Clashes between followers of Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr and Iran-backed militias affiliated with the Coordination Framework led by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki have intensified fears among many Iraqis that the violence would spill into civil war.
The political turmoil has also alarmed neighboring countries. Turkey urged its citizens to avoid traveling to Baghdad and called for “inclusive dialogue” to resolve the crisis.
Al-Sadr’s growing political power has been closely tracked by regional countries, in particular Turkey. His bloc won of 73 of the Iraqi parliament’s 329 seats at last year’s election, raising hopes that he would exclude Iran-backed factions from the next government and curb increasing Iranian influence. Analysts argue that Ankara would prefer a Sadr-led government over a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, despite its past differences with the Shiite leader on Turkish military operations in Iraq.
In July, Al-Sadr suggested reducing diplomatic representation with Turkey and closing airports and border crossings after Turkish operations in Iraq. He also warned that Iraq would “not be silent” if Turkey continuedto violate its sovereignty by bombing areas in northern Duhok province, a day after Ankara launched a fresh military operation against bases of the outlawed PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. He also suggested filing a complaint to the UN and canceling security agreements with Turkey.
Despite periodic tensions over Turkey’s military operations, Ankara kept the dialogue channels open with Al-Sadr and other figures in Iraq. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with the cleric in Najaf in 2018. Beforethat, Al-Sadr visited Ankara in 2009 and discussed Iraq’s political process with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül, at the time prime minister and president respectively. That visit was viewed as a milestone because Al-Sadr was rarely seen in public, and was thought to have been in Iran just beforehand. Despiteholding no official position, Al-Sadr was considered by Ankara to be an influential actor who was able to bring hundreds of thousands of followers on to the streets. Turkey followed closely and to a certain extent got involved in Iraqi affairs to protect its political and security interests.
The recent turmoil poses risks to every country adjoining Iraq, including Turkey. For the past three decades, turmoil in Iraq has been a source of instability for Ankara. Ever since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Turkey has found itself more deeply involved in Iraqi affairs. The establishment of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and the chaos after the US invasion in 2003 required Ankara to stay alert over developments in Iraq.
The US invasion upended Turkey’s fundamental interests in Iraq, which are fourfold: to avoid partition along sectarian or ethnic lines that would give rise to an independent Kurdish state; eliminate PKK elements who have sought refuge there; protect the Turkish-speaking Turkmen minority; and avoid the emergence of a potentially hostile Iraqi government under Iranian influence.
The current crisis presents challenges for Ankara. A civil war could lead to a massive influx of refugees, of whom Turkey already hosts a significant number. The PKK could also exploit the chaos to increase its attacks against Turkey. Political and security turmoil are always fertile ground for terrorist organizations. Tension in Iraq evolving into a civil war is also likely to pose a challenge to border security between Turkey and Iraq, and would pose risks to energy and food security. Thus, with a great deal of caution, Turkey needs to brace itself for the consequences of unrest in Iraq.
- Sinem Cengiz