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The Iraq Report: Diplomatic spat with Turkey intensifies after deadly drone strike

Turkey has often used hard power to pursue its national security agenda in Iraq. [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 August, 2020

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While Iraqi authorities continue to criticise Turkish military operations, their protestations of sovereignty have fallen on deaf ears.
Iraq's sovereignty continues to be buffeted by a multitude of regional and international actors, leaving Baghdad struggling to assert itself on the international stage. 

While encroachment on Iraqi sovereignty is often associated with both the United States and Iran, Iraq is also facing challenges from neighbouring Turkey.

Ankara is frustrated by the lack of Iraqi action on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants using mountainous northern Iraq as a base from which to strike Turkish targets.

Other militants that are becoming increasingly unwelcome, while simultaneously undermining Iraqi sovereignty by serving foreign powers, are the Iranian-backed militias that have wreaked havoc across Iraq for almost two decades. 

Where they were previously tolerated in the Shia south due to the perception that they were tackling the Islamic State group (IS), their complicity in the deaths of protesters has left them despised across the ethno-sectarian divide.

Iraq struggles to stand up to Turkey 

Turkey has announced that it will continue military operations in northern Iraq despite a Turkish drone strike killing two members of the Iraqi border force, the Turkish foreign ministry revealed last week.

Turkey launched two operations into northern Iraq in June against Kurdish militants, leading Baghdad to censure Ankara

The announcement comes after Iraq last week cancelled Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar's visit to the country, which was scheduled for Thursday, after Ankara's military strike.

The Iraqi foreign ministry also summoned the Turkish ambassador to hand him "a strong protest note and inform him of Iraq's confirmed rejection of his country's attacks and violations".

A Turkish drone strike in the Sidakan area last Tuesday in northeastern Iraq, near the Turkish and Iranian borders, killed two members of Iraq's border guard and the driver of the vehicle they were in, the Iraqi military said. 

The Iraq Report: Political shockwave of Beirut blast
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Turkey claims to have targeted PKK militants, and there have been suggestions that members of the Iraqi border force were meeting with PKK members when the strike took place. It is unknown why the Iraqi border force may have had meetings with the PKK, but the Turkish insinuation of some members being compromised and assisting the PKK is clear. 

Turkey launched two operations into northern Iraq in June against Kurdish militants, leading Baghdad to censure Ankara for its military action against the PKK who are hiding in the mountainous regions of Iraqi Kurdistan.

As a previous edition of The Iraq Report highlighted, Operation Claw-Tiger – which followed an aerial attack dubbed Operation Claw-Eagle – came following reports of the United Arab Emirates providing material support to the PKK, recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

The UAE has also been connected to support for the outlawed Fethullah Gulen network, accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating the botched coup attempt of 2016.

With Ankara now adopting a more assertive and kinetic foreign policy approach, including successful interventions in Libya and parts of northern Syria to contain the PKK and its sister organisations, it is therefore unsurprising that Turkey would act robustly against the PKK in Iraq, particularly if supported by the UAE.

Ankara is now adopting a more assertive and kinetic foreign policy approach, including successful interventions in Libya and parts of northern Syria

It is also not unusual for Turkey to use hard power in the pursuit of its national security in Iraq, with a separate operation having been launched in 2018 in an attempt to decisively destroy the PKK in their Iraqi Qandil mountain headquarters.

Despite hundreds of troops being deployed across the border supported by artillery, jets, and gunships, Turkish troops failed to destroy the PKK in Iraq during that operation which was roundly condemned by both the federal Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil.

Operation Claw-Tiger is therefore the latest in a long line of Turkish attempts to quash the PKK on foreign territory to protect against domestic attacks.

While Iraqi authorities continue to criticise Turkish military operations, their protestations of sovereignty have fallen on deaf ears. Policymakers in Ankara view Iraq in a manner similar to Syria – a compromised territory with no rights to claims of sovereignty on account of the central authorities' inability to control events and violence within its own territory.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Iraqi Kurdistan could emerge as Turkey-UAE proxy battleground

The Turkish government has repeatedly told both Baghdad and Erbil that the PKK poses a threat to its national security and have asked them both to uproot PKK militants from the Qandil mountains, which neither governing authority has been able to do.

In Turkey's view, this inability of the various Iraqi authorities to halt the PKK through domestic channels means that they cannot exercise sovereignty within their own borders. It also means that it becomes incumbent on Ankara to respond, which insists it is protecting its borders and its people from terrorist attacks.

However, another dimension to this growing dispute between Iraq and Turkey are the actions of regional actors, such as the UAE – which recently announced normalisation of ties with Israel – to destabilise the Turkish government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Emirati backchanneling with Israeli assistance has been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for some time, and with both powers having conflicts with the Turkish government, Iraq risks being drawn into a regional axis against Turkey under the auspices of the UAE which has been found to be directly aiding blacklisted terrorist organisations in Iraq.

Sunni and Shia areas reject Iran-backed militias 

Iraqi sovereignty has also been repeatedly undermined by pro-Iran Shia Islamist militant factions which are increasingly coming under fire by Iraqis across the ethno-sectarian divide leading to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to order them out of Mosul.

Another dimension to the growing dispute between Iraq and Turkey is the role of regional actors such as the UAE

Currently, checkpoints, security strongpoints, and even government facilities in Mosul are manned by fighters belonging to the Iran-backed but Iraq-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known as the Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. 

The PMF is a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces, yet is comprised of dozens of disparate and mostly Shia militant formations, many of whom are integrated into the command structure of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) via its Quds Force, a division responsible for the IRGC's extraterritorial operations.

When Mosul was being recaptured by the Iraqi security forces and the US-led coalition in 2016, then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi pledged that the Shia-dominated PMF would not be involved in the operation to liberate the Sunni-majority city.

Despite these pledges, the PMF became actively involved with certain commanders issuing sectarian statements that augured a spate of brutal massacres, extrajudicial killings, field executions, and the torture and killing of women and children.

Read more: Iraqi Kurdistan fears entanglement in
Turkey-UAE cold war

These actions led several international human rights organisations to declare that Iraqi forces had perpetrated sectarian war crimes against the Sunni population and used the fight against IS as a cover for their brutality.

Since Mosul's recapture in 2017, PMF units have continued the sectarian abuses against the local populace, extorting money from citizens, taking over land illegally and selling it for profit, and hindering reconstruction efforts which has left Iraq's second city a devastated ruin.

While the change of security from the PMF to the local police force and army was set to happen "in days", the PMF remain in their positions as part of a wider standoff between them and prime minister Kadhimi that has been ongoing for months.

Separately, and moving from the Sunni-dominated north to the Shia-dominated south, pro-Iran gunmen have once again been implicated in the slaying of an anti-corruption demonstrator in Basra on Friday.

Tahsin Osama Al-Shahmani was shot dead by suspected IRGC-linked militants in the Jeneina area of Basra. Reports indicated that over 20 bullets were fired at him.

Dozens of protesters took to the streets afterwards, attempting to reach Basra's police headquarters and calling for the identity of the killers to be revealed.

Security forces deployed to the vicinity of the headquarters to prevent it being stormed by the protesters.

Anti-government protests broke out in Iraq in October last year, in response to high rates of poverty, corruption and unemployment and government neglect of essential services.

Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces and pro-Iran militias have also targeted anti-government activists for assassination, often with weapons fitted with silencers.

With such a widespread backlash against Iranian-backed groups in Sunni areas, Shia areas, and even in Sunni Kurdish areas where they blame the PMF for destroying their hopes for independence in 2017, Iran could be facing an Iraqi insurrection against its power projection in the country.

With the United States seeking to weaken Iran's grasp on Iraq for its own ends, Washington could seek to exploit this anti-Iranian sentiment and to support dissident groups more fully, setting the stage for a civil conflict that may completely up-end the post-2003 political order.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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