Iraqis are pushing back on Turkey's domination – but will they succeed?

Last week's fatal attack could provide the impetus for Baghdad to reduce Ankara's leverage over it, but this won't be easy

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A huge artillery strike on a popular tourist area of Iraqi Kurdistan last week killed nine civilians, including a baby girl and a honeymooning couple. Top Iraqi officials swiftly blamed Turkey, describing the attack as a “blatant violation” of Iraqi sovereignty.

Despite Ankara’s denials, Iraqis across the country have in the days since begun to give voice to a long-gestating anger against their powerful northern neighbour – one that may soon force a change in their complex and at times tense bilateral relations.

Iraqi frustrations with Turkey are deep-seated and multi-dimensional. Start with energy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leveraged friendly relations with Nechirvan Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, to seal a 2013 deal enabling the KRG to export the region’s oil to Turkey without input from the central government.

Baghdad, and many Iraqis, saw the agreement as problematic from the start, with the potential to encourage greater autonomy in the Kurdish region. The region voted for independence in 2017, which quickly backfired due to strong opposition in Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran and beyond.

More recently, as Europe works to wean itself off Russian gas in the wake of the latter’s Ukraine invasion, there have been reports that the KRG will soon agree to export natural gas to the EU via Turkey. Despite a February court decision that gave Baghdad control of Kurdistan’s energy resources, sparking the pull-out of several major foreign firms, Mr Erdogan in April again expressed support for a gas deal, underscoring Turkey’s sense of advantage.

“Turkey exercises almost total control over the Kurdistan region’s oil and gas sector, as it owns the pipelines inside Turkey and the exporting port of Ceyhan,” Douglas Ollivant, Iraq director at the National Security Council under US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, wrote last week.

An issue that goes much further back is Turkey’s decades-long war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for greater autonomy since the 1980s and is labelled a terror group by Turkey, the US and EU. The PKK’s main base is in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, and whenever violence wanes in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east – as has happened in recent years – Ankara takes its fight across the border.

Turkey launched its latest ground and air offensive in April, and its presence in Iraqi Kurdistan has grown sharply in the past two decades as it seeks to establish a PKK-free corridor from Iraq’s border with Iran all the way across Syria, where the PKK-allied SDF is based, to Aleppo and beyond. Ankara now maintains about 40 military bases and observation posts in Iraq, including as far south as Erbil, 75 kilometres south of the Turkish border.

As in some of the areas that Ankara controls within Syria, analysts argue that Turkey has been “occupying” chunks of northern Iraq for years. Turkish nationalists are keen to point out that Mosul was under Ottoman control for centuries. Baghdad has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with Turkey’s military base in Bashiqa, which is frequently subject to attacks, endangering locals.

An increased military and political presence in Iraqi Kurdistan forces the PKK to focus on self-defence, significantly eroding its ability to mount attacks in Turkey, and enables Ankara to keep a close watch on the KRG and apply pressure if it again moves toward independence.

Turkey has additional means of influence and control. In the 1990s, Ankara established a Turkmen political party in Iraq to counter pro-Kurdish policies within the KRG. Turkey has more recently developed the Nineveh Guards, an armed multi-ethnic group meant to curb Iranian influence and push back against the PKK and its allies.

Turkey has also sought to counter Iran’s influence with Iraqi Shiites by bringing Sunni political actors together and aligning them with the Turkish perspective. The decisions of the Sunni bloc in the Iraqi Parliament are widely thought to be supported by Turkey. This, along with Baghdad's efforts to exert pressure on the KRG, helps explain why the central government, despite its regular grumbling, is generally supportive of Turkey’s campaign against the PKK.

Fishermen sail their boat on the receding waters of Iraq's drought-stricken southern marshes of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province in June. AFP

But the April ground assault, the Turkish drone strike in June that killed a 12-year-old Yazidi boy sitting in his father’s bookshop, and last week’s strike killing tourists, including women and children, have brought anti-Turkey sentiment to a boil, with powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr spearheading an emerging campaign.

Perhaps because the latest Iraqi victims were Arab and staying in a resort Iraqis have frequented during the summer for decades, the sentiment has united a broad cross-section – civil society activists, supporters and foes of Mr Al Sadr, pro-Iranian militants and other groups. Iraqi tour operators boycotted Turkey as protests against Ankara flared in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Nasiriyah.

The Arab League denounced Ankara’s “aggression”, while Iraq’s national security council demanded that Turkey withdraw all of its forces from the country. A full Turkish withdrawal is unlikely. Beyond the large footprint, and the Turkish military officials supporting Iraqi armed forces as part of a Nato mission, Ankara has major leverage on an even more urgent issue.

In a sweltering world and a drought-ridden region, few elements are more in-demand and at risk in Iraq than water. Yet, with a series of new dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Turkey has in recent years put Iraq at a major disadvantage in terms of water resources. During a severe drought in 2018, for instance, Iraq banned its farmers from planting summer crops because Turkish dams had cut the water flow by nearly two-thirds.

As a result, Baghdad’s ability to shape Turkish policy is limited. Even so, Iraq looks set to push back hard on Turkey’s energy grab, its deadly drone strikes, its significant political influence and expanding military presence. How much ground it gains, and the extent to which sectarianism flares anew, is likely to hinge on the response of the other two power players in Iraq – Iran and the US.

Published: July 25, 2022, 2:00 PM