Turkey’s military operation causes controversy, division in Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq – Turkey’s latest military operation in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq began early last week, with Ankara launching an air and ground offensive targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in pockets of Duhok province on April 18.

These operations against the PKK, an armed group fighting for the autonomy of Turkey’s southeast and considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, have become a regular occurrence over recent years. However, they are growing more controversial in Iraq, and not just in areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“This operation is basically trying to intervene and establish networks of observation, monitoring, and bases,” Sardar Aziz, an analyst and former adviser to the KRG parliament, told Al Jazeera. “This time Turkey is planning to stay.”

Only days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the launch of the operation, dubbed Claw-Lock, he met with the KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, an apparent signal that the KRG was supportive, to a certain extent, of the operation. Erdogan has also said that the Iraqi government cooperated with the operation.

Yet the Iraqi central government not only refuted Erdogan’s claim, but also strongly condemned Ankara’s operation. Baghdad has also summoned the Turkish ambassador to register its opposition.

“The Turkish side is carrying out continuous violations that are not based on any legal basis or agreement between the two countries … they invoke Article 51 of the United Nations Charter for self-defence, and this cannot be implemented without official Iraqi approval,” Iraqi foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed al-Sahaf said.

Turkey says that operations against the PKK in northern Iraq are necessary to stop the group from carrying out further attacks in Turkey.

Despite Ankara’s claim that it had received support from both Erbil and Baghdad, it appears to be quite clear that there is a divide within Iraq.

“The fact that President Erdogan mentioned this operation happened successfully in cooperation with the Iraqi government, despite the Iraqi foreign ministry condemning the operation and summoning the Turkish ambassador, shows to you the dysfunction of Iraqi foreign policy,” said Hamzeh Hadad, a political analyst focused on Iraq.

“The KRG says one thing and the Iraqi foreign ministry says another. The dysfunction is further embarrassing when you consider the Iraqi foreign minister is from the KDP, the same part as the KRG prime minister.”

The KRG has yet to issue any official statements on the operation, and the internal division within the regional government might have contributed to this radio silence, according to analysts.

“[The] KRG is very divided and is unable to express condemnation,” Aziz said. “Erdogan is always using Kurdish parties to show that Kurds are agreeing with [him]; it is well planned, and the aim is to show that the [KRG] government is supporting the operation.”

Attacks on Shia armed groups

The Turkish operation has come as Iraqi politics continues to face uncertain times, with a new government yet to be formed and negotiations between political factions ongoing, despite elections being held back in October 2021.

To make matters more precarious, local Iraqi media outlets have that the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMF) armed group, a pro-Iranian predominantly Shia force that has significant military influence in Iraq thanks to its role in the fight against ISIL (ISIS), and now also has an important political bloc.

Since the group’s establishment in 2014, Turkey has considered the PMF to be fully guided by Iran, according to Harry Istepanian, an analyst based in Washington, and therefore having no legitimacy in Sunni areas. An attack on the PMF would be considered a provocative action that sends a message to Iraq’s political groups, while also exposing a risk of further escalations.

“Turkey conducted the attack on the PMF as a warning message to the Shia factions to remain outside of Turkey’s political game in Iraq,” Harry Istepanian told Al Jazeera. “The presence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa and other locations is in line with its blatant opposition to [PMF] presence in what are considered Sunni areas.”

Turkey has not officially commented on reports of the attacks on the PMF, and Al Jazeera could not independently verify the reports.

How the PMF will respond, if at all, will likely sway some of the future course of Turkey’s military ambition in Iraq.

“It’s possible to see more attacks on the PMF,” Istepanian said. “However, any PMF attack would be a new stage of the conflict, which would allow to be against the Turkish intervention.”

For now, Iraq’s confused reaction to Turkey’s operation reflects its own confused state, without a government or a solid sense of purpose. A more concrete position on Turkey may only be possible when that is resolved.

“It’s difficult to determine while in the current deadlock of choosing a new government,” Istepanian said. “The entire geopolitical landscape will rely on a number of regional factors connected to Turkey’s future relations with Iran and the south Caucasus, the Russian military invasion of Ukraine and Turkey’s internal politics and economic troubles.”

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