With assault on Iraq, Turkey and Iran cement a partnership in crime

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Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij in late 2019. (AFP)
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Mourners attend a funeral, for Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and others including civilians and Kurdish fighters, in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic, on October 13, 2019 (AFP file photo)
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A Turkish military convoy is pictured in Kilis near the Turkish-Syrian border, as Ankara launches Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria in late 2019. (Reuters file photo)
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A large Turkish military convoy moves into rebel-held areas of northwest Syria on Feb. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/APTN/file photo)
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Iranian armed forces members march during the National Army Day parade in Tehran on Sept. 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency website/Handout via Reuters)
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Updated 22 June 2020

With assault on Iraq, Turkey and Iran cement a partnership in crime

  • Turkey and Iran condemned for violating Iraq’s sovereignty with attacks on country’s northern Kurdish areas
  • Apparently coordinated assault seen as fresh attempt to assert joint hegemony over the Middle East

MISSOURI, USA: Over the past 10 days, Turkey and Iran have launched a series of apparently coordinated air strikes and artillery barrages on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.

The strikes included attacks on areas at the Iraqi-Turkish border, where Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants remain active; Yazidi areas near Sinjar on the Iraqi-Syrian border; and areas on the Iraqi-Iranian border, where the PKK and a number of other Iranian Kurdish opposition groups have a presence.

International law appears to be of very limited use here. Both Turkey and Iran claim they are engaged in legitimate self-defense against Kurdish parties launching incursions against them from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey in particular blames the PKK for a series of recent bombings in areas of predominantly Kurdish northern Syria, occupied by Turkish troops.

By contrast, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE view the strikes as a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. From the Arab perspective, Turkey and Iran are brazenly flexing their muscles as if to remind Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new prime minister, who the real regional powers are.

Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq remain too weak to do anything about the strikes, and the rest of the world appears silent on the issue.

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on October 9, 2019. (AFP file photo)

Turkish special forces were airlifted into border areas to conduct ground operations there. For the first time, Turkey also appears to have used its air force to strike Kurdish targets on the Iraqi-Iranian border area of Haji-Omran rather than just the Turkish-Iraqi border.

While used to Iranian shelling, Haji-Omran never fell under Turkish crosshairs before this month. Iran in turn appears to have targeted its artillery at the PKK, which remains Turkey’s primary enemy, rather than just against Iranian-Kurdish parties.

In the Duhok region near the Turkish-Iraqi border, at least four civilians were reportedly killed in the strikes, while other casualty reports trickled in from the Iraqi-Iranian border.

Turkish military officials released a statement claiming to have killed a number of PKK fighters, rather than civilians, in strikes on some 150 different PKK targets.

The Erbil-based news agency Rudaw reports that of the 264 villages in Sidakan district alone, “118 have been emptied due to Turkish airstrikes and Iranian artillery targeting guerillas of the PKK and other Kurdish insurgent groups.”

Anger over the attacks erupted in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the government in Baghdad lodged protests with both Turkey and Iran over the attacks. But in this part of the Middle East, authoritarian leaders operate with impunity on the principle of “might is right.”

With regular projections of military power and occupation forces in Iraq, Syria, Cyprus and now even Libya, Turkey in particular is intent on throwing its weight around in the region.

Ankara’s message appears to be that it will act forcefully wherever and whenever it wishes, with Turkish naval ships in the Mediterranean now even engaging in brinksmanship over gas deposits there.

Ambiguities in international law notwithstanding, the strikes on Iraq seem unlikely to accomplish anything apart from harming hapless civilians in the area.

Turkey and Iran have been launching attacks on these very mountainous Iraqi-Kurdish border areas for the last 30 years, with little to show for them beyond placating Turkish and Persian nationalist sentiment at home.

Neither Ankara, nor Tehran nor Iraqi Kurdish authorities can dislodge the PKK and various Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups from such mountainous terrain. The rebel groups will not suddenly surrender and end their campaigns as a result of air strikes and artillery barrages.

In the meantime, local Kurdish farmers and shepherds suffer from being caught in the crossfire of such conflict. Embattled and impoverished Kurds need more than words of support in such circumstances, but little seems forthcoming from the international community.

US President Donald Trump in particular could not care less about such attacks on Kurdish opposition groups. Although many in the Pentagon value a close relationship with the Kurds, they play a limited role in US policymaking, a fact most recently confirmed by Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton in his White House memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.”


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During the past year, influential voices within the US Department of State even argued for closer cooperation with Turkey as a means of containing Iran. This likely formed part of President Trump’s logic when he betrayed Syrian Kurdish groups to a Turkish onslaught in October of 2019.

The whole notion of partnering with Turkey to contain Iran appears utterly ridiculous to most informed observers of the region. Turkey and Iran behave as allies more often than not. Turkish officials and business leaders helped Iran evade sanctions for years, and even now Ankara opposes renewed US sanctions on Iran.

One never hears reports of Turkish-Iranian tensions on their mutual border. Turkey and Iran also both appear increasingly beholden to Moscow. As the Arab world saw during the past week, Turkey and Iran even collaborate closely against Kurdish targets in joint military operations.

This leaves only a few differences between Ankara and Tehran, including backing different sides in the Syrian civil war and competing for influence over Iraq (a competition that Iran has largely won).

These differences are easily manageable within a relationship in which both sides share so much in common, from the increased role of religion in both regimes to their shared antipathy towards the US and the West.

An Iraqi Kurdish woman in Sulaimaniyah at a protest against the Turkish assault on northern Iraq. Below, a Kurdish female volunteer from the newly formed Community Protection Forces. (AFP)

When Turkey was under different leadership before 2002, one might have reasonably considered Ankara as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism. Today, in contrast, they look more like comrades in arms, engaged in a little friendly competition on the side.

One thing about the Iranian-Turkish relationship remains as true now as it did in the past — their common opposition to any Kurdish political gains in the region. While Turkey’s anti-Kurdish perspective appears more candid, Iran’s is probably no less strong.

Neither wants their own Kurdish populations to aspire to any sort of autonomy or political and social improvement, which in turn justifies attacks on Kurdish groups in neighboring states as well.

When in October 2017 the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on independence, for instance, Ankara and Tehran had little trouble speaking with one voice against them.

Many in the Arab world, in contrast, appear to have an evolving perspective regarding the Kurds. Although few in the Arab world favor Kurdish secession from Iraq or Syria, the prospect of Kurdish political gains is not anathema to the Arab world as it once was.

During the recent Turkish and Iranian strikes on Iraqi Kurdistan, voices in the Arab world were among the only ones speaking out on behalf of Iraq and the Kurds.


David Romano is Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University


Violence mounts against Iraqi doctors as COVID-19 cases spike

Updated 2 min 27 sec ago

Violence mounts against Iraqi doctors as COVID-19 cases spike

  • “All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the Aug. 28 attack
  • More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply, putting frontline health care workers under huge pressure

NAJAF: Iraqi doctor Tariq Al-Sheibani remembers little else beyond cowering on the ground as a dozen relatives of a patient, who had just died of COVID-19, beat him unconscious.
About two hours later the 47-year-old director of Al-Amal Hospital in the southern city of Najaf woke up in a different clinic with bruises all over his body.
“All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the Aug. 28 attack. “Every time a patient dies, we all hold our breath.”
He is one of many doctors struggling to do their job as COVID-19 cases rise sharply in Iraq.
They are working within a health service that has been left to decay through years of civil conflict and underfunding, and now face the added threat of physical attack by grieving and desperate families.
Reuters spoke to seven doctors, including the head of Iraq’s Medical Association, who described a growing pattern of assaults on medical staff. Dozens have taken place since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned that the pandemic could spiral out of control in Iraq.
Authorities have lifted many lockdown measures, allowing restaurants and places of worship to reopen, but they have shut borders to pilgrims ahead of a large Shiite Muslim pilgrimage that normally draws millions to the south of the country.
Iraq has recorded several thousand new coronavirus infections every day, and the total now exceeds 300,000.
More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply, putting frontline health care workers under huge pressure and in some cases in physical danger.
The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the COVID situation in Iraq and medics’ complaints about the threat of violence.
Sheibani, whose beating went viral when CCTV footage circulated online, said the family of the deceased patient blamed his staff for the death. He said he did not know how the video reached the public domain.
The patient had arrived at hospital in critical condition.
“I hate myself and I hate the day I became a doctor in Iraq,” Sheibani told Reuters. “They brought the patient in his final stages and he died, and they want the health system to bear the responsibility.”
Enforcing health safety guidelines within the hospital is not always easy, especially when tensions between families of sick patients and hospital staff are running high.
During a recent visit to Sheibani’s hospital, which is a coronavirus isolation center, Reuters reporters saw relatives of COVID-19 patients coming in and out of the ward without wearing full protective gear as they are supposed to.
Some were only wearing surgical face masks.
Iraq is fighting the pandemic with a depleted force of doctors and nurses.
In 2018, it had just 2.1 nurses and midwives per thousand people, compared with Jordan’s 3.2 and Lebanon’s 3.7, according to official estimates. It had 0.83 doctors per thousand people, while neighboring Jordan, for example, had 2.3.
There are also significant shortages of drugs, oxygen, and vital medical equipment, the result of years of underspending.
Many young doctors say they are overworked, putting in 12-16 hour shifts every day meaning they are more likely to make mistakes in prescriptions and treatment. Some take kickbacks for handing over certain drugs, physicians told Reuters.
The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Government vows action
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has condemned the attacks against medical staff and promised to hold perpetrators to account.
The attacks have increased in recent months, said Medical Association president Abdul Ameer Hussein. He said his association could not keep track of all of them, but they include verbal and physical abuse and even stabbings.
Sheibani filed a complaint with police, but he said he had received threats from the people who beat him up to drop the case.
“They might attack me or my family,” Sheibani said, adding that he no longer left his house alone.
Doctors say the government has not taken tough enough action to protect them from violence, which they have faced for years even before the pandemic.
The health ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it would assign its legal division to file lawsuits against those who attacked health workers, as well as those medics who fell short in treating patients.
According to the Medical Association, at least 320 doctors have been killed since 2003, when US-led forces toppled President Saddam Hussein, ushering in years of sectarian violence and extremist insurgencies.
Thousands more have been kidnapped or threatened.
Doctors and human rights activists say the state is so weak that it cannot bring doctor’s assailants to justice, especially if they come from a powerful tribe or belong to a militia.
“The government can’t protect doctors from tribes. Doctors end up dropping the cases because they receive threats,” said Hussein, adding that he often asks tribal leaders to mediate when a doctor is being threatened.
Doctors have gone on strike and protested in recent months over what they say is government inaction over the attacks.
Abbas Alaulddin, 27, a doctor in Baghdad who was assaulted last week by the family of a patient who died of COVID-19, said he was considering seeking asylum.
“The situation here is unbearable.”