As if the ever volatile Middle East was lacking flashpoints, Iraq and Turkey have been at loggerheads in recent weeks over the deployment of Turkish troops to a military camp in Bashiqa.
The deployment of 150 or so troops in early December that Ankara insisted was for protection of its military trainers in place since last year resulted in a U.N. Security Council meeting as well as involvement of Russia, NATO, U.S., the Kurdistan Region and other forces in past weeks.
The new low in Turkey-Iraq relations led to a phone call on Friday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan where Obama urged Erdogan “to take additional steps to de-escalate tensions with Iraq.”
This follows a similar call by Vice President Joe Biden last week who also urged Turkey to withdraw any forces deployed without the prior consent of the Iraqi government.
So why has the Turkish troop deployment caused such commotion?
In the midst of the changing strategic picture in the region, jockeying for positions in the Syrian civil war and the threat of the Islamic State, deployment of a relatively small number of troops holds symbolic value.
The frantic calls against Turkish deployment in Baghdad underline the intense pressure faced by Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi from Shiite circles and various forces mainly aligned to Iran. It is a continuation of relatively frosty relations between Ankara and Baghdad that led to various diplomatic spats between former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Erdogan.
It also outlines how difficult the concept of an “Iraqi” is. Iraq is bitterly divided and there is hardly a common stance amongst its fragmented constituents. Kurdistan Region relies heavily on Turkey for economic ties, its oil exports and regional stability. Poor relations with Ankara are simply not an ideal that can be tolerated by Kurdish leaders.
At the same time, Baghdad has an evident leaning towards Tehran and strong political ties and military influence with Iran is not a secret. Baghdad also enjoys close relations with Russia which coupled with its reliance on U.S. air power against IS puts it in sensitive waters.
With the ever changing regional dynamic, Turkey has sought to sustain an influential hand in Iraq through Kurdistan and some Sunni factions.
The jostling for regional influence is mirrored in Syria, where a triumph for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad holds great importance for Tehran and to a lesser extent Baghdad. Preservation of Alawite control of Damascus and Western Syria preserves the Shiite Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut axis.
Whilst Turkey’s insistence of protection for its troops holds some sway, after all there was a recent IS attack on the same camp, the war and the defeat of IS does not start in Bashiqa. It starts firmly in Syria, especially in the remaining border zone that IS still controls allowing it to obtain vital supplies to strengthen its state.
Turkey relies on the Iraqi Kurds as natural strategic and secular allies, but without peace with the PKK and opening of diplomatic channels with Syrian Kurds, as difficult as it may seem to stomach, Turkish foreign policy will continue to be disjointed and crisis prone.
Turkey once envisaged a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors but this is a long gone ideal with increasing friction with Russia, Iran, Iraq and the deadly civil war in Syria.
Turkey remains a critical player in the Middle East and the fight against IS, and US and NATO will have no choice but continue to play a delicate balancing act amongst various powers in the region.
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc