Iran and Turkey appear to be on collision course in Iraq – analysis

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While the region’s eyes are on recent tensions with Iran in the Gulf of Oman and Syria, a simmering dispute between Iran and Turkey in Iraq appears to be growing. The dispute has origins going back years as Iran has sought greater influence in Iraq, and Turkey has long viewed northern Iraq as its area of influence.

The recent tensions have grown after Turkey threatened an invasion of Iraq’s Sinjar region. This region was home to the Yazidi minority prior to 2014. ISIS attacked Sinjar in 2014 and committed genocide and around 500,000 Yazidis were forced to flee. After Sinjar was liberated by Kurdish forces, a tense time resulted as various Kurdish factions sought control.

What matters is that in 2017, the Iraqi government supported pro-Iranian militias, called Hashd al-Shaabi, to retake Sinjar from the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Disputes in Sinjar over whether the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) might remain led to Turkish threats the Sinjar is harboring “terrorists.” In fact, some Yazidis had joined far-Left groups allegedly linked to the PKK as part of the struggle against ISIS. Turkey wanted to use this as an excuse to invade. Turkey has a long track record of invading and ethnically cleansing Yazidis and Kurds, in Afrin in Syria in 2019, and Tel Abyad in Syria in October 2019.

It appears that Iran, having helped the Iraqi government grab Sinjar from the Kurdistan region, doesn’t want Turkey entering Sinjar now. For the minorities, like Yazidis, no one seems to care. Even the pope will be arriving in Mosul soon, but not Sinjar.

In that context, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi told Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet, that Ankara should not be violating Iraq’s sovereignty. “We reject military intervention in Iraq and Turkish forces should not pose a threat or violate Iraqi soil,” Masjedi told Rudaw’s Mushtaq Ramazan last week in an exclusive interview. “The security of the Iraqi area should be maintained by Iraqi forces and [Kurdistan] Region forces in their area.”

Masjedi appeared to go even further than opposing an invasion of Sinjar, he said Turkey should withdraw forces from bases in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region. Turkey has long preyed on the Kurdish region, claiming to fight the PKK, and set up dozens of bases. Swaths of villages have been depopulated because of PKK-Turkish fighting in the otherwise peaceful, mountainous region. Recently Turkey launched operations striking PKK bases.

Turkey’s hold on the Kurdish region has also resulted in tensions between the Kurdish authorities in Erbil, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the PKK. It has also resulted in tensions between Sulamaniyeh, controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and the KDP. For Turkey, this is fine because Erbil relies on Turkey for economic lifelines and Turkey can use its leverage here. For the PUK, this is not ideal but the PUK is linked more to Iran’s views.

“What has Sinjar got to do with Turkey?” Masjedi said. “This is an internal matter and the Iraqis themselves must resolve this issue … It has no bearing on Turkey to threaten or make a decision on this. Therefore, we reject any threat, be it from Turkey or any other side.” Masjedi is not just a normal Iranian ambassador. He has a past in the IRGC.

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He was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2020. He has in the past threatened Israel and the US. The Middle East Institute and Washington Institute for Near East Policy have both profiled Masjedi. MEI noted “All the three Iranian ambassadors in post-Saddam Iraq have been senior members of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force – reinforcing the notion that the IRGC, rather than the civilian government in Tehran, is in charge of the Islamic Republic’s policies in regional countries.”

Masjedi believes in expanding the IRGC influence and sees Iraq and Syria as a kind of frontline for Iran in its near abroad. This makes it look like Masjedi is more a proconsul in Iraq than an ambassador, helping to run, behind the scenes, the role of pro-Iran militias, the Hashd. Last month, rockets were fired on a US base in Erbil at the airport.

Masjedi’s comments led to tit-for-tat condemnations, as Turkey responded with statements in Iraq and called in Iran’s ambassador in Turkey. Turkey’s ruling politicians are used to insulting and bashing other countries and making extreme statements. Towards that end, the interior minister of Turkey insulted Iran and claimed it is harboring terrorists. The Iranian foreign ministry responded, calling in Turkey’s ambassador, and slamming Turkey’s ambassador to Baghdad Fatih Yildiz.

THE DISPUTE in Iraq is now raising eyebrows in other areas. It is important to remember that going back to the 1920s, Turkey still claimed a swath of northern Iraq as its own. The so-called Mosul Question dominated Turkey-UK discussions over Iraq in the 1920s. In the end, Mosul went to Baghdad because the British-appointed King of Iraq, Faisal, needed more Sunni constituents and his kingdom without Mosul would be mostly Shi’ites.

That was a boon for Saddam Hussein because Mosul provided the backbone of some of his best military units and he was able to socially engineer parts of northern Iraq, removing minorities and bringing in Arab tribes, consolidating towns and collectivizing areas, while genociding Kurds. Fast forward to 2003, and the US invasion of Iraq and Turkish agents were discovered by the US in Kirkuk in an infamous incident known as the Hood affair.

Turkey had already established itself in Iraq in the 1990s, claiming to fight the PKK. It increased its bases in northern Iraq, mostly small outposts on mountains up until 2014. During the ISIS war, the Kurdistan region was entirely cut off from Baghdad and its lifeline, including oil shipments, was via Turkey. The KDP and the Erdogan government in Turkey appeared quite close up until the Kurdish independence referendum of 2017.

Turkey set up a base at Bashiqa to help train Arab fighters in 2015 and support the Kurdish Peshmerga, who were fighting ISIS. This was a major expansion and Iraq was livid. Iraq complained to the UN. The UN sought to reduce tensions in December 2015. Tensions appeared reduced for several years until this latest controversy. Now there are more commentators pushing for a Turkey-Iran confrontation in Iraq. But the claims that Iran might be trying to pressure the US and Turkey in Iraq may be a misreading of what is going on.

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The Hashd or PMU have deployed brigades to Sinjar to make the area appear more well controlled by Iraq. At the same time, this should dilute any role that Turkey can claim the PKK has and would stop a major Turkish operation into Sinjar, or an attempt to put a Turkish base there. However, the deployment of the brigades from Kirkuk to Sinjar on February 13 appeared to dovetail with threats against US forces in Erbil. It also came after a major Turkish raid on Mount Gare in northern Iraq.

According to Kurdish sources, Turkey has been seeking a forward policy far beyond its borders for years. Some others have called this “Neo-Ottoman,” or presented this as some sort of renewal of 1920s claims to Idlib, Greek islands and Mosul, but evidence shows that Ankara is mainly concerned with fighting the PKK, not with Kirkuk as in 2003 or Mosul as in 1925. The real concern for Kurdish authorities is that Turkey would cut off Erbil from Syria, cutting the Semalka crossing at Faysh Khabur. Turkey might seek an independent way to Baghdad, rather than through the KRG. A presence in Sinjar could facilitate that. But it would come up against Iran’s apparent interests.

THE KRG meanwhile needs its budget from Baghdad. It had a deal with Iraq about Sinjar last year to calm tensions there. The KDP would like to continue its former influence in Sinjar. The PUK would like to continue its interests in Kirkuk. Meanwhile, Iran wants to reduce Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and Turkey likes to leverage its role in Erbil to co-opt some of that autonomy. Iran uses Shi’ites and militias to accomplish its aims. Turkey uses economic leverage and its claim of rights to conduct raids over the border.

In years past, sources in Erbil warned that Iran could use Sinjar to threaten the region, including Israel, by placing missiles on the mountain. It was not clear if Sinjar ever played a role in Iran’s desire for a “road to the sea” via Syria, because Iran uses Al-Qaim and Anbar for that. But it doesn’t have Shi’ite communities much in Anbar, whereas it has recruited militias in Nineveh plains and has sought to work through Turkmen and others in Sinjar.

The war of words now in Iraq between Turkey and Iran is seen by some as a prophecy come true of Turkey possibly seeking to work with the US again and clash with Iran over “geopolitics.”

However, evidence shows that Turkey often prefers to work with Iran regionally on some issues, especially against the US, and work with Russia, while in some areas it may clash with Iran’s interests, the broader trend is an anti-Western trend.

For instance, Turkey and Iran both support Hamas. Turkey is cautious in Iraq now, wondering if Iran has thrown down a red line in Sinjar. Turkey likely never wanted to put a base in Sinjar, but wanted to use the threats to get Iraq to put a firmer hand on Sinjar mountain. With the Hashd flooding the area, this may serve Turkey’s goals in the long term. The IRGC ambassador to Iraq wanted to put Ankara on notice that when it comes to the IRGC, rather than Zarif and Rouhani, there are different interests at work in Iraq.

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For others who tend to be pro-Turkey, there is now a line of reasoning that seeks to link the PKK to the Hashd, as if they are aligned against the US and Turkey. This is also a misreading of what is happening.

The long-term propaganda of pro-Ankara elements that sought to pretend the PKK is linked to Iran and that somehow Iran was behind US support for the SDF in Syria, which Turkey alleges is the US working with the “PKK terrorists” in Syria, is all part of its worldview. Turkey openly claims Iran has PKK elements in its mountains.

These groups are known as PJAK, and for the purposes of this article, all that matters is that in fact Iran has worked with Turkey in the past against these groups. Iran uses whoever it can to get influence, whether it wants to undermine the US in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region by working with Kurdish groups, or whether it wants to undermine the US in eastern Syria by getting the regime to hold out a fig leaf.

In the end, unlike Turkey, Iran has never ethnically cleansed Kurds, and unlike Saddam, it never gassed them, and it never tried to pretend they don’t exist, so Iran’s inroads and ability to talk about defending minorities in places like Sinjar has more weight that Turkey’s track record in Afrin.

When it comes to economic influence though, Turkey’s first-world economy has transformed the Kurdish region, especially Dohuk and Erbil, and all Iran has to offer is what it offers in Iraq: sponging up resources and transferring them to Iran rather than local investment. The overall picture in Iraq between Iran and Turkey, whether one wants to see it as about the PKK or “Ottomans vs. Safavids” is far more multi-layered and complex than is widely acknowledged.

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