The Turkish-Iranian Competition in Northern Iraq

7 MINS READSep 16, 2011 | 12:18 GMT
An uptick in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group has killed more than 40 Turkish soldiers in southeastern Turkey since the beginning of August. Media reports from both Turkey and Iraq have indicated that Ankara wants to improve its existing military assets in northern Iraq as a way to attack PKK hideouts and prevent the infiltration of Turkey's borders. While this improved military capability would be tactical and intended to undercut the current threat posed by Kurdish militancy, it also has a strategic component in that it would allow Turkey to gradually build up its military presence in northern Iraq, which Iran — as a long-term competitor for influence in Iraq — views with serious concern.
Fighting between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish military has intensified since a de facto cease-fire expired in June. More than 40 Turkish soldiers have been killed in southeastern Turkey since August. The Turkish military has responded with increased airstrikes and artillery attacks on PKK hideouts in northern Iraq. The Turkish offensive is unlikely to lead to a sustained conventional ground operation in Iraq in the near future. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party is already facing pressure over the number of deaths sustained in fighting, and a large-scale operation in rough, mountainous terrain where the PKK has the advantage as a guerrilla force would certainly increase that figure. However, reports emerging from both Turkey and Iraq indicate Ankara is interested in improving its existing military assets and adding new bases in northern Iraq to better collect and act on intelligence, in order to prevent PKK attacks and incursions into Turkish territory. This potential increase in Turkey's military capability would be largely tactical in nature, intended to reduce the threat posed by Kurdish militant groups. Yet there is an inevitable strategic component: It would allow Turkey to build up its military presence in northern Iraq over the longer term. This development is being eyed with concern in Tehran, which is one of Turkey's long-term competitors for influence in Iraq and is currently undertaking its own battle with Kurdish militants along its border.

Turkey's Presence in Iraq

Turkey first established a military presence in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s when a full-blown war was raging between rival Kurdish factions. Turkey supported the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by the Barzani clan (Massoud Barzani is the current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG) against an alliance of the PKK and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by the Talabani clan (Jalal Talabani is Iraq's president). The U.S.-imposed cease-fire agreement signed in 1997 formalized Turkey's military presence. Turkey's main military base in northern Iraq is the Bamerni airfield, located in Dahuk province, along with several security checkpoints near the towns of Batufa and al-Amadiyah. Turkey is believed to have roughly 2,000 troops, a few dozen tanks and a few helicopters in the region. The main duty of these units is to gather intelligence, not to engage PKK militants in combat. Increasing the number of troops in these areas would help Turkey improve logistical support and monitoring for combat troops that could be mobilized against the PKK, though it would necessarily expose more troops for the PKK to target and provide a longer logistical supply train to be harassed. While reportedly considering ramping up its military assets in Iraq, Turkey has also worked to keep ties with the KRG on an even keel. Senior Turkish Foreign Ministry officials met with Jalal Talabani on Sept. 11 and visited with Kurdish officials in Arbil the following day, and KRG members are expected to visit Ankara soon. Ankara's relations with the KRG have always been uneasy — the KRG represents a semi-autonomous Kurdish government, something that Kurdish separatists in Turkey hope to emulate. Turkey has considerable leverage over the KRG because the KRG's economic livelihood depends on Turkey keeping open the main export routes that run north through Turkish territory, and Turkey does not hesitate to use military force when it perceives the KRG to be overstepping its bounds. The escalating threat posed by the PKK is Turkey's top national security concern, and increasing its military presence in Iraq is one way to contain it. But this prospective move also comes at a time of major geopolitical changes in the region. As the United States draws down its forces from Iraq by the end of the year, Iraqi Kurds will be left more vulnerable to Iranian and Turkish influence as well as pressure from the Arab-dominated federal government in Baghdad. As a political vacuum opens in the country, Kurd-dominated northern Iraq is becoming a natural battleground between two historical competitors: Turkey and Iran. Regardless of whether Turkey is pursuing additional assets expressly for this purpose, those assets would certainly allow Turkey to increase its influence in northern Iraq in a way that could later be used to counter Iran.

The Iranian Calculus

Iran is well aware of Turkey's PKK problem and knows it can leverage its actions in northern Iraq to influence its relationship with Turkey. Iran does not want to push Turkey into a confrontational stance; rather, it wants to court Ankara for more cooperation on regional matters, such as Syria, by working with Turkey against the PKK. This is likely part of the reason Iran has been waging an offensive against the PKK's Iranian branch, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), despite the PJAK's repeated calls for a cease-fire. Even though Tehran does not formally have bases in northern Iraq as Ankara does (Turkey's bases are in areas dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a legacy of the 1990s Kurdish civil war), it maintains significant intelligence facilities near its borders, mainly in areas where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is more influential. Iran also has a strategic interest in making clear to the KRG the costs of hosting a large U.S. military presence in Iraq, so the offensive against the PJAK is not intended to send a message solely to Turkey. Iran tries to maintain relations with both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which make up the current KRG, though it has closer ties with the former. Iran has worked closely in diplomacy with Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Iran even helped it reclaim territory from Kurdistan Democratic Party forces during the 1990s civil war, though it has regular military contacts with both. Iran's principal areas of influence in northern Iraq are close to the border, usually under the jurisdiction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, including the cities Sulaymaniyah and Halabja. A growing point of contention, however, between both the parties and Iran has been Tehran's assistance in directly or indirectly funding other smaller parties such as the Goran party as it attempts to diversify its options in the region. This, along with occasional acts of subversion on Kurdish soil such as kidnappings and bombings, has led to a great deal of mistrust and undermined Iran's position. Turkey, in contrast, pursues a much more nuanced approach in dealing with its Kurdish neighbors. Because of Turkey's commercial interests in northern Iraq — Turkish firms have been increasingly dominant in the area, often at the expense of Iranian firms — Ankara's interest are served best by maintaining stability and making clear to the KRG that their economic livelihood depends on Ankara's consent. And unlike Iran, which has no natural sectarian allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey has a sizable Turkmen minority in Iraq on which to rely. Both Iran and Turkey have a mutual interest in battling Kurdish militants and clamping down on separatist aspirations, by force if necessary. To this end, the two powers will likely engage in short-term cooperation. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said he plans to visit Iran and noted the potential for Iran and Turkey to work together against the PKK. Over the longer term, however, Turkey's rise as a regional power will make competition between the two inevitable, and the KRG's economic dependence on Turkey is likely to give Ankara the long-term advantage.

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