Iran and Turkey: Rivalry in Iraq and the Middle East
Professor Numan Kurtulmuş, the incumbent deputy prime minister of Turkey, is an experienced politician, a student of the late Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who led the People's Voice Party (HAS), dissolved it in 2012 and joined Justice and Development Party (AKP). This veteran politician has recently said things about Mosul, Bashiqa and Turkey’s approach toward Iraq’s future that probably astound every listener. After the Iraqi parliament voted against the military presence of Turkey in Bashiqa, Kurtulmuş questioned the authority of the Iraqi central government, asking where it was when Mosul was occupied on a single day.
“Where was the international system when Al-Raqqah and many other cities were occupied? We are there to help the people of Mosul, the local forces and the Peshmerga. We are not occupiers.”
“Mosul belongs to the people of Mosul, and Tal Afar belongs to the people of Tal Afar. Nobody else has the right to come and enter these places. After liberating Mosul from [IS], only Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Sunni Kurds should stay there,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the Dubai-based TV station Rotana.
The question is why Mosul has become so important to Turkey and why Ankara is insisting to participate in its liberation operation. The answer: Turkey is simply seeking to expand its scope of influence and to advance in the competition: more influence in Iraq and the region and a tougher competition with Iran. Turkey has realized with full awareness that Iran has attracted the main side of the Iraqi triangle, i.e. the Shiites, but the remaining sides, namely the Sunnis and the Kurds, have slim chances of approaching Iran, for many reason. These two however, have the potential to be controlled, organized, and employed by Ankara, even though there might be some internal differences among Kurdish parties on the quality and scope of relations with Turkey.
Nonetheless, this competition, whether considered in line with significant political and geographical lines in the Syria dossier or in conjunction with historical competitions between Ankara and Tehran, is so important that the Turkish government is willing to use all it cards and its maximum political and propaganda power not to fall behind Iran.
Speaking of the potentials and capabilities of the Iran-Turkey rivalry in Iraq, it should be noted that Iran has the upper hand in the political and security domains of the country because the central government of Iraq willingly welcomes Iran’s support and the Iran-backed Shiites are more powerful. However, this does not mean that the regional competition is already decided. Turkey too has has outmaneuvered Iran in two or three domains.
In the economic sphere, all Iranian and Iraqi officials and businesspeople agree that the popularity of Turkish goods and services is not comparable with Iran’s capability in conquering the Iraqi market. Secondly, Turkey has armed and thus attracted Al-Hashd al-Watani and its Sunni forces while Iran does not have the potential to influence Iraqi Sunnis for ideological, political and geographical reasons. A third domain would be that of the Kurds. Iran has good influence in Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, working with two important Kurdish parties: Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani and the Movement for Change led by Nawshirwan Mustafa.
However, it is different in Erbil and Dahuk and evidence shows that the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani, the highest political, military, security and economic power in Iraqi Kurdistan, has sided with Turkey and is distancing further from Iran every day. While Iraqi MPs shout to drive Turkish forces out of Iraq, Kurdish parliamentarian and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Ashwaq Jaf denounces the parliament for withdrawing its previous vote and over-sensitivity toward Turkey. Other MPs affiliated with Barzani also say the same amount of sensitivity should be felt against Iran. Amid the critical circumstances where the liberation of Mosul and crushing the Daeshite terrorists is above anything else, Tehran and Ankara are not willing to cease their rivalries at the height of their pragmatism.
And that is the rule of the game. The rivalry and its outlook might have no strategically vital impact on the result of the war. In the background, however, it will provide Turkey with opportunities unacceptable for Iran and Iraq, given issues such as Turkmen of the Tal Afar, the impact on the future developments made by Sunnis and their final share in the government of Iraq.
Why has Iraq suddenly become sensitive and wants Turkish forces out? The Shiites have realized that Mosul will have great impact on future power-sharing in Iraq. Turkey’s support for Sunni tribes, groups and politicians has turned into a catalyst to distance them from Baghdad. That is, why sensitivity over Turkey’s behavior and positions has grown, in spite of the fact that most of the Shiites know the warning that Turkey is occupying Iraqi territory is exaggerated. The truth is that Kurtulmuş is right. The Turkish army is not an occupier. However, when the Iraqi government officially demands Turkey to withdraw its forces, there is no room for unacceptable arguments and continuing military presence.
Considering Turkey’s records and the vicissitudes of its foreign policy, it could be said that the harsh stances of Erdogan and his team are of a temporary and propagandistic nature and the chances that the Turkish army suddenly takes part in Mosul liberation are none. Turkey will not take such a risk. All it wants is to pave the way to further empower the Sunnis and Turkmen and invest on them to outrun Iran.
Mosul is no Jarabalus but the Euphrates Shield Operation has inspired Turkey because the timely measure facilitated stronger Turkish influence in the Syria dossier. Although two important excuses, cleaning borders from ISIS and maintaining national security, made that intervention justifiable on the part of Turkey, there are no such issues in Iraq and Mosul. Mosul is no Jarabulus but we should accept that the Euphrates Shield Operation has provided Turkey with tools and opportunities, which have given the country the upper hand in Syria in the face of Iran and Russia.