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Turkey misfires in Iraq

Turkey’s military deployment near Mosul provokes widespread opposition and sends Russia-Turkey ties into a further downward spiral; Turkey’s Kurds face "unrealistic prospect" for democracy; Barzani on the spot as a result of KRG alignment with Turkey; Russia slams Saudi hosting of Syrian opposition.
Riot police stand in front of protesters during a demonstration against Turkish military deployment in Iraq, in Najaf, Iraq, December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani - RTX1YDSC

Turkey’s not-so-hidden agenda

Turkey’s military deployment in Bashiqa, near Mosul, Iraq, on Dec. 3, provoked another self-imposed crisis for the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This column reported two weeks ago that Turkey was more isolated than ever following its shooting down of a Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24. But once in a hole, it seems, Erdogan cannot stop digging. The military deployment of 400 troops and 25 tanks to a Turkish training camp for Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces in Bashiqa to battle the Islamic State (IS) was considered by Baghdad as beyond the scope of "training." Semih Idiz suggests that Turkey’s deployment was a likely attempt by Erdogan “to establish a Sunni sphere of influence in and around Mosul.” Metin Gurcan adds that in addition to seeking to “be among the key actors to decide on the future of Mosul,” Turkey is seeking to balance Iranian influence and “is particularly uneasy with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] gains in Iraq and Syria. Turkey wants to militarily dominate the Shengal region, which has been a bridge between the PKK and the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party [PYD] in Syria, to cripple that link.”

The Turkish action elicited a formal protest from the Iraqi government and provoked a wave of denunciations and demonstrations led by Iraq’s Shiite political parties and militias, including a condemnation from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric. Fehim Tastekin reports that “among Iraqi political circles, Turkey’s policies are held responsible for the fall of Mosul and empowerment of IS.”

Erdogan termed Iraq’s complaint to the United Nations “not a sincere step,” adding that Turkey does not have the “luxury” to wait for the Iraqi central government on threats to Turkish national security.

Russia immediately and formally jumped to Iraq’s defense against what it termed Turkey’s “illegal intrusion” into Iraqi territory, accelerating the free fall in Ankara-Moscow ties over their policies in Syria. Kadri Gursel explains that Russia is succeeding in isolating Turkey. “As a prerequisite for the Russian intervention to achieve its goals, Moscow seems to have decided that Ankara should be deterred by any means necessary from maintaining its current Syria policy, and shaped its game plan around this political objective. Russia thus used crisis engineering to drag Turkey into a confrontation, which, at the end of the day, would be detrimental to Turkey,” writes Gursel.

The time may be coming for Turkey to make a choice between its "surface policy" of support for the global coalition against IS, and its “hidden policy" of taking out Assad, breaking the PKK and PYD, and promoting a fundamentalist Sunni Islam that matches the orientation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This "hidden policy," however, is hard to hide, and is more like an open secret. The miscalculations with regard to Russia and Iraq are increasingly alarming, with potentially devastating consequences. Such moves might, for example, push Russia and Iran to encourage direct or indirect actions where these Turkish forces start taking casualties. The Iraqi protests against Turkey could foreshadow a Hezbollah-type Iraqi resistance movement, extremely well armed and trained, merged somehow with the ever-ready forces linked to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Turkey has already drawn first blood with Russia. Meanwhile, Turkey makes its way to the agenda of the UN Security Council, not only for its recent actions in Iraq, but also for its possible violations of Security Council resolutions dealing with foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Gursel reminds us of what is now an open secret: “Without Turkish soil being available for the indiscriminate use of jihadists since 2011, the conditions that gave rise to IS would have not taken hold in northern Syria, and IS would have not grown strong enough to become a major security threat for the whole world.”

There are reports that Turkey may be seeking to defuse the crisis by placing the training camp under the authority of the anti-IS coalition and seeking deeper cooperation with Iraq on border security and intelligence cooperation. If so, all to the good, as this column has been calling for such cooperation since January 2014. The burden, of course, is on Erdogan to finally step back from his not-so-hidden disastrous and sectarian approach to the region, and join the global coalition against IS without the caveats and feints that have characterized Turkish policy to date.

Turkey’s Kurds express "simmering anger" against state

Turkey’s intervention in Iraq comes in the context of an escalation in its war against the PKK. Irfan Aktan writes that the killing of Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci on Nov. 28, in the context of a massive government campaign targeting the PKK, “has stoked not only fear but also a simmering anger against the state in the region.”

Aktan writes, “The toll from the clashes since July is indeed dramatic, though it varies according to sources. At least 14 districts have seen around-the-clock curfews, including Diyarbakir’s Sur district where Elci was gunned down. According to daily reports by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, at least 67 civilians and members of the PKK’s youth branches have been killed in places under curfew. The Human Rights Association, for its part, tallies 63 summary executions, 43 unsolved killings as well as 10 civilians, 105 members of the security forces and 104 PKK militants killed in armed clashes in the southeast in the first nine months of the year. According to pro-government media, 925 people, mostly PKK members, were killed between July 22 and Oct. 14. Some 3,600 people were detained in security operations, including 864 who were put behind bars to await trial. The pro-government media do not shy away from revealing that the death toll includes 169 civilians, among them seven children.”

Aktan concludes, “Given that government officials keep pledging an unrelenting security crackdown in the southeast, ‘democratic Turkey’ remains an unrealistic prospect for Turkey’s Kurds in the near future. Whether they come to see independence as a more realistic option in light of developments in Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava (the term Kurds use to refer to western Kurdistan in Syria) will again depend on how the AKP government and the state treat them.”

Is Iraq facing a "long ethnic war"?

Mohammed Salih writes, “The escalation of the conflict between Turkish security forces and the PKK has put the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq in a tough position, adding another potential element of instability to the difficult circumstances it is already grappling with. The Iraqi Kurds are faced with the threat posed by IS along a frontier of over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and are gripped with a serious economic crisis. The spillover of the PKK-Turkish conflict into Iraqi Kurdish territory presents another major challenge for the KRG.”

Barzani’s alignment with Turkey is unpopular with most Iraqi Kurds, who support the PKK and the Syrian PYD. It should not be surprising that there is little "grass-roots" support for Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan. This all occurs in the midst of a political and economic crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan, including declining oil prices and no trust or traction in dealings with Baghdad. Denise Natali wrote in September, “As the financial crisis deepens, corruption continues, political legitimacy is ignored and calls for decentralization go unheeded, the KRG may have an administrative breakup, even in de-facto form.”

Ethnic tensions seem to be approaching a full boil across Iraq. Mohammed A. Salih, reporting from Sinjar, Iraq, explains how “competing interests and agendas present a major challenge to the future stability of the Yazidi-dominated region.”

“Although senior Iraqi-Kurdish political and military leaders alleged the ground leg of the offensive was solely carried out by the peshmerga forces, the PKK, its allies and some smaller Yazidi groups such as the Ezidkhan Protection Force (HPE), played a significant role in forcing IS out of Sinjar,” he writes.

Salih explains, "When IS attacked Sinjar in 2014, peshmerga forces abandoned their positions leading to widespread atrocities against the religious minority by the jihadist organization. That disaster created a rift between certain segments of the Yazidi community and the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], led by Massoud Barzani, whose tenure as the president of the Kurdistan region is currently disputed by some Kurdish factions that say his term has expired. The KDP had tried to mend fences with the Yazidi community ever since, by assigning a more prominent role and authority to figures such as Qasim [Shesho]. There are still around a dozen Yazidi districts and villages south of Sinjar in IS hands, but conflicting visions between Kurdish and Yazidi groups as to how to administer post-IS Sinjar are well underway. During a victory press conference on Nov. 13 near the town of Sinjar, Barzani promised to exert efforts to turn Sinjar into a province inside Iraqi Kurdistan's territory.”

Adnan Abu Zeed reports on clashes between peshmerga and Arab and Turkmen forces in the multi-ethnic city of Tuz Khormato, still nominally under the control of the central government in what is known as the "disputed territories" in Iraq. The animosity in the disputed areas has spread to the Iraqi capital. Abu Zeed writes that “attacks were conducted Nov. 29 in Baghdad against the Kurds, as armed groups affiliated with Shiite factions coerced Kurdish families from their houses and asked them to travel toward the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, in the north of Iraq. The Kurds strongly condemned the action, which was followed by meetings between both sides in Baghdad mediated by Iran and parties within the Iraqi government. The result was a relative calm in Tuz Khormato.”

Abu Zeed speculates that distrust of Iraqi Kurds is rising and that “the Kurdish [KRG peshmerga] forces’ control of the disputed areas could spark a long ethnic war, most notably over Kirkuk, after IS is forced out of the Iraqi territory. Based on that, some people might be skeptical of the KRG's claim that it intends to end the fighting against IS. Some, in fact, suspect just the opposite: that the KRG is seeking to extend the fighting, to consolidate the Kurdish presence in the disputed areas, including Tuz Khormato.”

Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill to directly arm the Iraqi Kurdish forces, requiring the United States to only "consult" with Baghdad. The legislation was slammed by the Iraqi Embassy in Washington as “unwise and unnecessary,” adding in a statement that the bill promotes “artificial divisions among Iraqis [that] can only distract from the struggle against our common enemy,” as reported by Julian Pecquet.

Russia rejects "terrorists" in Syrian opposition

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Dec. 12, that it “cannot agree with an attempt made by the group that gathered in Riyadh to monopolise the right to speak on behalf of the entire Syrian opposition.”

Russia rejects “terrorists of all stripes” participating in the Syrian political process. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is tasked, per the Vienna declarations, with considering which Syrian armed groups are "terrorists" and therefore excluded from the negotiations. Russia considers Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah as worthy of consideration as potential terrorist entities. Moscow’s position is that UN Syria envoy Staffa de Mistura, not Saudi Arabia, should convene the Syrian parties, as stipulated in the Vienna accords.

This column has registered concerns for nearly two years about a trend toward the mainstreaming of Salafi groups, including Ahrar al-Sham.

Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, condemned the Riyadh meeting, declaring it a “plot” that must be “foiled.” A question is whether those groups that collaborate with Jabhat al-Nusra “on the ground,” such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, will cut their Jabhat al-Nusra ties, or succumb to Jabhat al-Nusra’s pressure to resist political negotiations, or perhaps split themselves into factions. There is also the possibility that the Saudi initiative could lead to an open war between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra on the one hand, and the other factions that participated in the Saudi meeting on the other.

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