Turkey’s options in Iraq may now range between bad and worse

Since 2002 the AKP government has managed to increase ten-fold its exports to the KRG, from $700 million to more than $8 billion. Turkey’s investments, however, were not limited to economy and trade. Military cooperation between the KRG and Turkey has for years been limiting PKK activity in the region. Until recently the Turkish leadership was happy to receive Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani in Ankara. Turkey got used to perceiving the Iraqi Kurds as their friends who would always pay due attention to Ankara’s opinions on matters that could concern both sides.

No wonder the Turkish government was frustrated to witness how the KRG leadership staunchly mobilized for an independence referendum this September. The KRG’s decision to hold a referendum despite Turkey’s strong objections and threats to sever the ties nourished for so many years were evidence of Turkey’s limited influence on the Iraqi Kurds. The sense of deep frustration and the realization that it had almost no effective means to dissuade the Kurds from this step ultimately pushed Turkey into more cooperation with Iraq and Iran.

When on October 16, 2017, Iraqi security forces launched a military operation against Kurdish held territories, Turkish officials thought it necessary to assist the efforts and decided to seal off national airspace for the KRG. Further moves involved imposition of customs limitations on the border. Clearly, the Turkish government had by then enough reasons to endorse these radical measures of the Iraqi central government. For Ankara, Kurdish withdrawal from disputed areas implies that Iraq’s territorial integrity is secured again, while demographic issues in oil-rich Kirkuk and the presence of the PKK on the Iraqi-Syrian border have a real chance to be properly addressed. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was lambasting Barzani for his reluctance to follow Turkey’s friendly advice to give up on the referendum and to return Kirkuk to Iraqi sovereignty, the main pro-government newspapers were exalted to witness the Kurds’ hopes for an independent state vanish under the advancing government forces.

The schadenfreude, however, may have obscured the real picture unfolding now in Iraq: almost every serious crisis in the Turkish neighborhood results in the increased influence of Iran, which is set to exploit every opportunity to fill the power vacuum. This may be relevant for the Kirkuk crisis as well, and could eventually mean that Turkey’s problems with the Iraqi Kurds shift into the realm of Turkey’s relations with Iraq and, by extension, Iran.

Resolving issues vital to Turkish national security and foreign policy not opposite the KRG, but rather with Iran, may be much harder for Turkish diplomats. All things on the ground indicate that Iran’s presence in Iraq’s political body and military bureaucracy as a result of the successful military campaign against the Kurds may be further cemented and even widened, effectively meaning that Turkish relations with Iraq will be conjoined with Iranian ambitions in the wider region. Turkey thus may find itself in a situation where it has to deal with an actor against which it has a limited scope of effective tools.

The issue of Turkish military presence in Bashiqa may now escalate anew, with both sides sliding into a much more severe crisis than Baghdad and Ankara experienced in 2016. One must remember that the Iran-led Popular Mobilization Forces during that crisis designated Turkish forces in Iraq a legitimate target. If Turkey fails to convince the Iraqi central government to allow its military base to stay, Ankara’s conflict with Baghdad and Tehran will be ethnic and sectarian and, by extension, will have broader implications for Turkey’s image in the region.

The Bashiqa military camp is an important asset in the Turkish strategy to prevent the PKK-PYD expansion. Iran may use Turkish concerns to extort further concessions in Syria, where Ankara is trying to hold its ground.

Another sensitive issue that may aggravate relations between Turkey and Iran is the trajectory of development of Iraqi identity. While Turkey has been defending an all-inclusive political nationalism in Iraq, with Sunnis, Shi’ites, Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs having distinct constitutional guarantees and mechanisms to address their concerns, Iran seems to be pushing a model of state government that consolidates power around the Shi’ite identity. With the Kurds after the defeat at Kirkuk drifting toward ethnic nationalism and the Sunnis having been marginalized for decades, Ankara doesn’t have reliable allies to resist Tehran’s encroachment in Iraq.

Looking at the situation within a broader picture, one can see that Turkey is trying to rebalance relations with Iran with efforts to improve economic ties and calibrate steps on related security issues. But Iran is driven by regional ambitions and Turkey is now seeking alternative channels to influence Iranian policies in the region. The Astana talks may be an example of such an attempt.

However, with souring relations with the West and rapid changes in its strategic environment Turkey may have realized that it is now in a much less favorable position vis-à-vis Iran.

It is hard to understand why Turkey was so pleased to see the Kurds, Ankara’s allies in many crucial issues, losing ground while witnessing the rising influence of Iran, with whom Ankara may have much more difficult relations. A possible reason may be the ongoing disintegration of strategic planning in Turkey. Uncertainty regarding the current government’s political future, Turkish political processes and the profound changes in Turkey’s bureaucratic institutions, together with the absence of a clear US strategy in the Middle East, especially toward Iran, may well have contributed to Ankara’s failing capacity to perceive the unfolding reality in the region clearly.


The West is preparing to isolate Erdogan? Is Russia ready?

Today, the Turkish president has enough reasons to closely monitor what is happening overseas. The special attention of the Turkish president is devoted to the case of Reza Zerrab, an Iranian-Turkish businessman suspected by the US authorities in organizing financial schemes, thanks to which Iran managed to circumvent a number of American sanctions, that has taken place in the USA since May 2016. The main element of the schemes is supposed to be the complicity of the Turkish government led by Erdogan. And, as evidenced by the recently issued order for the arrest of the former Minister of Finance of Turkey, the investigation is getting closer every day to proving that the current president of Turkey was directly involved in corrupt deals.

The alarm caused by the judicial process, which reigns in the presidential palace in Ankara, is strengthened by the fact that today the level of mutual distrust and discontent is growing among the Turkish and American elites every day. For Americans, the main reason for disagreements with Ankara is, first of all, the Turkish president himself. The need to take measures against the strengthening of the authoritarian regime in Turkey, as well as the existence of indirect evidence of the unscrupulousness of the political leadership of the country, gives a noticeable stimulus to the American elites to think about concrete steps aimed at isolating Erdogan and his further removal from power.

Over the past few years, the American political elite has accumulated enough claims against the Turkish leader. In foreign policy issues, the US was not entirely in agreement with the fact that Turkey has a fairly lengthy policy regarding radical jihadists operating since 2011 in Syria. Another point of disagreement was the rapprochement of Turkey with Russia and Iran — two states that challenge US interests. The anti-American propaganda of the Turkish authorities makes it difficult for the US to build effective policies in the region. The same rhetoric is used by the Turkish government and in domestic politics, where the regime is increasingly forced to rely on the themes of nationalism, anti-imperialism to preserve power. Fundamentally important for Americans, the principles of democracy and freedom of speech fell victim to the idea of ​​building a super-presidential republic in Turkey.

It is worth noting that the dissatisfaction of the American elites is observed within both parties. The Republican Party calls on the US President to pay attention to the suppression by the regime in Turkey of any form of political opposition. For the Democrats, Turkey, since the Obama administration, has become a big disappointment due to the swift roll of authoritarianism under the growing power of Erdogan. Interestingly, similar sentiments reign on the other side of the Atlantic.

It is important to understand that the essence of the problems in Turkish-American relations is not that Turkey becomes independent of the American foreign policy line, or that the country, sociologically speaking, becomes more Muslim. For a long time after 2002, before the Arab Spring, Turkey, led by the Justice and Development Party (when Erdogan’s power in the party and the country was still limited by the influence of his associates), the United States moved in the Middle East as a model of a functioning democracy with a Muslim majority.

The essence of the disagreements and the source of the crisis of relations between the US and Turkey, according to the American elites, is Recep Erdogan, who, in conditions of public polarization and growing discontent with the government, tries to keep in power, resorting to increasingly obvious authoritarian methods of government. Centralization of the decision-making process in Turkey leads to the fact that everything begins to depend on one person, and at the same time, becomes a victim of his shortcomings, desires, impulses, ambitions. Thus, Erdogan does not become part of the solution of emerging problems, but a source, and his prompt withdrawal from the presidency gives a chance for the restoration of relations between Ankara and Washington.

Radical steps aimed at changing the country’s leadership are limited by the geopolitical significance of Turkey itself. The US can not press on the leadership of Turkey due to the fact that American foreign policy in the Middle East depends on Turkey itself. This includes not only the factor of the Incirlik airbase, but also the plans of the US to contain Iranian expansion are being developed. On the other hand, it is important to understand that excessive pressure on the leadership of Turkey will make it increasingly drift towards Iran and Russia, questioning the relevance of Turkey’s presence in NATO. Finally, the destabilization of the political power of Turkey can increase public tensions in the country, which will make it difficult to form a new government in the medium term.

At the moment, American elites are getting more attracted to the idea of ​​gradual isolation of Erdogan in the international arena. One of the important points of the alleged sanctions is the introduction of a kind of list of persons close to the president, for which the US authorities are ready to take special measures . In addition, the latent sanctions measures are already being applied in a number of critical areas for Turkey. In the military sphere, the American elite lobbies the suspension of the transfer of military technologies, which is important for Ankara’s fight against terrorism. On the other hand, the US is in coordination with the European Union, the main trade partner of Ankara, are ready to exert pressure in the economic sphere as well. Finally, the US is willing to leniency toward oppositional voices criticizing Erdogan, as evidenced by the American authorities’ unwillingness to cooperate with Ankara in extraditing the Turkish preacher Gulen, who lives in the US and who was accused by the Turkish authorities of organizing the coup in July 2016.

It is interesting that Erdogan seems to realize that the patience of the Western partners is coming to an end and that sooner or later he will be driven into isolation in the West. Acting ahead Erdogan, on the one hand, turns the screws on political opposition inside Turkey, eliminating any source of serious political resistance; on the other hand, in any emerging conflict with the US or the EU, Turkish leader tries to position itself as part of the solution and as an integral element of Turkey’s stable cooperation with the West. At the same time, Erdogan, due to the threat of isolation, is developing relations with Russia, which is also trying to break out of the Western sanctions regime.

In view of this, Russia needs to understand several things. Turkey’s decision to get closer to Russia is largely forced upon and the ongoing cooperation in military and political realms does not have a sustainable basis. Today Turkey’s foreign policy is Erdogan’s foreign policy, and judging by the declining ratings of the ruling party and the growing discontent of the Turkish leader among the Western elites, Erdogan’s political future is in doubt. In this regard, Russia needs to develop relations not only with the Turkish government, but also with alternative centers of political influence, political groups, especially among the Turkish conservatives. Any arrangements with Turkey should be based on the influence of the foregoing.