Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, for whom a trip to Turkey has been a long time coming, ended his visit with a successful attempt at leaving everyone smiling. During the Dec. 17 meeting, he made sure to cater his remarks specifically to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
During his remarks Al-Kadhimi said, “Turkey is an important country for us.” He mentioned reconstructing the devastation left by ISIS, together with Turkey. He added that “Iraq is serious about opening its doors to Turkish investments” and that any group “that threatens Turkey from Iraq will not be tolerated,” referring to the countries’ shared fight against the PKK.
As an example of Iraq’s commitment to this cause, he referenced last week’s clashes between the Peshmerga, the military forces of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Syria's pro-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). According to Turkey’s Ambassador to Baghdad, Fatih Yıldız, both Iraq and Turkey were glad to hear of this development.
Obviously, an event such as this is notable for the two neighboring countries, which have become economically dependent on each other since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, mistrust within Turkey-Iraq relations, which has carried over from the past, is still a major problem. Turkey’s strategy of expanding its area control to dozens of bases, which has not been limited to cross-border operations against the PKK, has caused turbulence in bilateral relationships. Last summer, the Iraqi central government conducted a symbolic military operation aimed at controlling their borders and preventing Turkey’s "Operation Claw-Eagle" from becoming an invasion. The death of two Iraqi commanders in Turkey’s drone attack in Sidekan on Aug. 11 demolished any possibility an easy start to relations with Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi.
The Shiite wings of Iraqi political groups were already angry about Turkey’s policies that they perceived as investing in Sunni rage. Relations became further strained by Turkey’s efforts to create a Sunni force at their Bashiqa base in Northern Iraq in order to prevent the Hashd al-Shaabi military forces from entering Mosul. Further, Turkey’s targeting of the Makhmur Refugee Camp and the town of Sinjar over the past three years further weighed on the already tense relations.
As a possible attempt to bypass Kurdistan’s revenue stream via their boarder, Turkey has planned to open a new border gate on its boarder at Ovaköy. The insistence on a new Ovaköy border gate is essentially Turkey trying to insert a buffer zone between Syria and Iraq all the way to Tal Afar. The move has put Baghdad between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, there is a continuous effort to calm Turkey, and on the other, Iraq doesn’t want to offend Kurdistan.
The answer to the question, “Why did Al-Kadhimi take so long to visit Turkey?” lays somewhere in this narrative.
One could speak of the situation as Baghdad and Erbil being sandwitched between two lines of pressure forcing them to consider new positions.
Turkey’s line of pressure is clear: On the Syrian side, it starts behind Afrin, at Tell Rifat, and peaks at Manbij and Ayn Issa, east of Euphrates; on the Iraqi side, it starts in Sinjar and goes toward the mountain range in the north. These are the pressures that put the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) at war with the PKK, forced Baghdad to take positions against both Kurdistan and the PKK, and made the U.S. a partner in Ankara’s “anti-terror” strategy.
Another pressure is coming from the Americans. The U.S. is putting effort toward calming down Turkey, which is furious that the U.S is cooperating with the YPG on the Syrian side. In Syria, the U.S. is obscuring the Kurdish union by forming a partnership with the Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS), which is in line with KDP, for autonomous administration politically and militarily. The U.S. is trying to paint a misleading image that the PKK is divorced from Syria.
The U.S. is allowing infighting among the Kurds. With this policy, the U.S. has been trying to convince Turkey to take certain actions and queel its anger toward the Kurds because of the partnership between the Pentagon and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). There is also an economic dimension of these conflicting policies: The Syrian oil, which the Americans are sitting on top of, flows through Kurdistan and is being purchased by Turkey.
Turkey is stronger because of the U.S., and this strength is reflected on Sinjar. The U.S. had a hand in the agreement signed between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments on Oct. 9. This was to end the control of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), Sinjar Women's Units (YJŞ), and the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Assembly, formed by the Yazidis who are following the PKK. Fear of Turkey seems to be affecting both on Erbil and Baghdad. In 2014, when the Peshmerga withdrew in the face of an ISIS advance, the KDP lost its Yezidi bid and left Sinjar, which wasn’t under its control, to the central administration through this agreement. The desired status quo is connected to the U.S. goal of ending Hashd al-Shaabi’s presence in the region and closing Iraqi-Syrian borders with Iran.
The second important development involving the U.S. is the return to the northern Kurdish buffer zone. Peshmerga forces affiliated with the KDP have, in recent months, taken position near Haftanin, Metina, Gare, and Behdinan to be within the operational range of the PKK. Also, after the Sinjar agreement, the Peshmerga deployed in several places to prevent any crossings of the Syrian border. This situation on the Tigris line also spoiled inter-Kurdish unity, which has progressed thanks to the pressure from the Americans.
Leaving YBŞ without options, triggering the PKK-KDP conflict, and destroying talks among the Syrian Kurds are outcomes which are clearly positive for Ankara. These conflicting situations are also useful for the central government as they ultimately opens up channels of influence and control in the north.
Another driving factor behind Ankara-Baghdad relations is the U.S. strategy to surround Iran. The U.S. is trying to strengthen Al-Kadhimi’s hand in order to free Iraq of Iranian influence. The old American game of pushing for friendship between Turkey and the allied Arab states, has been updated. Such a relationship would potentially “red card” Iran from the game. The Iraqi PM is caught between the U.S. and Iran, and may need Turkey to help balance it out.
These multifaceted pressures have brought Ankara, Washington, Erbil, and Baghdad together. However, this may not be adequate to overcome their complex overlapping problems.
These previous crises are not even cold yet and already we are seeing attempts to move foreward. A significant portion of the problems are the result of Turkey's insistence on solving the Kurdish problem through military means. Several elements of the Erbil-Baghdad relationship stem from this as well. Making KDP fight with PKK could lead to the geographical expansion of a problem Turkey already considers a “national threat.” We have seen this happen in the past via confrontations with actors in Iraq and Syria.
Likewise, Ankara wants to make Baghdad a committed partner in its “fight against terrorism.” However, Iraq is already overwhelmed with problems. Baghdad has issues even protecting the green zone and has not completely managed ISIS, so, the Iraqi central government cannot participate in any futher conflicts in the northern Kurdish region, a region it has been detached from for decades.
Al-Kadhimi's approach is not what Ankara wants. Al-Kadhimi may opt for including YBŞ into the Hashd al-Shaabi instead of a clamping down and potentiallly offending the Yazidis in Sinjar. Again, Turkey's plan to open a border crossing at Ovaköy and create a corridor to Mosul may appeal to Baghdad as a chance to close those disputed areas with Kurdistan and obtain direct access to the Turkish border. However, as long as Kurdistan remains within Iraqi territory, the survival of any government in Baghdad will be dependent on Kurdish support. Al-Kadhimi's sensitivity towards the Kurds is greater than that of his predecessors. Iran also influences this sensitivity. Tehran will use its influence on Baghdad to prevent Turkey from gaining strategic depth in Iraq, parallel with American interests. Al-Kadhimi, on the other hand, cannot keep his seat while ignoring the political actors in Iran.
With the exception of one or two Turkmen and Sunni groups in Iraq, it would be very difficult to find a political actor that would think it legitimate for Turkey to have military presence in Bashiqa, to bomb Makmur and Sinjar, and to set up up bases in the north. As a former intelligence chief, Al-Kadhimi is well aware how far Turkey’s influence reaches. There is no guarantee of happy relations simply from the Baghdad and Kirkuk songs sung at the Beştepe Palace in Ankara.
The U.S. policies on the other hand, are also bound to pose problems.
Although many want to see Syrian and Iraqi Kurds united in the long run, when it comes to standing by Turkey, they are crushed by their own contradictions. Ankara may not be able to see the benefits of the channels that the U.S. will open to Turkey through it’s opposition of Iran. Policy after 2003 and endeavors to protect Sunnism, orchestrated by the U.S., ultimately brought harm to the Sunnis. Because of the disagreements within the Gulf, Iraq’s Sunni blocs no longer stand by Turkey. In fact, the situation has changed so rapidly that it became easier for Turkey to find a Shiite friend than a Sunni friend.
Turkey has to do two things in order to secure long-term friendly with Iraq: First, it should construct a strategy far from the internal conflicts of its neighbors, whether ethnic or sectarian, and far from the wars of influence among external actors.
Secondly, it must get rid of its own domestic contradictions and the cursed ties it has shackled its feet with as soon as possible.
The situation in Iraq and Syria continues to tell us that the quickest way for Turkey to reconcile with neighboring countries is to create domestic peace and “democratic integrity” with the Kurds.
Unfortunately, instead of this, cruelty continues to fomest within Turkey’s borders, and there does not seem to be any slogan left except, “brutality rules.”