Regional alliance punishing Iraq’s Kurds for referendum cannot last

A determination to derail Kurdish statehood aspirations led to the emergence of a newfound Ankara-Baghdad-Tehran alliance – but can neighbours who have often been at odds and with conflicting strategic and regional objectives, sustain ties based on common ground against the Kurds?

The past few months have witnessed each country host neighbouring leaders with the impact of the Kurdish referendum topping the agenda. However, as history has shown, while current regional geopolitical interests converge, relations between countries with greatly diverse agendas often eventually unravel.

The Kurds in their respective areas have been exploited all too often by the same neighbouring powers as a counter-weight in regional standoffs, or to muster strategic advantage. Now, in rallying against the Iraqi Kurds, long-term policies that weaken the Kurdistan Region or rile the sentiment of the Kurdish population could backfire.

In such a scenario, Turkey could feel the repercussions greater than any other side. Kurdistan Region not only borders Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but also borders Kurdish regions in each country.

With its age-old Kurdish dilemma continuing to fester and threatening deeper polarisation in Turkey, and Ankara sending its military in to Syria to wrest control of Afrin canton from Kurds, the strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) helped to serve mutual goals.

Ironically, Turkey fuelled and expanded the autonomy of the KRG through a new oil pipeline and lucrative energy contracts while openly rejecting the outcry from Baghdad, defending the agreements as in compliance with the Iraqi constitution.

The KRG served as a vital counterweight to Baghdad’s often sectarian policies, and growing Iranian influence that often came at a disadvantage to Turkey’s own regional goals.
Strong ties with the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’s frosty ties with Baghdad.

Only a year ago, a standoff over Turkish troops stationed in Bashiqa, close to Mosul, led to an angry war of words. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding, “you are not my equal”.

Punishment of the Kurdistan region that goes beyond punishing the leaders, as proclaimed by Ankara, will support the viewpoint of Turkey as anti-Kurdish – and not anti-terrorism

Neither was Erdogan a stranger to wars of words with Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. In April 2012, Erdogan criticised Maliki’s “self-centred ways” while accusing him of fomenting sectarian unrest. Meanwhile, Maliki accused Turkey of becoming a “hostile state”.

Now, Erdogan and Abadi stand side-by-side as equals in a show of solidarity. Nevertheless, for all the words in public, Ankara is mindful of not pushing the levers against the Iraqi Kurds to breaking point.

Not only would it harm Turkey’s economic and security interests, but Tehran would also be quick to fill any void. The equilibrium in Turkey’s regional Kurdish policy would also be broken. Punishment of the Kurdistan region that goes beyond punishing the leaders, as proclaimed by Ankara, will support the viewpoint of Turkey as anti-Kurdish – and not anti-terrorism.

A Shia domination of Iraq not only affects the Kurds but also the long- disenchanted Sunni Arabs that Turkey has sought to support. In fact, Turkey has been keen on training Sunni militias and empowering Sunni tribes to dilute the Iran-backed Shia hegemony over the military and political scene.

Many Shia militia groups openly reject any Turkish presence in Iraq, and that may yet open new lines of conflict. In parallel, any hostility from the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) towards Turkmen in disputed territories will place Turkey into another difficult predicament.

Reeling from weaker ties with the EU and especially the US, Turkey has looked eastwards and shifted away from NATO allies. While growing ties between Russia and Iran may preserve Turkish interests in Syria, namely the curtailment of Syrian Kurdish autonomy, the fluid regional dynamic is far from clear-cut.

Turkey finds itself aligned with Iran over Kurdistan and to a lesser extent Syria – but the regional order after the Arab Spring saw both powers often pitted on opposing teams.

The Kurds remain vital actors in the regional dynamic, and will likely continue to play a prominent role in jockeying for influence

Now with the focus on the post-Islamic State regional order, their strategic and religious standpoints are far from aligned.

These differing geopolitical goals often resulted in a climate of enmity and suspicion. Even today, the powerful neighbours enjoy “working ties” rather than any real strategic alliance.

The growing divide over Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Qatar is causing a new sectarian axis to emerge, led by Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran on the other – but the picture can quickly transform.

As such, the Kurds remain vital actors in the regional dynamic, and will likely continue to play a prominent role in jockeying for influence.

While Turkey’s focus in Syria has quickly shifted from the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to containing Kurdish ambitions, Iran has not been as antagonistic to the dominant Kurdish party in Syria.

Warm ties between Turkey and Iran may change this, especially if Ankara can utilise its influence with the Syrian opposition to push for a grand bargain in Syria – but it can quickly go in the opposite direction if relations between Turkey and Iran become strained.

A renewed understanding between Ankara and Washington over Syria at the expense of the Syrian Kurds, for example, could quickly undermine Turkey’s relations with Iran. On the other hand, Iran could leverage the Syrian Kurds if Turkey chooses to bolster the Syrian opposition against Assad.

Iranian and Turkish leaders recently agreed to join forces to counter “foreign meddling” in the region, yet the same meddling has been rampant from both sides as they promoted their goals in the various regional fires.

As the unraveling of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy has shown, in the congested sociopolitical Middle Eastern landscape, win-win situations are difficult to sustain.

First Published: New Arab

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