Iraqi troops are reinforcing their positions along the border with Turkey to prevent Turkish forces from advancing deeper into Iraqi territory after more than two weeks of airstrikes and Turkey’s establishment of more than ten posts inside Iraqi territory.
Turkey has bombarded Kurdish villages in northern Iraq leaving more than half a dozen civilians dead, and Iraqi troops have advanced in response almost 15 km into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraq is in an awkward position, as the government of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region has not taken a strong position in opposing the Turkish attacks, while the internal pressures on the newly appointed government in Baghdad have been mounting.
Iraq is still negatively affected by US and Iranian influence, limiting its capabilities of defending itself. Pro-Iranian Shiite militias that are almost as strong as the Iraqi army are at odds with the Iraqi government. With reports of Iran supporting the Turkish attacks on northern Iraq and even coordinating the joint bombing of the Yazidi area of Sinjar with Turkey, these militias are unlikely to fight against the Turkish incursions into Iraq.
Apart from Qatar, all the Arab countries have condemned the Turkish attacks on Iraq and its continued military violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Kuwait have expressed their backing for Iraq against the Turkish aggression. However, Turkey has refused to stop its military campaign on Iraqi territory and has vowed to continue its incursions.
Qatar is the only Gulf country not to support Iraq against the Turkish and Iranian military incursions, explained by the fact that Qatar is an ally of Iran and Turkey and is cooperating with Ankara in the latter’s campaigns in Syria and Libya.
Kuwait strongly condemned the Turkish and Iranian military attacks on northern Iraq. The official Kuwaiti news agency KUNA quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying that “these interventions constitute a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and are against all international norms and legal rules. They pose a threat to Iraq’s security and the region’s stability.”
The official said that Kuwait stood by Iraq and backed the measures the Baghdad government was taking to safeguard its sovereignty, security and stability. Kuwait has good relations with both Turkey and Iran, even if it is not an ally of either, and its relations with its neighbour Iraq have been improving in recent years.
Saudi Arabia has taken a similar position, noting that the “Turkish and Iranian military interventions in Iraq threaten regional security and are in violation of international law.” Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iraq have been improving recently.
The UAE also condemned Turkey and expressed its support for Iraq in facing the Turkish aggression. “The UAE denounces the Turkish and Iranian military interventions in Iraq through their bombing of areas in northern Iraq, which constitute a violation of the sovereignty of a fellow Arab country and have led to intimidation and the spread of terror among innocent civilians,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
The UAE has good relations with the Kurds, and it has been supporting them as part of efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq and Syria. In recent years, the UAE has led efforts to counter the Iranian influence in Iraq by bolstering ties with Baghdad. Saudi Arabia has been following the same approach, and recent efforts to rebalance the oil market were an opportunity for closer Saudi-Iraqi cooperation.
The Gulf countries learned their lesson from letting Iran extend its influence in Iraq and Syria until it had penetrated into Yemen. They are determined not to let Turkey repeat that example, particularly as Turkey is also using the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist offshoots as a lever in the region. For the UAE, countering Turkish expansionism is at the heart of its fight against terrorism.
In the past, Turkey exploited its relations with Saudi Arabia as a cover for its expansionist intentions, until these relations became strained more than a year ago. Business and trade relations worth tens of billions of dollars between Turkey and the Gulf countries are now declining due to policy differences.
After invading parts of northwestern Syria, Turkey has now embarked on wide-ranging attacks on other Arab countries. Many Western analysts see this as a manifestation of internal troubles facing the ruling party led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after almost all his allies deserted him.
Executive Director of the Middle East Centre for Reporting and Analysis, a Western think tank, Seth J Frantzman, has been quoted as saying that “Ankara’s latest attacks on Iraq, driven by its ruling party, are yet another militarist adventure by a ruling party that appears to need to carry out a new military operation every month as part of a trend that combines demagoguery at home and invasions abroad.”
Last year, Turkey threatened to invade eastern Syria, telling Washington it would begin bombing the region until the Trump administration appeased Ankara and withdrew US troops from the area.
After its October offensive in Syria in which some 200,000 people were forced to flee their homes, Ankara signed a deal with the militia-backed government in the Libyan capital Tripoli to help it fight against the Libyan National Army and secure Turkey’s energy demands in the Mediterranean.
Turkey started shipping thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight on behalf of the Tripoli government and sent drones and arms to establish a foothold there.
In December and January, it stoked tensions with Russia and the Syrian regime in Idlib in northwest Syria. It then threatened to send Syrian refugees to Europe during the crises of February and March.
In April and May, it returned to focus on the fighting in Libya, while at the same time increasing its airstrikes on Iraq and starting a full offensive on 17 June.
The Gulf countries are becoming increasingly concerned by Turkey’s military interventions abroad, since it has also been trying to intervene in Yemen, relying on its relations with Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in Yemen and its presence in Somalia through relations with the Al-Shabab terrorist group.
As a result, the Gulf countries’ backing of Iraq in the face of Turkish aggression is also a strategic stand against Turkish expansionism elsewhere in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly