Iran opens Pandora’s box with attacks against rivals in Iraq
A drone attack on Irbil airport in northern Iraq, where US forces are stationed, and a rocket attack on a military compound in the nearby town of Bashiqa, where Turkish troops are deployed, took place on Wednesday. The latter resulted in the death of a Turkish soldier and injured a child, according to the Turkish Defense Ministry. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who informed him about the attacks and extended his condolences.
Although no one has claimed responsibility, Iran-backed Shiite militias have, in the past, threatened action against Turkish troops at the military base in Bashiqa, which Turkey established in March 2015. It is close to the Iraqi city of Mosul and is used to train local forces to fight against Daesh. The presence of about 500 Turkish troops there has long been a heated topic between Ankara and Baghdad, with the issue turning into a serious political crisis and even talk of war in 2015. At that time, the two neighbors summoned their respective ambassadors after Baghdad described the Turkish troops in the country as “hostile occupying forces” and the Iraqi parliament called for their withdrawal.
Turkey’s presence in Iraq — through its base and its military operations against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which uses Iraqi territory as its main headquarters and has been trying to expand its influence in the Sinjar district — is not only a matter for the central government in Baghdad, but also for Ankara’s historic enemy and natural competitor in the region: Iran.
Geography is the first principle that can’t be changed in international relations, and it is obvious that Iran, Iraq and Turkey are central to each other’s strategic calculations. Besides the existence of the PKK, which is a fundamental threat for Ankara, the issue of Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, is a serious concern that Turkey keeps an eye on. Turkey’s once-strained relationship with Iraq was playing into the hands of Iran, which has great influence on Iraqi politics. Therefore, Ankara sees Iraqi politics through the lens of its own national security structure. Its key interest in Iraq is to limit Iranian influence, which has been powerful since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In mid-February, when Turkey was targeting PKK camps on Gara Mountain in northern Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units — an Iranian-backed collective of Iraqi militias also known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi — deployed three brigades to Sinjar, which lies to the west of Mosul close to the Syrian border. Militia commanders made it clear this deployment was meant to counter Turkish actions in the region. This was when the Turkish-Iranian rivalry for influence in oil-rich Mosul was refueled. Meanwhile, the US-designated terrorist group Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba published a statement threatening to attack Turkey if Ankara did not change its position. Another Shiite militia controlled by Iran, Asaib Al-Khayf, published a video of the launch of a missile targeting the Turkish military base at Bashiqa. From time to time, Turkey has accused Iraq of giving refuge to its Kurdish nemesis, the PKK.
Meanwhile, this week’s drone attack was not the first time the Shiite militias, which have gained significant strength and influence, have attacked Irbil airport. In February, a civilian contractor was killed in an attack, while nine others were injured, including a US service member. That was the first time US military personnel had been targeted in Iraq after President Joe Biden took office.
The issue of Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, is a serious concern that Turkey keeps an eye on.
According to many observers, Iran is using its loyalist armed militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as bargaining chips to gain more leverage in the nuclear negotiations with Washington. Needless to say, US policy has had the side-effect of empowering Iran in Iraq, which is now used by Tehran to threaten Turkey and other regional actors. In the current picture, Iranian proxies pose disquieting threats to three main regional countries: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Competition over Syria has refreshed Iran’s historic rivalry with these countries and has also expanded to other countries, from Yemen to Iraq.
Acting against Iran’s regional vision, Turkey has a presence in parts of Syria, has increased its influence in Iraq and is pushing back against Tehran in both Damascus and Baghdad. Wednesday’s attacks send a direct message to both Ankara and Washington. The US has recently rolled up its sleeves ahead of the Afghanistan peace talks that will take place in Istanbul in the coming days. The attacks are also a message to the KRG, which enjoys close relations with Ankara, despite it walking a thin line in its relations with Tehran. There is an increasingly anti-Iran stance within some parties in the KRG. Tehran has had an uneasy relationship with the main ruling parties in the KRG over the security of the border areas since the Kurds obtained their de facto autonomy in 1992.
In this context, the latest attacks most likely carried out by Iran-backed militias are likely to push the KRG even closer to Turkey’s regional path at a time when the new US administration is shaping a new regional vision.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz