Turkish quarrel with Kurds complicates Iraq situation
London - T here have been tentative signs that Turkey is trying to back away from two potential conflicts largely of its own creation that add dangerous new complications to the all-against-all Syrian war.
The first involves a confrontation with Moscow over Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on November 24th, while Ankara’s decision to send troops and tanks to a training base near the Iraqi city of Mosul, seized by the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014, has provoked a crisis with Baghdad.
The first incident, in which the two-man crew of a Russian Su-24 fighter was said to have ignored warnings that the plane was violating Turkish airspace, brought a new element of uncertainty and potential international conflict related to the Syrian crisis.
The risks were amply illustrated December 13th when a Russian destroyer fired a warning shot at a Turkish fishing vessel in the Aegean Sea, ostensibly to avoid a collision. Moscow summoned the Turkish military attaché to protest the “provocation”, while Turkey accused Moscow of an exaggerated reaction to the naval incident.
Turkey’s military deployment to the Bashiqa base near Mosul, said to be part of a training programme for Kurdish and local Iraqi forces, was denounced by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, whose permission had not been sought. It submitted a complaint to the United Nations demanding a Turkish withdrawal.
Shia militia commander Hadi al-Ameri warned somewhat less diplomatically that: “The Iraqi popular and security forces can raze the Turkish troops from the face of the Earth completely.”
Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on December 11th that Turkey would not withdraw the troops, by December 14th some units were reported to have been transferred to the semi-autonomous territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
That might amount to a first step towards easing tensions with Baghdad and it followed talks in Ankara several days earlier between Erdogan and Masoud Barzani, the KRG president.
The crises provoked confrontational rhetoric from all sides, including from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who warned that Moscow will never forget or forgive the downing of its jet, with the loss of one of the crewmen.
Away from the twin crises, however, officials met in apparent attempts to cool tensions. At a conference in Turkmenistan to mark that country’s 20-year policy of neutrality, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council, met for an unscheduled exchange.
Matviyenko said she had no prior plans to meet Cavusoglu but had been approached by him. She gave no details of the exchange but reiterated Russia’s demand that Turkey apologise for downing the Su-24.
Also on the margins of the conference, Iranian First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri had a meeting with Erdogan that focused on the rift with Russia. “We’re worried about the tension created in relations between Turkey and Russia and… We’re ready to help ease the tension,” Jahangiri said, noting that he urged Turkey to cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Erdogan, in remarks on his flight home from Turkmenistan, failed to offer the apology demanded by the Russians but he did say that what he termed “a pilot’s mistake” must not be allowed to damage Turkish-Russian ties.
“It is the (Russian) pilots who were negligent and did not hear the warnings,” he said in a remark that seemed aimed at drawing a line under the incident by reducing it to a case of pilot error, although that was unlikely to satisfy Moscow.
Turkey’s disputes with Moscow and Baghdad further increase the perception that major players in the regional conflict — in which all sides are ostensibly focused on crushing ISIS — are more committed to confronting each other than the common enemy.
Turkey is widely seen as having actively or passively facilitated the rise of ISIS to further its regional ambitions. Baghdad and its Iranian backers view Turkey’s “incursion” into northern Iraq not as an extension of the anti-ISIS coalition but as a Turkish attempt to establish control in Sunni Arab areas.
The KRG is once again caught in the middle. It has become increasingly dependent on its relationship with Ankara during its current economic downturn but, for domestic reasons, Barzani cannot afford to be too closely wedded to Turkish policy.
Turkey appears more committed to attacking its internal enemies in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoot, the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) militias, than it is in confronting ISIS. The Syrian Kurds are hugely popular in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Barzani wants greater Turkish cooperation in the KRG’s own disputes with Baghdad on oil and other issues. But he would also like to help revive the collapsed peace process between Ankara and the PKK.
He certainly has no interest in a breakdown in relations between Ankara and Baghdad. Although little of substance emerged publicly from the talks, it is likely Barzani encouraged his Turkish counterparts to back away from the spat with Baghdad.
Harvey Morris has worked in the Middle East for many years and written several books, including No Frie