Iraq, Syria’s Turkmen communities a useful tool for Turkey
Since the US-led anti-Daesh coalition’s operations in Iraq began, Turkey’s policy toward its immediate neighbor has been determined by four main aims: Avoiding the separation of Iraq along sectarian or ethnic lines; being on alert over the emergence of a potentially anti-Turkish government in the country; eliminating the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along its border; and protecting the status of the Turkmen minority.
Ankara has recently given special attention to bolstering its ties with the Turkmen — a Turkic ethnic group native to Central Asia who live mainly in Turkmenistan, northern Iran and Afghanistan, as well as in Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, where they reside along with large Arab and Kurdish populations. They have become one of the main pillars of Turkey’s Iraq policy. Ankara, which has long presented itself as the guardian of Turkmen minorities beyond its own frontiers, is trying to place its kin at the center of its influence on politics in Iraq.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu this week received Aydin Maruf, regional minister for ethnic groups of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and also an executive board member of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. The agenda for their meeting included the recent developments in Iraq, bilateral relations with the KRG, and the Turkmen’s current situation. Cavusoglu reiterated Ankara’s support for the Turkmen via his Twitter account, posting: “Will always stand by our Turkmen brothers & sisters.” Maruf was appointed to the new KRG Cabinet at Ankara’s explicit request, as a sign of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s positive approach toward Turkey.
The Turkmen were among those that felt a large impact as a result of Daesh’s seizure of vast swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq in 2014. Many were forced to flee their homes and take refuge in other areas. The predominantly Turkmen areas of Tal Afar and Tuz Khurmatu topped the list of cities that saw the biggest number of Turkmen flee following Daesh’s emergence in Iraq. Though the Daesh presence has mostly been cleared, many Turkmen have not been allowed to return, leaving their community caught between Daesh terrorism and attempts to change Iraq’s demographic makeup.
In recent months, there have been reports that the PKK has started to gain control in Sulaymaniyah and in some parts of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, amid a recently launched military operation against the terrorists by the Turkish army. In June, the PKK even attacked and desecrated a Turkmen martyrs’ cemetery in Kirkuk, according to local reports. The media suggested that Turkmen flags were also removed in some parts of Kirkuk. This has raised eyebrows in Turkey, which fears the PKK is trying to engineer a demographic change in the Turkmen areas.
The same concern also relates to Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the Syrian Turkmen to be natural allies, not only due to their ethnic links but also because they share a common enemy: The Assad regime, which did not recognize them or other ethnic groups as minorities, preferring instead to stress the unity of the Arab nation. Even though the Turkmen didn’t experience the harsh oppression inflicted on other ethnic groups in the initial stages of the Syrian conflict, they joined the opposition ranks aiming to topple the regime. An armed Turkmen group — known as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades — although not very efficient, was established in the fight against the regime and was supported by Ankara.
Turkey is also concerned about the sectarian tension between Shiite and Sunni Turkmen, which are supported by different external actors. Maruf has previously stated that the Shiite Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and the PKK were trying to “ignite the conflict” between Turkmen.
Turkey fears the PKK is trying to engineer a demographic change in the Turkmen areas.
In chaos-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq, where actors of different levels exist, regional countries seek out local actors to preserve and extend their influence there. Ankara has, in recent years, begun to emphasize its historical and cultural links to countries or minorities throughout Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. One of the main ways it achieves this influence is by playing “big brother” to ethnic or religious groups that it perceives as its kin.
Despite Turkey’s support, the Turkmen have been unable to establish themselves as a strong political force. However, although they are relatively weak in power, their presence serves as a significant tool for Turkey to exert its influence in both Iraq and Syria.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz