When an Iraqi Cabinet spokesman called on Iraq's parliament on Tuesday to abrogate all treaties allowing foreign bases or forces in the country, one of the region's most dynamic and pivotal competitions escalated yet again.
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At first glance, the announcement might appear to simply be an attempt by the Iranian-backed Iraqi government to prevent the United States from re-establishing a substantial military presence in Iraq that would threaten Iran's western flank. But the United States has formally ended its military presence in Iraq already and no longer claims any bases there (though rumors are percolating that Washington is planning to send special operations forces to Iraq for "training missions.") More likely, the move is directed primarily at Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey.
In 1995, when Turkey was facing a significant threat of Kurdish militant attacks, then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein signed a treaty with Ankara allowing Turkish forces to pursue militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known commonly as the PKK, inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish rebels have long maintained bases of operations in the Qandil Mountains near the Iraq-Iran border, so Turkey seized the opportunity to establish a formal military presence there, including roughly 2,000 troops, a few dozen tanks and some helicopters at a base in Dahuk province.
Seventeen years later, the Iraqi government is working with its Shiite counterpart in Tehran to push the Turks back across the eastern Taurus and Zagros Mountains, which loosely shape the autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey has robust economic, political, religious and military power, but it is still in the early stages of reasserting its regional influence. It does not appear that Turkey was expecting to face this level of resistance so soon.
Iran, meanwhile, has spent the past decade cultivating authority in the region by empowering Shiite communities across the Middle East, from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. So Tehran was quite naturally concerned when Turkey, a Sunni country with promising prospects, began to project power beyond its borders in recent years. And when the conflict in Syria intensified in the past year, the age-old geopolitical rivalry between the Turks and the Persians escalated once again.
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Ankara's attempt to topple the regime in Damascus was met with a coordinated Iranian-Syrian effort to amplify the threat against Turkey posed by Kurdish militant groups such as the PKK. Turkey responded by working more closely with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, which has been locked in a bitter dispute with Baghdad over energy investment and the distribution of oil revenues. In exchange for assistance containing Kurdish separatism in Syria and neutralizing the PKK, Turkey provided an outlet for the Kurdish government's oil exports. By working directly with the Kurdish authorities and bypassing Baghdad, the Turks demonstrated solidarity with the Kurdistan Regional Government while enlarging the Turkish economic footprint in northern Iraq.
The Turkish strategy had limits. While the Kurdish government attempted to increase oil smuggling via trucks (with the aid of Turkish drivers), the region's rough terrain and limited transportation infrastructure made this a costly alternative to exporting piped crude oil through cooperation with Baghdad. So the Iraqi government took the opportunity to ease tensions somewhat with the Kurdistan Regional Government and allowed the Kurds to resume exports through legitimate channels.
Baghdad not only used the situation to undermine Turkey's influence in the north, but also to facilitate its strategy of balancing the Kurdish faction against Iraq's restive Sunni opposition. Last week, the limitations of Turkey's reach were further exposed when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki publicly rejected an invitation from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit Ankara to resolve their differences.
Iraq's threat to eject Turkish forces further complicates Turkey's plans. Ankara relies heavily on its military and intelligence presence in Northern Iraq to keep Kurdish militancy in the Qandil region in check. Moreover, repaired relations with Baghdad could make the Iraqi Kurds less inclined to help Turkey contain Syrian Kurdish separatists. Indeed, Turkey appears to be already resorting to more forceful tactics in Syria. On Tuesday, Turkish troops reportedly fired across the Syrian border in the northwestern Hasaka province, killing a Kurdish militia member and wounding two others. The suspected militants were reportedly members of a faction connected to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is suspected of maintaining close links with Iran, the PKK and the Syrian regime.
Iran and Iraq are taking advantage of the Syrian stalemate and Turkey's limitations to undermine Ankara while Tehran still has regional heft and before Turkey becomes a more powerful regional force. In the long run, Turkey will likely find ways to maneuver around these constraints and gradually weaken Iran. But in the short term, Turkey must overcome many obstacles before it can meaningfully project influence to its south.