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International armed conflict in Iraq

Conflict type: International armed conflict

Due to the ongoing airstrikes by Turkey against PKK targets in northern Iraq without the consent of the Iraqi government, there is an international armed conflict between Turkey and Iraq.

There is an international armed conflict between Turkey and Iraq due to the ongoing airstrikes by Turkey targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK in northern Iraq without the consent of the Iraqi government. The Turkish airstrikes against the PKK are an extension of the ongoing non-international armed conflict in Turkey between the Turkish armed and security forces and the PKK.https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/ac92b62c-e4f8-4d32-95b0-9fc0781838b2

For an international armed conflict to exist, there must have been a resort to armed force involving at least two states. Under an expansive view, there is an international armed conflict when states carry out military operations directed against non-state armed groups in the territory of another state without the latter’s consent, regardless of whether or not the territorial state responds with an armed force or whether there are actual clashes between the two states’ armed forces. Albeit controversial, the RULAC project adopts this position. For further information on the classification of the use of force against non-state armed groups in another state’s territory without the latter’s consent, see 'contemporary challenges - relevance of consent' in our classification section. Unlike for non-international armed conflicts, there is no requirement for the violence to reach a certain threshold for international armed conflicts. For further information, see 'international armed conflict - a low threshold' in our classification section. This position does not exclude that there may be a parallel non-international armed conflict between the intervening state and the targeted non-state armed group, provided that the criteria for a non-international armed conflict are fulfilled. For further information, see 'contemporary challenges - targeting non-state armed groups abroad' in our classification section.

The Kurds are an ethnic group native of Kurdistan, a region that encompasses portions of territory of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The origins of the Kurdish conflict can be dated back to the end of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The idea of founding a Kurdish state was initially supported by the British, but it was abandoned in 1923 due to the emergence of the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As a consequence, the Kurdish settlement areas were divided among several newly created states, namely Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. M. A. Mihatsch, 'Kurdenkonflikt', Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 24 January 2018. Since the 1980s – albeit with some interruptions – Turkey has been involved in a non-international armed conflict against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Against this backdrop, Turkey has launched airstrikes targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. In light of the fact that this has happened without the consent of the Iraqi government, the Turkish military operations in Iraq amount to an international armed conflict.

In October 2007, PKK militants coming from Iraq attacked a Turkish military basis in the Turkish Hakkari province. At least 12 soldiers and 32 PKK guerrillas were killed in the attack. The PKK announced that several soldiers had been taken hostage and the Turkish news channel CNN Türk affirmed that ten soldiers were missing. It was also reported that Ankara had transferred further troops to the Iraqi border. Turkish defence minister Vecdi Gönul excluded any targeted cross-border offensive of the Turkish army in response to the PKK attack. On the other hand, prior to the attack, the Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had emphasized that ‘the Iraqi government calls on the Turkish government to pursue a diplomatic solution and not a military solution to solve the [problem] of terrorist attacks which our dear neighbour Turkey has witnessed from the PKK.’ ‘Türkei: schwere Gefechte an der Grenze zum Irak’, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 22 October 2007; ‘Iraq urges Turkey to solve crisis through diplomacy’, Reuters, 15 October 2007. Nevertheless, on 17 October 2007 the Turkish parliament authorised the Turkish military to take cross-border action. Since then, Turkey has carried out air and artillery strikes against PKK strongholds in Iraq, which it says to plan cross-border operations inside Turkey. ‘Turkish troops enter north Iraq’, BBC News, 22 February 2008; Aksüt, F. 'Turkey ‘neutralizes’ 3 PKK terrorists in northern Iraq’, Anadolu Agency, 18 April 2020. In December 2007, a number of military planes ascending from a military base in Turkish Diyarbakir bombed villages in northern Iraq with the aim of targeting suspected PKK strongholds in the Qandil mountains. ‘Nordirak: Türkei greift Stellungen der PKK an’, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 17 December 2007.

In February 2008 Turkish forces launched a cross-border ground operation in northern Iraq. Following the intervention, Erdogan affirmed that ‘Iraqi people are not our targets’ and specified that ‘Turkish Armed Forces, which paid significant attention to Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability, will return to Turkey after it achieves the planned targets.’ ‘Turkish troops enter north Iraq’, BBC News, 22 February 2008. By the end of February 2008, the Turkish troops withdrew from Iraq only a few hours after US President George Bush urged Turkey to put an end to its operation. The Turkish military stated that its objectives had been achieved referring to the operation’s results. S. Rainsford, ‘Iraq troop withdrawal baffles Turks’, BBC News, 29 February 2008. During the entire military operation, approximately 240 PKK militants were killed and about 440 to 800 camps, storage facilities, and logistic installations were destroyed. ‘Turkish troops pull out of Iraq’, BBC News, 29 February 2008; S. Rainsford, ‘Iraq troop withdrawal baffles Turks’, BBC News, 29 February 2008.

Following the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq in 2008, Turkey did not conduct any military operations for a few years. Nevertheless, on 9 October 2011 the PKK launched rockets at Turkish security forces and military sites in south-eastern Turkey, near the border with northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which resulted in the death of at least 24 soldiers, while 18 members of the army were injured. Turkey reacted by launching operations in the mountains of northern Iraq against the PKK, ‘with both airstrikes and soldiers on the ground employed.’ ‘Turkish troops enter Iraq after PKK attacks’, Al-Jazeera, 19 October 2011; ‘24 soldiers killed in attack in Turkey’, CNN, 19 October 2011.

In 2013, Turkey engaged again in military operations against the PKK in Iraq. Specifically, in January 2013 Turkish jet fighters attacked members of the PKK in areas close to the border with Turkey. On a single day, 18 targets in the Sap and Metina areas were attacked, but no information was given in terms of possible casualties. ‘Turkey air strikes as Kurd activists' bodies are returned’, BBC News, 16 January 2013; ‘Türkei fliegt Angriffe auf PKK-Rückzugsorte’, Zeit Online, 16 January 2013. In March 2013, a cease-fire agreement was concluded between the PKK and the Turkish government, which led to a reduction of armed confrontations between  the Turkish army and the PKK. ‘Timeline: PKK conflict with Turkey’, Al-Jazeera, 21 March 2013.

Nevertheless, peace lasted only two years: in July 2015, renewed fighting broke out between the PKK and Turkish armed and security forces, following a suicide attack in the Turkish-Syrian border town Suruç. C. Letsch, 'The Turkish Kurds Who Want Peace - But Not at Any Price', The Guardian, 11 August 2015. As fighting started again within its borders, Turkey resumed its military operations against the PKK in Iraq as well. The airstrikes against the PKK  continued in 2016, C. Yeginsu, ‘Turkey Attacks Kurdish Militant Camps in Northern Iraq’, The New York Times, 25 July 2015; C. Yeginsu, ‘Turkey Escalates Airstrikes on Kurdish Targets in Northern Iraq', The New York Times, 29 July 2015; C. Letsch and Reuters, ‘Turkey Steps Up Bombing of Kurdish Targets in Iraq’, The Guardian, 29 July 2015; ‘Turkey Hits Kurdish Targets After Ankara Bombing’, Al Jazeera, 19 February 2016; I. Sariyuce, J. Sterling, and H. Atay Alam, ‘Turkish Warplanes Wallop Syria, Iraq Targets’, CNN, 29 August 2016. 2017, 'Turkey Targets Kurdish Fighters in Iraq and Syria', Al Jazeera, 25 April 2017; M. R. Gordon and K. Kakol, 'Turkish Strikes Target Kurdish Allies of U.S. in Iraq and Syria', The New York Times, 25 April 2017. and  2018. 'Turkish Jet Hit 8 Targets in Northern Iraq-Andalou', Reuters, 30 January 2018. Since March of 2018 Turkish forces extended their presence into Kurdish administered areas of Northern Iraq by at least 30 kilometres, establishing multiple outposts, including in rural areas of Dohuk and Erbil governorates. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, Events in Iraq.

In 2019 Turkey launched a military operation called ‘Operation Claw’ against Kurdish fighters in a mountainous area of northern Iraq with artillery and airstrikes followed by operations by commando brigades, and according to Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, the operation will continue in the region until ‘the last terrorist is neutralized’. ‘Turkey says it has 'neutralized' 43 Kurdish militants in northern Iraq’, Reuters, 8 June 2019; Turkey (PKK), Armed Conflict Database. The military usually conducts airstrikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq, while ground operations are less common. D. Butler, ‘Turkish military strikes against Kurdish militants in Iraq’, Reuters, 28 May 2019.

In 2020, Turkey has continued conducting military operations against the PKK in Iraq. In March 2020, the Turkish Defense Ministry reported that two Turkish soldiers were killed and two others wounded in an attack carried out by Kurdish fighters in the Haftanin region of northern Iraq. Consequently, Ankara ordered reprisals: identified PKK targets in the region were destroyed and the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that four targets had been hit and eight PKK militants killed. ‘Irak. La Turquie dénonce la mort de deux soldats dans une attaque kurde’, Ouest France, 26 March 2020. In April 2020, the Turkish Security Forces have carried out an airstrike attack in the Iraqi Qandil region, only 200 meters from the headquarters of the 7th brigade of Peshmerga forces. The Turkish defense ministry reiterated to continue its operations in the region ‘until the last terrorist is neutralized’. According to the commander of the 7th brigade of Peshmerga forces, four Peshmerga fighters have been lightly injured during the Turkish attack. ‘Turkey carries out multiple strikes in northern Iraq: officials’, Rudaw, 15 April 2020. A second attack was carried out by a drone near the Makhmour refugee camp, leaving three civilian women dead. The camp is reported to host approximately 12,000 Kurdish refugees who have escaped persecution by Turkey since the 1990s. However, the Turkish government argues that it is a safe ‘haven for the PKK.’ Iraq condemns Turkish strikes against PKK in Kurdistan region’, Al Monitor, 16 April 2020. In mid-June, Turkey launched airstrikes and ground military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq; the operations were condemned by the Iraq’s Joint Operations Command as violation of Iraqi territory. In August 2020, tensions between the two countries increased due to new military operations conducted by Turkey against the PKK. Notably, on 11 August Turkish airstrikes killed two Iraqi officers as well as several PKK fighters. President Salih condemned the strikes and defined them ‘acts of aggression.’ Nevertheless, Turkey affirmed its intention to continue the targeting of PKK fighters in Iraq, claiming that Baghdad continued overlooking the PKK presence on its territory. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Iraq.

On 10 February 2021, Turkey launched a new military operation against the PKK in Duhok province (Iraq’s Gara Mountain region), which caused the death of three Turkish soldiers. In April 2021, tensions increased. On 3 April, the Turkish Ministry of Defence affirmed that he was ready to take all necessary steps to neutralize the PKK. As a reaction, on 14 April unidentified fighters fired rockets at Zilkan military base, in Ninewa governorate, which hosts Turkish military personnel. One Turkish soldier lost his life during the attack. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Iraq.

Position of the parties to the conflict

The Iraqi government has always been condemning the Turkish airstrikes in its territory. 'Iraq’s Stance Towards Turkey’s Operations on PKK Terrorists Is Disappointing: Foreign Ministry’, Daily Sabah, 31 July 2015. 'Iraqi Government Condemns Turkish Airstrikes on PKK in Kurdistan’, Rudaw, 28 July 2015. The Iraqi government condemned the Turkish airstrikes. A. Barnard, 'Turkey's Focus on Crushing Kurdish Separatists Complicates the Fight Against ISIS', The New York Times, 28 July 2015.‘Iraq’s Stance Towards Turkey’s Operations on PKK Terrorists Is Disappointing: Foreign Ministry’, Daily Sabah, 31 July 2015; ‘Iraqi Government Condemns Turkish Airstrikes on PKK in Kurdistan’, Rudaw, 28 July 2015. In December 2015, during a meeting of the Security Council following the Turkish deployment of additional troops to protect their base set up near the Iraqi city of Mosul, used to provide training to Iraqi militia fighting the Islamic State group, the Turkish representative argued that Turkey 'has been under attack not only by Daesh but also by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) terrorist organization’, based in Iraq. ‘It is our right to exercise self-defence’, as ‘both Daesh and the PKK continue to pose significant threats to Turkey’s safety and security from areas beyond the reach of the Iraqi Government.’ Albeit not referring to the Turkish airstrikes, the Iraq representative highlighted that ‘Iraq rejects any military movements of a counter-terrorist nature without the knowledge and prior approval of the Iraqi federal authorities.’ 7589th meeting of the Security Council, 18 December 2015, UN doc S/PV.7589 During discussions before the Security Council in May 2017, the Iraqi representative stated that 'on 25 April 2017, in a clear and flagrant violation of our sovereignty, good neighbourliness, the rules of international humanitarian law and the Charter of the United Nations, Turkish forces illegally entered Iraqi airspace and territory by bombarding the Mount Sinjar region of northern Iraq with more than 20 bombs, which led to the killing and wounding of members of the Peshmerga Iraqi forces.' Moreover, 'the Council must demand that Turkey withdraw its forces from Iraqi territory and respect good neighbourliness in order to ensure international and regional peace and security.' 7945th meeting of the Security Council, 22 May 2017, UN doc S/PV.7945, p 18.

Once the Turkish Prime Minister noted the absence of any agreement between Iraq and Turkey to launch an offensive against PKK and stated that Turkey respects the sovereignty of Iraq and will launch no military operations over the country’s border without the consent of its federal government. ‘No cross-border operations without Iraq’s consent: Turkish PM tells Abadi’, Kurdistan 24, 27 March 2018. In the following days,  Turkish officials stated that a joint operation could be conducted with Baghdad and Ankara joint operation against the PKK in Shingal and the Kurdistan Region's Qandil mountains; however, the then Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari,  strongly denounced the statement report and stressed that ‘the border is now controlled by our forces, and we reject any attacks by Turkey through our territory.’ ‘No cross-border operations without Iraq’s consent: Turkish PM tells Abadi’, Kurdistan 24, 27 March 2018.

In fact, Iraq always denied acquiescing in foreign military operations within its borders. M. Aldroubi, ‘Baghdad denies giving support for Turkish anti-PKK operation’, 12 June 2018. Following airstrikes in 2018, the Iraqi government has also issued formal complaints against Turkish incursions into its sovereign territory. 'Conflict Between Turkey and Armed Kurdish Groups: Recent Developments’, Global Conflict Tracker, 21 June 2019. Iraq explicitly denounced the actions of Turkish aircraft that violate Iraqi airspace and target several sites in northern Iraq, which caused loss of life and property. 'Iraq summons Turkish ambassador over airstrikes' Reuters, 14 December 2018. Moreover, the Arab League condemned the repeated Turkish strikes against posts in northern Iraq.‘Arab League condemns Turkish strikes-on-northern Iraq’ Xinhua, 18 December 2018

However, following the recent improved positive relationship between Turkey and Iraq 'Iraq-Turkey relations are moving in a positive direction’, TRT WORLD, 4 Jan 2019, there is no explicit condemnation of Turkey’s airstrikes since February 2019. The only exception being a summon issued to the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad on 27 January by Iraq’s ministry of defence and a request to end Ankara’s unilateral military action. Iraq Political Update-2019, Armed Conflict Database. This action was taken in response to airstrikes on civilian areas on 23 and 25 January 2019 which killed at least six civilians in the towns of Amedi and Deraluk, Dohuk province and led to widespread anger among Iraqi Kurds, and a deadly raid against a Turkish military base in Dohuk. Iraq Political Update-2019, Armed Conflict Database.
It should be mentioned that the existence of consent, whether explicit or tacit, might be very difficult to establish for a number of reasons- including the absence of publicizing their consensual agreements, or interventions might not give rise to any protest from the territorial state, or may prompt contradictory statements by its authorities, or trigger symbolic protests aimed at satisfying its own constituency. For further elaboration on the nature of consent and the difficulty in determining the existence or non-existence of the same, see Tristan Ferraro and Lindsey Cameron, ‘Article 2: Application of the Convention’, ICRC, Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, 2016, § 261-263

Overall, from the publicly available information, and the rejection of Turkey’s repeated incursion into Iraq’s territory, the actions of Turkey trigger international armed conflict as defined under common Article 2 (1) of the Geneva Conventions. However, it should be noted that neither Turkey nor Iraq has publicly stated that they are involved in an international armed conflict (which is not necessary of an international armed conflict to exist).

Both Iraq and Turkey are party to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. Iraq is also a party to the 1977 Additional Protocol I applicable to international armed conflicts. Furthermore, they are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to international armed conflicts.Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict, but it is controversial whether it also applies to extra-territorial airstrikes.

Last updated: Sunday 30th May 2021