Can Turkey Compete with Iran in Iraq?

The United States in March extended its support to the Iraqi forces in Tikrit from reconnaissance to airstrikes, wisely predicted by the Iraqi president, in an attempt to hit two birds with one stone: defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Tikrit and to halt Iranian political influence and prevent “sectarian improprieties” in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Aside from the United States and Iran, Turkey has indicated it will also join the fray, albeit with a somewhat different agenda and perspective than its US ally.

Prior to his visit to Baghdad, the Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz announced that Ankara would assess “further contribution” to retake Mosul from ISIS based on Turkey’s own national interest, which coincidentally also meets the requirements to “fulfill [Turkey’s] responsibility as a coalition member,” according to Yilmaz. A few days later in Baghdad, during the early stages of the Tikrit offensive, Yilmaz promised his Iraqi counterpart Khalid al-Obeidi that Turkey would provide intelligence and logistical support and “help” the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces with equipment and weapons. He said that Turkey would ultimately “stand by Iraq should there be an operation to retake Mosul.” This is just one of several indications that Turkey has shifted its “zero problems” foreign policy with its neighbors to a “zero neighbors without problems” foreign policy, where the strategy in Iraq is aimed at preserving the integrity of the Iraqi state and its borders.

It is reasonable for Turkey’s Defense Minister to visit his counterpart in Baghdad given that Iraq is fighting ISIS and that Turkey is a member of the anti-ISIS coalition with the primary goal of training Iraqi and Peshmerga forces. However, Yilmaz’s decision to focus specifically on Mosul demonstrates political and strategic considerations that are in accordance with Turkish national interests. It also indicates that Ankara had come to terms that the predominantly Iranian-backed Shia forces under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) would eventually emerge as victors in Tikrit.

As an alternative to Iranian-influenced militias, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has embraced the idea that Turkey could provide training to Sunni tribal groups, specifically around Mosul. Turkish support for Mosul tribal groups has been welcomed by the Nineveh Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, who claimed that Turkey would take part in an offensive to retake Mosul prior to Yilmaz’s trip to Baghdad. With acceptance from the Iraqi Defense Minister of Khaled al-Obeidi (also a close ally to al-Nujaifi) and the provincial governor of Nineveh, Turkey can legitimize its tribal support in Mosul to the its international allies and the local population—unlike Iran and its brutal, unpopular clients in the area. Additionally, the Turkish government can claim that its initiative falls under the national guard units program—the armament of local tribes—as proposed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

How does Ankara legitimize its stance in Iraq and why is Mosul seen as a core national interest of Turkey’s? Mosul is home to the Turkmen minority group, ethnic kin of the Turks, perceived as illiterate and unruly among Iraqi Arabs from whom ISIS has drawn its recruits. However, the Turkmen are also an important component of the ethnic solidarity in pan-Turkish nationalism and neo-Ottomanism. In fact, Kemal Atatürk originally perceived Vilayet Mosul as an integral part of Turkey. While the role of this historical aspiration in current Turkish policy should not be exaggerated, Prime Minister Davutoğlu has also used this Turkic unity scheme in his policy, referred to as the “soft power” doctrine: The exertion of political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural influence in former Ottoman lands through a flexible notion of citizenship. By this reasoning, the protection of Turkmen adheres to a Turkish ideology encompassing nationalism, pan-Islamism, and neo-Ottomanism, far more than the protection of the Kurds or Yazidis in the same area.

It is in Turkey’s best interest to maintain stable commercial and political relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in order to halt ISIS ambitions in attacking the Kurdish heartland. Turkey is Iraqi Kurdistan’s main trade partner by far. Most notably, Turkey is a recipient of crude oil exports overland and via a newly established pipeline. Hundreds of Turkish companies have also opened offices and enterprise inside Iraqi Kurdistan, where they enjoy favorable tax benefits.

Although Turkey’s initiative appears consistent with its ideological, geopolitical, and economic interests, it faces some serious obstacles to building real influence in Iraq. Turkey’s efforts could be too little, too late.

First, the structure of Iraq’s political system will resist the establishment of Turkish influence. Prime ministers in post-Saddam Iraq tend to exert personal control over the armed forces and bypass the governmental hierarchy, often reducing other ministers to mere figureheads. This also seems to be the case with current Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who in large part adheres to government discourse with regard to Iranian support. Indeed, the role of Iranian-sponsored militias have played an “acceptable” and “very positive” role in fighting ISIS, according to the Defense Minister.

The informal relationships within Iraq’s power structures—largely dominated by Iranian influence—adds another obstacle to Turkish inroads into Iraq. Even if Abadi did not effectively dominate the armed forces, the regular Iraqi Army is still significantly smaller than the security forces under the control of Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban who is affiliated with the infamous Iranian-influenced Badr Organization. Iran’s influence in Iraq’s central government extends to the Ministry of Transport, headed by Hadi al-Ameri since 2010—who also heads the Badr Organization. Ameri reportedly used his position to strengthen bonds with Tehran, funneling money to his own organization and aiding Iranian flights transporting weapons to Syrian regime armed forces. This activity shows a pattern of clear common regional interests between Tehran and its Iraqi clients: to fight ISIS and support Assad in Syria. Thus, Iran has a substantial head start on Turkey in building influence in Iraq.

Second, the Turkish government and businesses generally want to preserve the status quo in Iraqi Kurdistan and prevent the Barzani administration from reaching a rapprochement with Iran. However, due to Turkish sensitivity over the Kurdish issue and Turkish reliance on Iranian energy, Tehran may have the upper hand and less to lose—financially and politically—from supporting the KRG in their fight against ISIS. For example, Iran was the first to provide the Peshmerga with weapons against ISIS in an effort to sway the KRG toward supporting Iranian interests in Iraq. Turkey has yet to provide such direct, clear, and highly symbolic support.

Turkey’s Middle East policy, including its approach toward ISIS, is less coherent than either Iran’s or its Iraqi clients’. Turkey concedes that ISIS must fall (even though foreign fighters joining ISIS have entered Syria largely through Turkey), but prioritizes defeating Assad. Turkey also conditions its participation in fighting ISIS on preserving Syria’s and Iraq’s territorial integrity. In other words, Erdogan will not allow the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria to gain autonomy in the Syrian Kurdish region. Ultimately, Turkey’s steadfastness on the Kurdish issue could potentially hurt its relations with the Iraqi-Kurdish Barzani government, as Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga forces deepen military and strategic ties in the course of their fight against ISIS. Turkish suspicion toward Kurdish intentions could also distract from or complicate focused efforts against ISIS, through which Turkey could otherwise strengthen its role in Iraq.

The Erdogan administration has not presented a Turkish equivalent of Iranian Quds General Qassem Suleimani on the battlefield to be there for its friends “whenever needed.” This half-heartedness, at least compared to Iranian energy and single-mindedness, could ultimately thwart Turkey’s ambitions to counterbalance Iranian proxies in Iraq, including in the fight against ISIS.

Despite Turkey’s many incentives for greater involvement in Iraq, it faces formidable obstacles in the form of Iraq’s structural political deficiencies, Turkish anxiety over Kurdish ambitions, Turkey’s own ambivalence toward ISIS, and Iran’s rich experience and competence in managing clients and proxy militia in Iraq.

Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Jeppe Sorensen is a research intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Faysal Itani

Image: A Shia militia flag bearing a verse from the Quran is seen on the outskirts of Diyala province, north of Baghdad February 8, 2015. (Reuters)