Turkey’s balancing role in Iraq
Recently resign Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani’s nationalist ambitions not only ended his own political career, but also caused the KRG to lose its expanded authorities characterized as semi-autonomous. Paying no heed to the warnings from regional countries, Barzani left his seat with a reproach to the U.S.
As the leadership controversy among the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) continues, Baghdad not only hopes to maintain control of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, but also aspires to create an environment in northern Iraq that will squash future independence claims by taking control of Turkish and Iranian border gates, airports and oil pipelines there.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is considering either incorporating the KRG peshmerga into the Iraqi military or keeping it as a minor local force. It is very obvious to what extent this recession troubles the KRG, which has tried to realize self-governance since 1991. It is safe to say that the situation has traumatized the collective memory of Kurdish nationalists.
As the fight against Daesh is almost over and Barzani has resigned as a result of the crisis from the independence referendum, Abadi’s hand is much stronger now. Over the past four months, Mosul was recaptured from Daesh while Kirkuk was taken back from peshmerga forces. Abadi has not hidden his relief over purging Daesh from the wastelands near the Syrian border while finding support from Washington, Ankara and Tehran at the same time.
Thus, it can be said Baghdad has taken a much more assertive stance in governing the country when compared to the pre-Daesh period. Some are even celebrating this development as the rebirth of Iraq. Yet, it is too early for such celebration. There is a significant amount of work left despite the latest achievements to protect the country’s territory’s integrity. A political system that will enable the peaceful coexistence of Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens must be established and maintained. The 2014 syndrome was experienced since this formula could not be achieved after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Abadi has been taking positive steps in pushing Hashd al-Shaabi militias into the background. He has issued meticulous and well-written remarks to emphasize the unity of the Iraqi people and abstains from aggrieving the Kurds. Just as significantly, he has focused on cooperation between Iran, Turkey and Iraq in shaping the future of the KRG that is still ongoing. It can be argued that they agreed on limiting the federative authorities of the KRG to a serious extent and are making progress in integrating it back into Iraq.
During his conversation with a group of journalists on the plane while returning from Azerbaijan, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the KRG’s integration into the rest of Iraq as a federal structure will favor all Iraqis. He also said that the Ibrahim Khalil border gate was taken over from peshmerga forces with the combined efforts of the Turkish and Iraqi militaries. During the conversation, Erdoğan also listed Turkey’s priorities in Iraq as pushing the outlawed PKK from Iraqi territory, cleansing Sinjar, placing 400,000 Turkmens in their own territory in Tal Afar and integrating Ninova Guards in Mosul, an important component of the equation, to the system.
As a matter of fact, Erdoğan’s list reveals the challenges facing Abadi. The fight against Daesh is about to end, but displaced Sunnis must be re-integrated into the Iraqi system. Millions of Sunnis might not go to the polls if an election is held in April, 2018.
Moreover, incorporating Hashd al-Shaabi militias into the Iraqi military would not be sufficient. It is essential to abolish the pro-Shiite symbols in the military and balance the Shiite dominance by assigning Sunni Iraqis and Kurds to qualified positions. Abadi must never forget that his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Shiite policies laid the groundwork for the birth and rapid spread of Daesh in 2014.
After all of the conflicts, it is a tough assignment to manage the Sunni-Shiite divergence. Furthermore, a federative structure that will not completely drain the hopes of the KRG must be put in place as soon as possible. Abadi has to form a framework for a common federated Iraqi identity that will reunite the country. Moreover, he has to end Iraq’s role as “an arena for proxy wars,” to quote the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) Foreign Policy Studies Director Ufuk Ulutaş. As such, Abadi must first and foremost balance the competition between Washington, Gulf countries and Tehran over his country.
Although Abadi has recently asked Iran and the U.S. to give up this rivalry, his task is still very challenging as Iraq lies in the heart of U.S. strategy to restrict Iran. The U.S. has some 12 bases, more than 5,000 military officers and the world’s largest embassy personnel in Iraq.
Iraq is also the country in the center of Iran’s resistance line with its major Shiite population. Thousands of Shiite militia constitutes only one signifier of Iran’s influence. Abadi, who is currently at the crossroads of various strategic interests, is required to maintain the newly established cooperation with Turkey in order to create policies that will consolidate Iraq. The rivalry between the U.S. and Iran over Iraq can be balanced by the role Turkey plays. This balance will definitely contribute to the rebirth of Iraq.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on November 2, 2017.