BACKGROUND: A diplomatic crisis erupted between Turkey and Iraqi federal government in December 2015, when Turkey deployed around 600-1,200 troops and dozens of tanks in Bashiqa, fifteen kilometers northwest of Mosul. According to Turkey, the troops were deployed in pursuit of training local volunteer Sunni militia forces, presumably for the planned liberation of Mosul from the terrorist organization calling itself the “Islamic State” (ISIS). However, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the Turkish claims. He accused Turkey of failing to respect Iraqi sovereignty, and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish forces from Iraqi territory.
The Turkish government defended the legality and legitimacy of the presence of the troops in Bashiqa; it claimed that the troop deployment was in full accordance with the bilateral understandings reached when Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu visited Baghdad in November 2014. Nonetheless, significant objections were raised to the Turkish action also by international actors, notably by Russia and Iran.
The United States has mediated between Baghdad and Ankara, and the mediation efforts of Washington have led to the partial withdrawal of the Turkish troops.
Yet Turkey has also received support for its troop deployment. During his visit to Ankara in December 2015, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) president Massoud Barzani backed the Turkish troop presence; echoing Ankara’s argument, Barzani defended the legitimacy and necessity of the troops for the training of local militias and the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. Barzani is unique in this regard, being the only voice in the region in favor of Turkish involvement in Iraq. It is not a coincidence.
For the past several years, Turkey and the KRG have been forging closer relations, as exemplified by the opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil in 2010 and strong economic and energy cooperation. However, these relations suffered a setback in 2014, when Turkey did not come to the help of the KRG while Erbil was under threat when ISIS had gained momentum following the fall of Mosul. That provided an opportunity for Iran, which attempted to come to the assistance of the KRG in its struggle against ISIS, and has tried to use this to improve its leverage in Northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is also aiming to warm its relations with the KRG. Indeed, the assistance of Saudi Arabia can prove to be crucial in light of the KRG’s economic difficulties. These difficulties have arisen as Erbil is not receiving its share of the budget from Baghdad; and the fall in the price of oil, together with the burden of providing for more than 1.8 million internally displaced people and refugees from Iraq and Syria have further added to Erbil’s difficulties.
In view of meeting these challenges, the KRG has an interest in forging closer relations with other regional actors beside Turkey; nonetheless, Erbil still accords Turkey a major importance since it is through Turkey that the KRG is proceeding with its energy exports. Barzani, who is known to have long been contemplating if and when to declare Kurdish independence, recently voiced that he thinks Turkey would not object to Kurdish independence; the KRG president has pointed to his experience during his recent visit to Ankara, when KRG flags were officially displayed.
IMPLICATIONS: KRG President Barzani’s visit to Ankara in December 2015, shortly after the deployment of Turkish troops in the vicinity of Mosul, must be viewed against the backdrop of the current tensions between Turkey and Russia. Turkey, which is highly dependent on natural gas imports from Russia, has for a long time been seeking to diversify its energy suppliers, and the recent crisis has given a stronger impetus to this attempt. (See January 15, 2016 Turkey Analyst) Turkish initiatives to import larger quantities of natural gas from the KRG are not new and can fit well in these diversification attempts, although objections from Iraqi federal government continue to present difficulties for implementing any such plans.
In the context of the crisis between Turkey and Russia, Russia is also trying to increase its influence among the Syrian Kurds and demanded that the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) be represented at the peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria. By contrast, Turkey has tried to marginalize the PYD’s role in Syria, as it is an affiliate group of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. Ankara views the PYD’s attempts to create a contiguous Kurdish presence in Northern Syria as unacceptable; it has warned that the Kurds crossing the Euphrates and joining the Kurdish cantons of Rojava (Western Kurdistan) into one contiguous region constitutes a “red line,” implying that Turkey would act militarily in that case.
During the earlier stages of the civil war in Syria Turkey had harbored hopes that Barzani would wield a decisive influence among the Syrian Kurds and help neutralize the dominance of the PYD, but Barzani could never deliver on these hopes. By now the PYD has gained enough momentum and international support, including that of the United States and Russia, making the chances of Barzani and KRG wielding influence in Rojava highly unlikely.
However, Turkey might still be hopeful that its reinvigorated relations with Barzani will help it to neutralize support for PKK among the Kurds in Turkey, as in the past there were Turkish attempts made to persuade Barzani to establish a moderate Kurdish party in Turkey in an effort to curb the PKK’s influence. The resumption of violence in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast makes this more urgent than ever.
Also, Turkey might ask the KRG to expel PKK leaders and militia from Qandil in Northern Iraq. Following the collapse of the peace process in Turkey, and Turkey’s bombings in Northern Iraq last year, the KRG did indeed call upon the PKK to withdraw from the Qandil Mountains; however, the KRG is not likely to take action against PKK, both because it would not be feasible in military terms and because it would meet with strong domestic public opposition inside the KRG.
CONCLUSIONS: The future power balance in Iraq will be highly influenced by the results of the battle against IS in Mosul. The Turkish deployment of troops in Iraq at the end of last year should be seen in light of this planned, future battle over Iraq. Turkey is also signaling that it aims to keep it relations with the KRG intact and that it aims to fortify them further with energy deals. Still, Turkey-KRG relations, strong as they may be, will neither provide Turkey with a solution to its internal Kurdish problem, nor help it counter the empowerment of the Syrian Kurds.
The Russian intervention in Syria leaves Turkey with little room to influence future developments in Syria, and specifically to curb the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds.
Yet, as the only still relevant remnant of Turkey’s ‘zero Problems’ policy, Turkey-KRG relations do have the potential to assist Ankara in maintaining and solidifying its influence over the future of Iraq.
Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss is a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University, Israel
Image attribution: www.rudaw.net, accessed on Feb 1, 2016