Turkey’s long term strategy of limiting Iranian expansionism has put the country at odds with Iraq, a dynamic that’s become further complicated by the conflict in Syria. Yet, as LSE PhD Ranj Alaaldin points out, Ankara should be careful what it wishes for.

By Ranj Alaaldin

Relations between Iraq and Turkey are fast deteriorating. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has designated Turkey a hostile state, banned Turkish companies from operating in the south and has called on the Iraqi army to be deployed against Turkish forces conducting cross-border attacks on PKK targets in the north.

The ebb in relations comes as Turkey pursues an aggressive Middle East foreign policy. The conflict in Syria puts Turkey, a major backer of Syria’s opposition forces, on the opposing end of a proxy war against Iran and Iraq. Iraq fears a Sunni Islamist takeover in Syria will embolden anti-government insurgents in the country’s northern Sunni Arab provinces, which have supported the Syrian uprising and continue to provide a bastion for terror groups looking to undermine the government in Baghdad and Iraq’s general stability.

Further, Ankara provides a safe haven for high-ranking officials of the former Ba’ath regime who, in some cases, organise and support militants operating out of Iraq’s northern provinces. Turkey also refuses to extradite Iraq’s vice-president, Tarek al-Hashimi, who was recently found guilty of running death squads and sentenced to death in absentia by the Iraqi courts.

Ankara’s long-term strategy is rooted in a broader objective: limiting Iranian expansionism. It has undermined the Shia-led, pro-Iran government in Baghdad for long since its inception in 2005. Further symptomatic of this objective is its support for Maliki’s enemies domestically and abroad, an aggressive economic partnership with Iraq valued at $12 billion in 2011 and its support for the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Tehran’s all-important geostrategic ally.

But Turkey should be careful what it wishes for. Geostrategic interests demand that it counterbalances Iranian prominence. However, despite revamping its foreign policy in response to the Arab uprisings, Turkey can no longer chance an unstable Iraq that, firstly, gives increased autonomy, possibly independence, to the oil-rich Kurdistan Region in the north and, secondly, one that prompts its own restive population of some 20 million Kurds to demand similar rights.

It is against this backdrop that Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan’s visit to Iran last week should be examined. The tide is shifting against Ankara’s favour. Erdogan’s government is looking for fresh options, as Assad continues to defy international pressure with the help of his friends in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Iraq, in particular, has proved vital in the battle for Damascus, acting as a conduit through which Tehran has sent arms as well as fighters. Further, a New York Times article confirmed this week that Shia militias, most notably from the battle-hardened Jaysh al-Mahdi militia that fought US and British forces, were now actively helping the Assad regime fight and suppress the uprising.

As well as giving increased leverage to Iraq’s Kurds – now key players in the region and backed up with oil-wealth – the Syria conflict has also allowed an autonomous Kurdish region to emerge in Syria’s north-east. Much to the dismay of Erdogan’s government and its opponents in Turkey, this has emboldened the PKK, the rebel group which Turkey has failed to defeat over the past 40 years and which recently intensified its attacks on Turkish military targets.

The group, which fights for a mixture of political, territorial and human rights for Turkey’s marginalised and oppressed Kurds, has seen its sister organisation in Syria, the PYD, take unparalleled control over Syrian Kurdistan. The PYD is increasingly playing the role of government as it sets up schools and military brigades in response to the ongoing conflict and a potential post-Assad Syria.

Turkey’s response came in the form of a military deployment along its borders with Syria, seen by many as a measure aimed in part at the PYD and Syria’s Kurdistan region, rather than just the Syrian shelling of a Turkish border town three weeks ago.

That only shows how limited Ankara’s options have become. Active military deployment in Syrian Kurdistan will force Turkey into a quagmire of long-lasting conflict that it will neither be able to manage nor garner the support for, domestically and internationally.

Turkey’s response to the rise of the PKK and Syria’s Kurds is telling of its lack of foresight when it first sought the downfall of the Assad regime more than a year ago, as well as its failure to accommodate the gaps in its Syria and Iraq policies.  In alienating its regional neighbours, Turkey has seen them, in turn, revitalise their relationship and support for the PKK. Turkey may, therefore, find itself retreating in the coming period, as both patience with Prime Minister Erdogan and support for his costly and futile backing of the Syrian opposition runs out.

Ranj Alaaldin is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he is pursuing research on the Shias of Iraq at the Department for International History. He has travelled extensively throughout the MENA region, including recent stints in Iraq, Turkey, Libya and Egypt. In addition to contributing to the recent LSE IDEAS publication on power shifts after the Arab Spring, he writes regularly for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy. His personal website can be here.

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