiencing a rapprochement, it becomes even more important for authorities in Erbil to receive the Turkish delegation warmly.” 

“Kurdistan’s leaders must make sure that Turkiye takes their needs and concerns into account while it pursues its policies in the region.”

President Barzani “discussed continued paths of cooperation in pursuit of the interests of the people of Kurdistan and Turkiye” in a separate meeting with president Erdogan. 

Prime Minister Barzani also reiterated the KRG’s commitment to strengthening relations and promoting economic and trade cooperation with Turkiye, according to a press release from the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region. He also highlighted the job and investment opportunities available for Turkish companies across various sectors and expressed gratitude for Turkiye’s continued dedication to implementing projects despite economic difficulties.

Development Road project 

In Baghdad, the Iraqi and Turkish governments signed 26 agreements across various fields, including security, water, and commercial relations.

One of these agreements was a memorandum of understanding between Turkiye, Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE for a 1,200-kilometer highway and railway project known as the Development Road project, which aims to connect Basra’s Grand Faw Port to the Turkish border via key Iraqi cities, enhancing transportation routes to Europe through Mersin Port and Istanbul.

“I think the importance for Turkiye is both economic and geopolitical. Economically, the Development Road project and discussions over resumed cooperation on oil export and water issues can benefit Iraq and Turkiye – and the Kurdistan Region – through enhanced trade and economic growth,” retired U.S. Colonel Rich Outzen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkiye, told Kurdistan Chronicle.

“Geopolitically, working with the Gulf states to integrate Iraq into the Gulf-Europe trade system, rather than leaving it dependent on Iran, helps balance the current overdependence on Iranian ‘guidance’ in strategic matters. A new incentive structure could well improve Baghdad’s approach to cooperation with Arab states, Turkiye, and Erbil on a variety of matters,” he added.

Kurdish officials have also underlined that the Kurdistan Region should not be excluded from this project.

For instance, on May 12, Prime Minister Barzani stated that the KRG proposed to Baghdad that the road enter the country via Zakho and run through Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and Najaf, before ending in Basra, rather than going through a sparsely populated area.

“Although relations between Erbil and Ankara have improved in recent years, the Kurdistan Region is still wary of any scenario that may be used by Ankara and Baghdad as a trump card to bypass Erbil in the case of possible tension,” Ankara-based analyst Mehmet Alaca told Kurdistan Chronicle.

“I think Baghdad’s decision to avoid the route passing through the Kurdistan Region is based on technical and political considerations. Baghdad claims that the road was initially planned to pass through the Kurdistan Region but encountered challenges due to mountain ranges and large valleys. However, this is not the most valid reason.”

He said that the possible exclusion of the Kurdistan Region from the project is compatible with recent Baghdad decisions that have eroded Erbil’s status on issues such as oil and the federal budget. 

“Furthermore, after the independence referendum in 2017, Ankara proposed the construction of the Ovakoy Border Gate, as an alternative to the Erbil-controlled Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, to pass through Faysh Khabur.”

“Nevertheless, despite the challenging terrain, increased cost, and longer project duration, a strong Erbil lobby and an ambitious Baghdad could ensure the integration of the Kurds into the project.” 

Diplomatic reaffirmation

Senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute Mohammed Salih told Kurdistan Chronicle that, apart from the “domestic controversy surrounding the KRG’s manner of receiving Erdogan, the Turkish president’s visit to Erbil is important for KRG leaders as they seek to mitigate the rising pressure coming from Baghdad and Tehran.”

“The visit to Erbil is an important diplomatic reaffirmation of the KRG’s status and a step toward deepening ties with a crucial yet difficult neighbor that is Kurdistan’s key gateway to the outside world for trade and much else,” he said.

He concluded that in an ideal world, KRG-Turkiye relations, and Kurdish-Turkish relations in general, “could be very different and mutually beneficial, paving the way for a different and more peaceful region to emerge.” 

Marewan Hawramy is a writer and has master degree in diplomacy and international relations.

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