Balancing Foreign Interests in Iraqi Kurdistan

5 MINS READApr 12, 2016 | 03:26 GMT
In this handout picture obtained from the Turkish Presidential Press service Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister of Iraqs Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Nechervan Barzani (L) at the Dolmabahce in Istanbul, Turkey on December 26, 2015. / AFP / presidential press service / HAKAN GOKTEPE (Photo credit should read HAKAN GOKTEPE/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani (L) met with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu (R), on Sunday to discuss various issues affecting Iraq. The Kurdish leader enjoys close ties with Turkey, much to the dismay of his political rivals.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's political trials continued on Monday, when the country's parliament thwarted his plan to replace his Cabinet. In assembling his lineup of nominally technocratic ministers, al-Abadi attempted to appease Iraqi nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr and his band of protesters calling for an end to government corruption had threatened to overrun the Green Zone with protests unless al-Abadi installed technocrats who would, in theory, be unfettered by the interests of powerful party blocs and therefore less corrupt. But, knowing full well that Baghdad's deeply fragmented and institutionally weak government will still operate as a vehicle for patronage, Iraq's political parties and sectarian blocs prefer to nominate their own Cabinet candidates. For them, the cabinet re-selection in Iraq is a fight for political and economic survival. No party can afford to miss out.

The political battle raging in Baghdad is only a part of a larger, regional competition. Late last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry unexpectedly visited Baghdad in an attempt to show that Washington will remain involved in building an Iraqi government that will focus sufficient attention on the fight against the Islamic State while maintaining some distance from Tehran. Even so, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are coming to terms with the United States' noticeably diminished presence in Baghdad as competing priorities pull Washington in other directions. That leaves Turkey as the primary Sunni power to counterbalance Iranian influence in Iraq.

Turkey, however, is none too preoccupied with the Iraqi government. As far as Ankara is concerned, Shiites already dominate Baghdad (even if they are divided in their dominance), and Iraq does not function as a centralized system, anyway. So why pretend? Instead, Turkey has invested its time and money in Iraq to partner with select Kurdish groups and assemble a Sunni militia in the north. To this end, Turkey works with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his circle of associates to extract energy resources from Iraqi Kurdistan and to create opportunities for Turkish business in the region. At the same time, Ankara uses its control over Iraqi Kurdistan's export lines and bolsters the Sunni Arab groups in northern Iraq to keep Kurdish autonomy in check.

But now the strategy is under strain. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party conduct business with the Kurds in northern Iraq, Ankara is at war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party at home and with the People's Protection Units in northern Syria. As civil war persists in Turkey, Kurdish political factions there are quickly losing ground to their militant counterparts, who have abandoned hopes of a dialogue with the government. Now pro-Kurdish politicians, such as People's Democratic Party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, are sounding the alarm over the president's proposal that "terrorist sympathizers" be stripped of their citizenship. Such a measure could enable Turkey's government to once again deny Turkish Kurds their identity, especially if the terrorist label is thrown around freely.

Against this backdrop, the Barzani clan is finding it harder to justify the KDP's close relationship with Turkey. Although the KDP has tied its economic future to Turkey, it must also answer to political rivals at home in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Gorran party and smaller Islamic parties. These parties do not trust that Ankara has Iraqi Kurdistan's best interests at heart and would rather reduce — or at least balance — their dependence on Turkey. But Turkey's list of conditions for Iraqi Kurdistan is growing. Details were scarce following a meeting in Ankara on April 10 among Erdogan, Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Given Iraqi Kurdistan's financial straits, Turkey likely offered additional economic assistance, but at a price. For example, Turkey is already trying to quietly expand its own military presence in northern Iraq to prepare for the fight against the Islamic State to retake Mosul (and to keep a long-term presence in northern Iraq to contain Kurdish ambitions). But a larger Turkish military presence in northern Iraq will further inflame the KDP's opponents.

Meanwhile, Iran is more than happy to exploit this dynamic to undermine Turkey's influence in Iraq. Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which have already played a big role in the fight against the Islamic State, are also well positioned to push back against the Turkish-backed Sunni militias in northern Iraq. On the economic front, Tehran is pursuing a deal to build a pipeline to send oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran. PUK officials, who are more closely tied to Iran than their KDP rivals are, resent the KDP for monopolizing the economic benefits of oil deals with Turkey and will be eager to reap the rewards of the pipeline deal. Moreover, in light of the significant natural gas potential in PUK-dominated southern Kurdistan, Turkey will have to work even harder to avoid getting crowded out by Iranian competitors. Politically, too, Iran can use its links to the PUK to compel cooperation with Baghdad. On Monday, PUK officials came forward, claiming that the KDP does not speak for them and that they will be willing to join the new Cabinet so long as they get their requested positions.

Neither the Shiites nor the Kurds can speak with one voice, and the Sunnis are still trying to find their voice in a post-Saddam, post-Islamic State Iraq. That means that no outside player, be it Iran, Turkey or the United States, can shape Iraq into its own satellite state. It also means that as each faction and subfaction is forced to fend for itself, regional competitors will have more opportunities to advance their own interests, resulting in greater fragmentation overall.

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