Diplomat’s assassination in Erbil puts Turkish presence in Iraq under spotlight

Iran, widely seen as the most powerful outside power in Iraq, will be closely watching whether increasing Turkish influence comes at its expense.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Contentious issues. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) meets with President of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani during Barzani’s inauguration ceremony, in Erbil, June 10. (DPA)
Contentious issues. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) meets with President of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani during Barzani’s inauguration ceremony, in Erbil, June 10. (DPA)

LONDON - Turkey’s presence in Iraq has been in the spotlight since the assassination of a Turkish diplomat in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

Erbil has long been a safe haven for those trying to escape violence in the rest of Iraq. Earlier this month, however, a gunman killed Turkish diplomat Osman Kose shortly after he arrived at a restaurant with consular staff.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attack, saying Ankara was working with the Iraqi authorities to find the perpetrator.

Several days after the shooting, Kurdish security forces said they arrested the man “who planned the assassination.” Reports said the suspect, identified by a Kurdish security service as Mazlum Dag, was the brother of Turkish lawmaker Dersim Dag, a member of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, which had condemned the attack.

Citing a security source, Reuters reported that Turkey had killed those behind the attack in two air strikes in northern Iraq.

The assassination was weeks after Turkish air strikes hit Sulaimaniyah governorate in the Kurdistan region. The attacks and subsequent ones killed several people as part of a Turkish campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is viewed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkey’s involvement in northern Iraq has divided opinion in Iraqi policy circles. After the air strikes in Sulaimaniyah, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the attacks and called on Ankara to stop them.

Turkish military operations in northern Iraq, where many suspect the PKK leadership is based, go back decades. The PKK and the Turkish government have been locked in conflict since 1984, which led to the death of more than 40,000 people.

Erdogan had peace talks with the group in late 2012 but negotiations — and a ceasefire — collapsed in 2015.

“In terms of fighting the PKK in the wake of the assassination in Erbil, Ankara will get tougher but it’s already been tough on that front for a while,” said Barin Kayaoglu, assistant professor of world history at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the dominant party in the Kurdistan Region, is talking with Turkey “to exchange information on the presence of the PKK in Iraqi territory,” said Aymen al-Faisal, a researcher at the Al-Bayan Centre for Planning and Studies in Baghdad. The KDP condemned the assassination.

Kayaoglu said he did not foresee a “serious change in Turkey’s approach to Iraq or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).”

Ankara’s ties with the KRG dramatically worsened after the Kurdistan region had an independence referendum in September 2017. Erdogan called the referendum “treachery.” The vote provided a boost to Ankara’s relationship with Baghdad because both rejected the referendum.

The rupture in relations with the KRG came after years of cooperation between Erbil and Ankara. Both sides expanded business ties and cooperated in fighting the PKK, while sharing antipathy towards Baghdad.

After several tense years, Turkey is restarting its economic involvement in northern Iraq, said Emre Ozdemir, an analyst in Istanbul. There are several reasons for this, he said.

First, Turkey faces an economic crisis and wants to regain an important market. Most of Turkey’s exports to Iraq until 2017 went to the Kurdistan region and Turkish construction companies invested billions of dollars there. The Kurdish region’s economic potential “is not as high as before, but it is needed by Turkey,” Ozdemir said. Turkey, earlier this year, pledged to provide a $5 billion credit line for Turkish businesses working in Iraq.

A second key reason, Ozdemir said, is that Turkey wants to prevent the PKK from using northern Iraq’s mountainous areas for terrorist activities in Turkey.

Turkey’s presence in Iraq is a contentious political issue. Muqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, criticised Turkish air strikes in Iraqi territory, prompting the Turkish ambassador to Iraq to reply that the PKK was a terrorist organisation.

Most members of parliament say they reject the presence of the Turkish military in Iraq, said Faisal. “They do this to increase their media presence to improve their chances of getting re-elected,” he added.

Despite the spats, Ankara wants better relations with Iraq, including the KRG, said Kayaoglu, especially in trade. “But Turkish military operations against the PKK, especially when they affect civilians in the KRG, will complicate that,” he said.

There is a level of mutual dependency between Iraq and Turkey, said Ozdemir. Iraq, he said, needs Turkey to lower its dependency on Iran. Ankara “needs Iraq’s partnership in the region between Iran and Syria as well as for its fight against the PKK,” he said.

If Turkey improved relations with the KRG, it could “play a mediator role in the medium- to long-term between Baghdad and Erbil,” said Ozdemir.

Iran, widely seen as the most powerful outside power in Iraq, will be closely watching whether increasing Turkish influence will come at its expense.

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