On 8 September 2020, the sixth meeting of the Iran-Turkey Cooperation Council was held under the chairmanship of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The meeting approved many common issues between the two sides as a gateway to enhancing their strategic relations at this stage. However, what is striking is that the meeting, which took place by means of videoconferencing, confirmed that the two countries would take joint steps in the region in a way that serves their interests, “including joint military and security operations, in countering terrorism and organised crime” groups. These are directly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Iranian Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). It did not take long hours before reports emerged of an escalation of Turkish and Iranian bombardment of the areas where these two organisations are deployed in the cities of Erbil and Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This paper discusses the nature of the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement in Iraq, its relationship to the rise of the PKK, and the recent changes in the region, mainly the reactivation of the French role and the conclusion of a peace agreement between Israel and both the UAE and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
PKK expansion in northern Iraq and Syria
Recent years have witnessed an escalation in the activity and influence of the PKK and the armed organisations associated with it in northern Iraq and Syria, as one of the consequences of the war against Daesh (IS) and the Syrian civil conflict. The PKK’s most important bases are located in the Qandil Mountains area near the Iraqi-Iranian border. The PKK has managed to expand its influence sites to the Iraqi-Syrian border area and establish a local militia in Sinjar known as the Sinjar Resistance (also Protection) Units (YBŞ). Moreover, this rise has coincided with Ankara’s return to adopting a security solution in dealing with the Kurdish issue in Turkey after the failure of the peace process that Erdogan had adopted in 2013, especially after the representation of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Parliament in 2015 and its alliance with the liberal opposition. This prompted Erdogan and his party (AKP) to change their stance, ally themselves with the Turkish nationalists, and adopt a hard-line stance towards the Kurdish issue in Turkey, which led to renewed resort to the security solution.
Another factor that is worth mentioning is the growing Kurdish national sentiments and the mental readiness it provides for many Kurdish youths to support the projects of radical change. It can be said that the experience of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, despite its complexities, has been a source of inspiration to many Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iran and Syria, in terms of creating a "nucleus" of the Kurdish state project, in addition to the effect of social media tools in reshaping collective identities and solidarity, in conjunction with the collapse and weakness of the central regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the economic crises in the countries of the region which provide opportunities for armed organisations to become platforms for social attraction and promotion, in addition to being tools for collecting rent.
Ankara has sought to support the position of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masoud Barzani to balance and undermine the role played by the PKK, especially that there is a clear tension in the relationship between the two parties, as opposed to a degree of coordination or sympathy between the PKK and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (which was led by the late Jalal Talabani) which is close to Tehran, controls Sulaymaniyah, and is influential in Kirkuk. The dispute between the KDP and the PKK has reached advanced stages of accusations of betrayal, as the KDP demands the exit of the PKK from the territory of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, while the PKK accuses Erbil of complicity in suppressing the Kurdish national movement. On 10 September 2020, the PKK Diplomatic Committee issued a statement rejecting a statement by the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in which he said that the PKK currently controls parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and seeks to control Erbil, the Region’s capital. The statement said that “the occupation of Erbil” is Turkey’s goal and that the PKK’s goal is “to liberate Kurdistan from Turkish occupation ... and that the PKK, as a political party, will continue to exist in all parts of Kurdistan”. This implies the legitimisation of the PKK’s presence and activity in Iraq despite the objections of the ruling KDP in Kurdistan. In this regard, Barzani says that "those Kurdish forces have turned into a constant source of concern in the Kurdistan Region and they must now lay down their arms". KDP officials also strongly criticise what is known as the Interim Administration of Sinjar, which is a Yazidi-majority disputed area with Baghdad. According to those officials, that Administration has been established in coordination between the pro-Tehran Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) and the PKK at the expense of the "legitimate" administration and the Head of District (or District Director, Qaim Maqam) who is currently in Dohuk and who is a KDP member.
In order to confirm their rapprochement and the return of their relations to their previous state, Tehran and Ankara meet in putting forward slogans expressing a lack of confidence in the US side in dealing with the PKK issue and its associated military wings. Iran believes that the CIA is providing support to the PJAK in its conflict with Tehran, while Turkey asserts that there is collusion by Washington with the role played by the forces associated with the PKK in Syria and Iraq.
The reality of the Turkish-Iranian coordination against the PKK
The recent agreement between Ankara and Tehran raises questions about whether Tehran will go as far as completely abandoning its coordination relations and those of its proxies in Iraq with the PKK, and thus give up one of its pressure cards on Ankara in the context of the competition between the agendas of the two sides in Syria and northern Iraq, and in confronting the Sunni jihadist organisations that Turkey coordinates with some of their factions.
Tehran is likely to maintain a dual position, as it would seek to increase coordination with Ankara in the field of confronting the armed Kurdish movement, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – which have built important areas of influence in several locations on the Iraqi-Syrian border through the pro-Iran Iraqi militias deployed there – would seek to take the field conditions into account. The factions involved in the PMC have established a degree of coordination with the PKK and its arm in Sinjar (the YBŞ) during the struggle against Daesh. Subsequently, this coordination became necessary also to limit the influence of the KDP in this disputed area. The level of cooperation has reached the point that nearly 900 members of this Yazidi militia have registered in the PMC under the name of the al-Nasr al-Mobin (Decisive Victory) faction. They receive salaries that are used by the PKK. In addition, the Head of the Interim Administration in Sinjar, which is subject to the influence of the PKK, was appointed by a decision of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis before his death in early January 2020. Besides, given the Russian role in the coordination with the pro-PKK People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, and the Iranian-Russian common interest in expelling Americans from, or limiting their area of presence in, this region, it becomes necessary to think twice before concluding that the Iranians would completely abandon the card of dealing with the PKK and the associated Kurdish armed factions.
The Turkish and Iranian positions on the French entry into Iraq
The recent Turkish operations in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on the pretext of chasing the PKK, have aroused the discontent of many Western powers which considered those operations a breach of Iraqi sovereignty. On its recent visit to Washington, the Iraqi delegation raised the issue of the Turkish military intervention in Iraq and the fact that, this time, Turkey seeks to build permanent positions for itself inside Iraqi territories. However, Washington did not show much enthusiasm for putting pressure on Ankara in this respect, preferring that the Iraqi government focus on reducing Iranian influence and deterring the militias associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that have escalated their – non-lethal – attacks on US military and diplomatic facilities and missions and the actors that deal with them.
Hence, the visit of French President Macron to Baghdad on 2 September 2020 was significant. It caused concern to the Turks as a result of the escalation of tension between Paris and Ankara against the backdrop of the conflict in Libya and the dispute over the maritime borders and the exploitation of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. One of the goals of Macron’s visit was to try to gain access to Iraq, and to play a greater role, especially with regard to supporting the country’s "sovereignty". Since the time of Adel Abdul Mahdi, the French suggested that France play a greater role in mobilising international support for the Iraqi government in order to establish its sovereignty and stop foreign interventions. The context in which the visit came was apparently understood by Turkey as a French attempt to confront Ankara from its southern flank. This made President Erdogan in a hurry to meet with the President of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani who has a very strong relationship with Turkey, immediately after Macron’s visit, during which he held a meeting with Barzani.
Turkey believes that there are now French attempts to scramble with its geostrategic ambition on many fronts, starting from the Eastern Mediterranean to Lebanon and Iraq. Turkey also believes that there is a systematic project in order to prevent its presence in those arenas and to stand against its interests. Turkey also promotes the idea that the Gulf states – specifically the UAE – have a partnership with France to undermine Turkey’s role in the region.
For its part, Iran questions France’s desires. While the latter seeks to send a message that it can be an important player to mediate between Tehran and Washington to resolve the outstanding crises in Iraq, Tehran very much fears that this may just be an excuse to strengthen NATO’s presence in Iraq. On the other hand, Iran believes that the French talk of working to protect Iraqi sovereignty may be directed mainly at its interventions and the activities of the factions associated with it in Iraq. Tehran's suspicion is exacerbated by the enthusiasm of Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is not trusted by Tehran’s allies, for Macron’s visit and the previous coordination it reflected between the two.
The other important aspect about the French president’s visit to Baghdad was the direct talk about France’s desire to enter the Iraqi arena by getting involved in the transport and energy sectors. This came after the Iraqi government signed a series of agreements and memoranda of understanding with US companies, focusing in particular on investment in the energy field, specifically natural gas production. Both Iran and Turkey believe that such projects may reduce their economic influence in Iraq, and be at the expense of their regional interests, considering that Iraq relies heavily on natural gas imports from Iran to run electric power plants. Iran is also the main source for the export of electricity to Iraq’s southern provinces, exporting the equivalent of 1,200 megawatts per day.
On the other hand, Turkey seeks to be a major source of electricity supply to Iraq, even as it has succeeded in the last decade in building a wide influence in the field of construction and management of oil infrastructure in the Kurdistan Region. Turkey continues to be a major outlet for the export of Iraqi and Kurdish oil that passes to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. With its ambitions to produce gas in the Mediterranean and its close alliance with Qatar, the most prominent gas exporter in the Gulf, Turkey – as well as Iran – has an interest in disrupting the development of the natural gas production sector in Iraq, especially that most of the projects announced in this regard, such as the Artawi gas project and the Mansouriya project, are being negotiated with US companies and with Saudi Aramco, which is likely to enter as a main investor in the Artawi field with US Hanwell. All this drives the Iranians and the Turks, despite the relative disparity and competition between their orientations in Iraq, to discover more common goals.
The Turkish-Iranian coordination and the Gulf-Israeli normalisation
In light of the many transformations taking place in the region, especially the normalisation of the relations of the UAE and Bahrain with Israel, both Turkey and Iran fear that the emergence of a Gulf-Israeli axis will target their geostrategic position, given that both countries claim that this axis has a plan to weaken them, and that the plan includes Iraq through projects to activate the idea of the independence of the Kurdistan Region from the official sphere of influence of the central government and the Shiite factions in Baghdad, as well as through endeavours to activate the idea of establishing a Sunni region in western Iraq to be a gateway through which efforts would be made to spread the contagion of the geographical fragmentation of neighbouring countries (Turkey and Iran). Therefore, the Gulf-Israeli rapprochement may become a reason for escalating coordination between the two sides in Iraq and other regions.
Furthermore, the two sides monitored the Iraqi Prime Minister’s recent visit to Washington, and the subsequent tripartite meeting in Amman on 26 August 2020 which brought Iraq together with Egypt and Jordan to form the New Orient project. They think it is an Iraqi attempt to act more independently of their interests. The Iranians fear that Iraq's relationship with Jordan and Egypt may pave the way for the generation of a future indirect rapprochement between Iraq and the Jewish state, while the Turks consider that any Iraqi-Egyptian rapprochement poses a threat to them due to the deep disagreement between Ankara and Cairo since the overthrow of the Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Conclusions: coordination out of weakness
The state of weakness that afflicts the Iranian and Turkish sides, especially due to the economic crises they are facing, drives them towards the discovery of a domain for cooperation and consensus at this stage, specifically in confronting what the two sides consider to be common threats. The armed Kurdish movement, sponsored by the PKK, is the most prominent of those threats. Coordination between the two sides in this regard may translate into an escalation in military operations against the areas of deployment of the PKK in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, near the Iranian border, the disregard by the political actors and pro-Tehran Iraqi factions for the Turkish incursion into Iraqi territories near the Syrian border, and preventing the PKK from establishing a safe road between Syria and Iraq. However, there are basic details that continue to prevent this coordination from transforming into an "alliance". While Tehran faces a hard-line stance and harmful sanctions by the Trump administration and exercises self-restraint pending the results of the upcoming US elections, in the hope that the Democratic candidate Joe Biden would win, Turkish President Erdogan has built a good working relationship with President Trump, and may prefer the continuation of that relationship (despite its uncertain nature) to dealing with a Democratic administration that may be more willing to support the Kurds in Syria, that is more stringent towards the authoritarian course currently followed by Turkey, and that is closer to the Europeans in the willingness to exercise pressure on it.
Both Tehran and Ankara have an interest in filling the vacuum resulting from the weakness or collapse of the state in their geographical neighbourhood and in expanding their areas of influence, often using a combination of Islamic ideology, sectarian solidarity, economic influence and the accumulated experience in the manufacture and support of armed militias. So far, despite their deep disagreement during the Syrian conflict, the two sides have managed to find ways to de-escalate and coordinate. The next phase is likely to witness more tendency in this direction, in light of the normalisation of Gulf-Israeli relations, which is not viewed with great satisfaction by the two sides, and also considering the existence of a government in Baghdad that tends to assert its political independence and gets closer to Washington, the West, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Therefore, any Iranian-Turkish rapprochement would be governed by this context, and subject to balances that could subsequently change. However, at the Iraqi level, it may translate into more attempts to curb the Iraqi government’s independence trend, a willingness to distribute the political and geographical regions and areas of influence between them, and ensuring that there are no third parties capable of competing with their influence in this country. At the same time, there are factors that will continue to weaken their ability to completely weave the Iraqi equation, including the economic weakness of the two sides, the attempt of international powers such as France to find a foothold for them in Iraq, as well as the continuity of the US and Russian presence, and the internal dynamics of the Iraqi situation that continue to weaken the traditional actors that used to constitute essential pillars of the two sides' influence.
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