Rising Iran-Turkey tensions in Iraq and Russia's dilemma

Sinjar and the Turkey-Iran rift in Iraq: A perilous moment for Russia
6 min read
17 March, 2021
Analysis: While the extent and duration of Turkey's anticipated military intervention in Sinjar is unclear, Russia is watching the situation in northern Iraq with apprehension.
Russia will likely try to de-escalate tensions between the conflicting parties.[Getty]
On 27 February, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, condemned Turkey's military operations in northern Iraq and urged Turkish forces to "not pose a threat or violate Iraqi soil."

Less than twenty-four hours later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Mohammad Farazmand over Masjedi's comments. 

As Turkey plans to expand its military operations in northern Iraq's predominantly Yazidi Sinjar region, tensions between Tehran and Ankara over Iraq are expected to escalate further in the coming weeks. 

In a break from its proactive response to crises elsewhere in the Middle East and offers of mediation throughout the region, Russia has stayed silent about the escalation in Turkey-Iran tensions and Ankara's plans for a military intervention in Sinjar. Russian state media outlets have also expressed scepticism about Turkey's ability to recruit US support for its attacks on the PKK. 

A 17 February article in Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti highlighted the ambiguous initial US statement about PKK killings of 13 Turkish civilians, which were revealed on 14 February. The article noted that the focus of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's telephone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was on Turkey's purchases of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia rather than the situation in Iraq. 

In the event of an intensified conflict over Sinjar, Russia will likely flex its diplomatic muscles in order to de-escalate Turkey-Iran tensions and protect its standing as a resurgent great power in Iraq

The Kremlin's silence and scepticism about US support for Turkey's prospective campaign in Sinjar should not be conflated with apathy. Russia has three reasons to be very concerned about an escalation in Sinjar and a concomitant deterioration of Turkey-Iran relations. In the event of an intensified conflict over Sinjar, Russia will likely flex its diplomatic muscles in order to de-escalate Turkey-Iran tensions and protect its standing as a resurgent great power in Iraq.

First, Russia balances close relations with the Iraqi government, Iraqi Kurdistan and pro-Iranian militias, such as the Hashd al-Shaabi, and benefits from a state of reduced tensions between these factions. A Turkish military intervention in Sinjar would create sharp polarisations within Iraq. The Iraqi government will likely oppose an expansive Turkish military intervention, as Baghdad condemned the illegality of Turkey's anti-PKK raids in northern Iraq in June 2020.

Read more: Could Iraq's Iran-backed militias arm the
PKK if Turkey enters Sinjar?

The Hashd al-Shaabi could also resist Turkey's military actions, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labelled the militia group as a terrorist organisation in April 2017.

Due to his warm relationship with Turkey and recent consultation with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Russian commentator Marianna Belenkaya anticipates that Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Marsour Barzani, could support Turkey's military operations.

These anticipated polarisations explain Russia's silence on recent developments, but a larger escalation could force Moscow to take sides. Iraqi ambassador to Russia Haidar Mansour Hadi expressed interest in Russia's S-400 missile defence systems in May 2019, as the threat of Israeli strikes mounted, and Baghdad could renew this request in the event of protracted Turkish airstrikes. 

If Russia rejects this request, its standing as a crisis-proof partner for Arab countries will be called into question. Fares Shehabi, a businessman and MP who is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, recently decried Russia's inability to protect Syria against Turkish and Israeli strikes. A repeat performance in Iraq would exacerbate these concerns. Hashd al-Shaabi leader Falih al-Fayyadh views Russia as a useful partner against the United States in Iraq but a detached response to Turkey's strikes could sully his perspective of Moscow. 

Russia balances close relations with the Iraqi government, Iraqi Kurdistan and Iranian-backed militias. A Turkish military intervention in Sinjar would create sharp polarisations within Iraq

Second, Russia views a prolonged escalation of tensions between Iran and Turkey to be problematic, as it regards Ankara and Tehran as crucial partners and works closely with both countries on the resolution of the Syrian civil war. The growing risk of a military confrontation between Iran and Turkey will be met with unease in Moscow. On 14 February, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militia group, stated that the Iraqi people would "face the occupiers" and "adopt a determined stance to repulse" Turkey.

This statement caused Turkish media outlets to revive long-standing alarmism about a Hashd al-Shaabi-PKK alliance in northern Iraq. Sheikh Shamo, an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for Yazidi affairs, warned on 2 March that 15,000 Hashd al-Shaabi militias are located in Sinjar.

Third, an expansion of Turkey's military intervention from Sinjar into a broader anti-PKK offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan undermines Russia's commercial interests in the KRG. In May 2018, Russian oil company Rosneft signed an agreement with the KRG to develop its oil and gas infrastructure, which included the design of a new pipeline. In spite of implementation failures and backlash from Iraq, Rosneft has maintained a commercial footprint in the KRG and expects to earn $5.3 billion from its deals with the region.

From Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia and Turkey's complex regional rivalry

If Turkey's strikes are confined to Sinjar, such as the August 2018 attack on the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), Russia's commercial interests will be unaffected. However, if they expand into a larger military intervention in the KRG, such as Operation Claw-Eagle and Tiger which lasted from June to September 2020, Russia could suffer greater commercial losses. 

If Turkey escalates militarily in Sinjar and the scenario of a Turkey-Iran confrontation in northern Iraq comes to fruition, Russia will likely try to de-escalate tensions between the conflicting parties. Even though Russia's partnership with Iran is stronger than its relationship with Turkey, Moscow has struggled to rein in Tehran's military build-ups in southern Syria and support for Houthi drone strikes against Saudi Arabia. 

If Turkey escalates militarily in Sinjar and the scenario of a Turkey-Iran confrontation in northern Iraq comes to fruition, Russia will likely try to de-escalate tensions between the conflicting parties

Russia's track record moderating Turkey's belligerent conduct is more positive. Vladimir Putin's close relationship with Erdogan helped de-escalate Turkey's Operation Spring Shield offensive in Syria in March 2020 and the November 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which featured a Turkish military intervention on Azerbaijan's behalf.

So far, Turkey has expressed support for a restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and not blamed Iran for Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia's Ras Tanura oil production hub. Russia will be encouraged by Turkey's compartmentalisation of its disagreements with Iran in Iraq.

Russia's growing influence in Iraq: A new challenge
for the US

Russia will also seek to limit the Turkey-Iran proxy conflict to Iraq and prevent these tensions from spilling over into Syria.

Due to the ongoing impasse between the Syrian opposition, which demands a new constitution, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who wishes to amend Syria's existing constitution, the Russian-led Astana Peace Process is under scrutiny. A broader escalation between Iran and Turkey in Syria could unravel this increasingly fragile Russian-led diplomatic process.  

Russia is also concerned about the prospects of a Turkish offensive against the PKK in Sinjar spilling over into northern Syria. This is a realistic scenario, as Turkey perceives the PKK as a transnational threat that is concentrated in both Iraq and Syria.

In February, the Turkish military launched a series of airstrikes against PKK militants which were allegedly seeking to attack the "safe zone" on the Turkey-Syria border established after Ankara's October 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive. Given this risk, Russia has tactically withdrawn its troops from the battleground city of Ayn Issa in order to avoid a direct confrontation with Turkey.

While the extent and duration of Turkey's anticipated military intervention in Sinjar is unclear, the situation in northern Iraq remains tense. Due to its extensive diplomatic role in Syria and balancing strategy between Turkey and Iran, Russia will be watching the situation in Sinjar with apprehension in the weeks ahead.  

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2