Turkey: Stuck Between Iran and Kurdistan

Expert reveals Turkey’s hesitation to support Iraqi Kurds keeps door open for more Iranian influence in Iraq, and explains why that's so.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey's financial resources and deep military capabilities would make it a formidable enemy for Syria or Islamic State (ISIS) on the battlefield, but the eventual cost to its security could be too high, says an expert. That risk is even more pronounced when it comes to Iran, leaving the Turks at a loss for a strategy against Iran’s reach across the Middle East.

“Turkey and Iran currently see each other not so much as rivals but at odds,” Gabriel Mitchell, Turkish foreign affairs expert with Mitvim, told Arutz Sheva. “Turkey is concerned by Iran's position in the Middle East.”

He reasons that Turkey has not been able to come to a conclusive answer as to whether Iran is an enemy. There is a feeling it does not want Iran stretching its influence across the region – particularly given its alliance with Syria – but Turkey is undecided on whether it wants to invest more of its own resources to liberate areas of Iraq or Syria before Iranian-backed forces get there first.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reportedly said recently, “Shi'ite militias should not come. There is such a danger at Mosul. Sunni national guards should come instead," according to Al-Monitor.

There is also vacillation on how to support the Kurds. Turkey has a deep relationship with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, but is still worried about what Kurdish independence there would mean back at home, where up to a quarter of the country is Kurdish and fiercely nationalist.

Mitchell said said of Turkey, "they don’t want them to fall just as much as they do not want them to succeed. They want the Kurds to be dependent. They want to have a degree of control over what happens there, the same with the Kurds in Syria, if theoretically they had independence.”

Turkey invests hundreds of millions of dollars in Kurdistan every year, particularly for energy. It is a stable area buffering Turkey from the rest of Iraq.

That contrasts with how Turkey has been acting on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey avoided helping Kurdish Kobane fight off ISIS because they see an independent Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) as a threat linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), says Mitchell. The Turks have refused to help the YPG, Rojava’s de facto army. 

Only after enormous American pressure did they permit the Iraqi Peshmerga to enter the fighting there, and Mitchell notes: "they have no interest in this government falling given the financial and political investment. Compared with their reluctance in Kobane (to support the Syrian Kurds), they don’t want the KRG to fall. Support isn’t going to stop.”

“The two governments are interested in building a relationship where Kurdish oil keeps flowing and a lot of money is on the line when it comes down to it.”

Mitchell was hesitant to term the KRG a “government,” but for all intents and purposes that is how Turkey is interacting with it. Iraqi Kurdistan is Turkey’s satellite in Iraq, so the idea that either ISIS could squash it or that Iran might have influence there is a massive problem.

That has not translated into more involvement, however. Turkey has only transferred small arms to the Iraqi Kurds as opposed to heavy weapons or tanks.

“They are saying ‘let someone else do it. Give the Kurds some arms, but leave us out of it.’ They’re not willing to give a lot," he notes.

This is the attitude they have taken in Syria also, worrying about a very weak border being overrun either by ISIS or perhaps Syrian intelligence. But Mosul still seems to be Kurdistan’s fight if it wants it. 

Iranian-backed forces are still fighting for Tikrit, 225 kilometers away, meaning Iran is creeping up on Turkey, and the Turks not happy about having to deal with it.

Persian Gulf countries and the new Saudi Arabian king invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for meetings several weeks ago, hinting they might be trying to rope Ankara into the conflict with the Iranians. Without suggesting Turkey would ever actually go to war with Iran, Mitchell explained the strategic hesitation to invest too much.

“Even if the Persian Gulf states want Turkey on their side (against Iran), Turkey will remain a bit independent," he said.

Mitchell notes "the problem is very similar to Syria in that Turkey and Iran share a very long border. There hasn’t been war in a long time between Turkey or the Ottoman Empire on the one hand or Iran and say the Safavid Empire on the other, since the 1600s; that’s because a war would be a lose-lose proposition.”

Turkey is neutral out of necessity, feeling exposed. Its modern fighting force would still be heavily bogged down fighting abroad, but its civilian population might be exposed.

“When (Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet) Davutoglu says Turkey will support the Kurds, he means logistically," Mitchel notes, adding that Turkey is very worried about the inevitable flood of refugees from a war in Mosul which might include infiltrators from ISIS.

As Al-Monitor reports Davutoglu said just two days ago, “Turkey will not be a direct party to the heated conflict in Iraq or Syria. We will provide support for Mosul but will not become a party to clashes.”