How likely is the confrontation between Turkey and Iran in northern Iraq?
Presumably, the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, on the borders with Turkey and Iran, is becoming the new playground for the Turkish Armed Forces. However, operating there, for long periods of time, is expected to be a challenge for the Turkish military. That is not only because of the rough terrain of the Iraqi mountains, but also because, sooner or later, Turkey will find itself in confrontation, albeit indirectly, with Turkey’s long-term frenemy, Iran. Despite their decades-long economic and political cooperation, Turkey and Iran are standing on opposite sides of most of the ongoing conflicts around them, in Caucasia and the Middle East. Iraq, where Iran enjoys ultimate political and military power, is a critical spot for both Turkey and Iran to maintain regional influence and protect their national security.
A few days ago, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced the completion of the military operation "Claw Eagle-2" in the Gara mountains in northern Iraq. The military operation, which was supervised by Hulusi Akar, targeted the focal points of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and some European countries. The operation succeeded in neutralizing a large number of PKK elements and destroying fifty PKK sites, according to Akar's affirmations. Yet, the operation was received by criticism and condemnation, not only among the various Kurdish factions, but also in the United States, which is supporting PKK since 2014, despite maintaining its terrorist designation. The Turkish people and opposition parties also condemned operation “Claw Eagle-2” for its failure to rescue the thirteen soldiers and civil servants, who had been held hostage by PKK earlier. The Turkish forces found their bodies, shot in the head, in the PKK cave labeled as a prison. Some reports accused the Turkish army of accidentally killing them during the rescue operation, but Akar declined that this could have happened.
Turkey's intervention in Iraq, under the label of combating terrorism, is on the top list of priorities for Turkey's military strategy, in 2021. In his presentation before the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), in November, Hulusi Akar stressed that the Turkish Armed Forces is determined to continue and intensify military operations against PKK elements in Syria and Iraq. In the presentation, Akar, also, noted that Turkey is keen to restore a positive relationship with the Iraqi government. Indeed, the Turkish army did not launch the recent operation in northern Iraq, before Akar had visited senior officials in Baghdad and Erbil for approval and support.
In late January, about a week before the start of operation "Claw Eagle-2," Hulusi Akar paid a rare visit to Iraq, during which he met with the Iraqi President and senior officials in the Iraqi government in Baghdad. He also travelled to Erbil, where he met with top officials at Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who mostly belong to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Akar’s visit was initially scheduled to take place last summer. But, it got canceled by the Iraqi government after the Turkish forces accidentally killed senior officers in the Iraqi military, while attending a meeting at the border area between Turkey and Iraq. It took Ankara a long haul of diplomatic efforts to fix the situation, over the past few month, and arrange a new appointment for the long-sought visit of the Turkish Minister of Defense to Iraq. At the conclusion of his meetings in Baghdad and Erbil, in January, Hulusi Akar said that he brought up the issue of fighting PKK and that he is happy with the agreement of vision between him and the officials he met in the central government of Iraq and in the regional government in Kurdistan, in this regard.
Apparently, the Turkish military decided to return to its traditional battlefield in the Levant region, after losing hope on achieving any tangible progress in eastern Mediterranean or Libya, which were the dominant areas of operations by the Turkish military, since December 2019. The storm that Turkey created in the quiet basin of the Mediterranean, in the summer, is now going through a state of cautious calm. The success of the United Nation’s sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in putting Libya at the start point for peace and reform, is already pushing Turkey out of Libya’s future.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s military renewed interest in intervening in northern Iraq may also be an attempt to build on Turkey’s success in supporting Azerbaijan in its war over the Nagorno Karabakh region, last year. Turkey’s influence over Azerbaijan, gained through this war, gave Turkey an economic, military and political leverage in Caucasia against its frenemies Russia and Iran. Perhaps, Turkey wants to achieve the same thing in the Levant region, through its recent intervention in Iraq.
However, it is highly expected that Iran will do everything possible to give Turkey a hard time in Iraq. Turkey’s military presence in northern Iraq threatens Iran's influence in Iraq, and also threatens Russia's interests in Syria. Each of Turkey and Iran support opposing factions and agendas in the Iraqi Kurdish region. For example, Turkey is allying with KDP in Erbil, while Iran supports and dominates the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaymaniyah; the two neighboring Kurdish parties have a long history of armed conflicts.
Also, there is a large amount of Iraqi militia that are loyal to and backed by Iran. One of them is "Asaib Ahl al-Haq" militia, which issued a statement, the day after Turkey announced the completion of operation “Eagle Claw-2”, describing the Turkish military intervention as a "violation against all divine and international laws and norms,” and calling for the Turkish troops to leave northern Iraq, and for the central government in Baghdad to reject any military operations by the Turkish forces on Iraqi territories, in the future, otherwise the militia shall intervene “to resist the occupation.” This statement by the Iran-backed “Asaib Ahl al-Haq” militia could be legitimately seen as a message from Iran to deter Turkey from challenging the Iranian political and military influence inside Iraq.
Plausibly, Turkey will not back down from such threats by an Iran-backed militia. Turkey needs to control PKK and secure its southern borders. But, at the same time, Turkey will do its best to avoid any direct or indirect military confrontation with Iran, inside Iraq. First, because Turkey is economically dependent on Iran, especially for securing gas, which is a matter of life or death for the Turkish people. Second, because in case of a military clash between Turkey and Iran, the cost of war will be higher on Turkey than Iran. In Iraq, Turkey is intervening with its own soldiers and troops, while Iran is proxy fighting via loyal Iraqi militia. Therefore, it is possible that Turkey may seek to make an agreement with Iran regarding the continuation of the Turkish military operations in northern Iraq, similar to the understanding convened between them, in Syria.