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Security and Defense

Turkey’s ‘Development Road’ Threatens Kurdish Gains in Iraq and Syria

The Development Road (DR) project topped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Iraq in late April. The project is described as a trade route linking Asia to Europe via Iraq and Turkey. It is expected to begin operation in 2028. However, apart from its declared development aims, key security and political objectives appear to be part of the Turkish calculus. The road impacts two Kurdish-led entities, sparking concerns that the planned project might be a joint Ankara-Baghdad scheme to threaten Kurdish gains across the region.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)

Last year, unofficial maps of the potential route of the Development Road circulated on regional media, suggesting that it might passes through cities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), such as Zakho and Dohuk. The Iraqi Ministry of Transport had even discussed the road project with its counterpart in the Kurdistan Region. However, the latest maps, published by the Turkish Anadolu Agency, show that the route avoids the Kurdistan Region’s territory, instead following the Tikrit-Mosul route. This was justified by claims that the mountainous nature of the region would increase the project’s cost. In turn, the KRI Minister of Transport stated via his X account that “there will be no road to development without Kurdistan”.  It demonstrates the rightful concerns of authorities in Erbil over the project’s real objectives.

It seems that Iraq has not yet forgotten the Kurdistan Region’s 2017 independence referendum. Baghdad may still want to punish the Iraqi Kurds for taking this unilateral step. After preventing them from exporting oil to Turkey and disrupting the basis of the KRI’s economy, the Iraqi central government seeks to circumvent the region, withhold road imports from it, and remind Kurdish authorities that they are dependent on Baghdad for prosperity.

The DR is slated to enter Turkish territory at the Ovakoy border crossing, rather than the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing. This could represent another blow to the economy of the KRI. Media reports suggest that the central government in Baghdad will manage the Ovakoy crossing instead of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which manages Ibrahim Khalil. This will reduce the trade volume through Ibrahim Khalil, which Baghdad sees as another opportunity to punish the Kurds. The Ovakoy project has been long on the table, with Turkey coordinating directly with Iraqi Turkmen communities, especially in Tal A’far, Mosul, and Kirkuk, to make it possible. In October 2017, pro-AKP Yeni Safak reported that “the new gate will be an alternative to the Khabour border crossing to punish [KDP leader Masoud] Barzani for the referendum and prevent Kurdistan from benefiting from that main source of revenue”.

The Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES)

Both paths of the DR, one railway and another highway, appear to begin at the Iraqi port of Faw in the Arab Gulf and cross from Iraq into Turkey.

The initial stages of potential new Turkish military operations in Iraq aim to tighten Iraq’s northern border with Syria and restrict access to northeast Syria from the KRI via Semalka/Peshkhabour, the only border crossing connecting northeast Syria to the outside world.

The gate serves as the US-led coalition’s sole logistical landway into northeast Syria, where around 2000 US and other foreign forces are located to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their counter-ISIS mission. Escalation in the region might put U.S. forces in a similar position to the one in which they found themselves during the 2019 Turkish incursion into Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, which led to the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from the northeast and the entrance of Russian, Turkish, and Syrian forces into regions the U.S. left behind.

Instead of linking Mosul to Turkey via the Dohuk-Zakho borderline, linking Mosul to Turkey’s Nusaybin through northeast Syria remains on the Turkish radar. In that case, the KRI would be entirely isolated and the Ankara-Baghdad connection would be direct. In Ankara’s calculations, the northeast Syrian portion of the old Berlin-Baghdad railway, running between Tal Kochar and Qamishlo, would shorten the distance of the DR and allow the route to bypass the KRI altogether.

Turkey has recently intensified aerial attacks against key infrastructure facilities in this region of northeast Syria, mainly targeting power, oil, and gas stations. A ground operation is not off the table.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)

PKK fighters have been present and operating in the Turkish-Iraqi borderlands for decades now. Ankara sees the DR as an opportunity to exert pressure on both Baghdad and Erbil to offer more support to its anti-PKK military operations. Using water, energy, and trade to extract concessions, Ankara interferes in internal Iraqi affairs and even Kurdish-Kurdish relations to pursue these interests. Turkish officials openly promised a “hot summer” in which they would launch a military operation aiming to control the entire Turkish-Iraqi border to a depth of 30-40 kilometers under the pretext of combatting the PKK.

Turkey has launched major incursions against the PKK in the KRI over the past several years. Due to the difficult mountain landscape and the resistance put up by PKK fighters, these operations have failed to dislodge the group. The PKK’s presence in the mountainous area of northern Iraq dates to the 1980s, when Iraqi Kurdish parties, including the KDP, made an agreement with the group. In 2013, as part of peace negotiations between the PKK and the government of Turkey, the PKK withdrew its forces from inside Turkey into northern Iraq.

Turkey’s desire for Iraqi support for expanded military operations is what drove the Turkish President to visit Baghdad himself for the first time in more than a decade. Iraqi media reported that security discussions, especially those related to the PKK, occupied a large portion of the visit.

While the road may ostensibly appear to be a developmental project between Baghdad and Ankara, beneath its stones lie fires that both governments seek to unleash toward Kurdish ambitions in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria Region (DAANES).

(Photo: US DOS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

About the Author

Hoshang Hasan


Hoshang Hasan is a Kurdish Syrian journalist based in Rojava, northern Syria. He covered the fight against ISIS as a war correspondent for a local Kurdish channel, and his work has appeared in many Kurdish and Arabic-language news outlets. In…

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