When Iraqi forces marched towards the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), few would have pondered entering it would be easy. However, in an astonishing outcome, the Iraqi Army and al-Hashed al-Shaabi militia had their dinner in the centre of Kirkuk.
The Turkish government was quick to react. “Turkey highlights its readiness for all sorts of cooperation with the Iraqi government to eradicate the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK’s presence in Iraqi lands,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement, lending its full backing to the Kirkuk operation.
Ankara had been locked in turmoil with Erbil over the independence vote in September, which was called by KRG President Masoud Barzani.
Turkish officials exchanged threats with Iraqi Kurds and Ankara repeatedly expressed concern over the status of Kirkuk, which was included in the independence vote despite being a “disputed area.”
Militants of the PKK, which Turkey along with the United States and the European Union branded as a terror group, had been showing a stronger presence in the oil-rich city. The Turkish government seemed to have nothing on the table but to support the Iraqi government operation. Yet, the post- KRG era in Kirkuk may not quite be in line with Turkey’s interests.
“To prevent the PKK and other radical actors around it from taking control” of Iraq’s Kurdish region is how Muhittin Ataman, an international relations professor at Yildirim Bayezit University, described the reason why Ankara swiftly supported Baghdad. “Second,” he said, “a YPG/PKK dominance corridor was to be built on the long strip from the Iranian border to the Syrian side.” Turkey wanted to interrupt that.
That being said, the Baghdad government has not always been an ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not long ago, the Iraqi central government labelled Turkish troops in Iraq’s Bashiqa as “invaders,” to which Erdogan responded harshly. He said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was “not on my level.”
Despite the warming ties between Ankara and Baghdad, the former will seemingly not easily give up its military presence in Bashiqa, citing security concerns and terror threats against Turkey from the PKK and the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Turkish military presence in Bashiqa was approved by the KRG and Turkish troops trained and supported Kurdish peshmerga forces in the fight against ISIS. Prior to the referendum, the KRG was allied with Turkey against the PKK. Barzani, who had led that alliance from the Iraqi Kurdish side, has resigned as president.
Iraq’s envoy to Ankara, Hisham al-Alawi, reiterated Baghdad’s stance on Bashiqa, saying the Turkish troops should leave. The spat may resurface as a headache for the Turkish government.
Iraqi federal forces took control of the main land crossing into Turkey from the KRG and Turkey agreed to open another border gate with Iraq via the city of Tal Afar.
After the shift of authority in Kirkuk from the Iraqi Kurds to the central government, Iran has dramatically boosted influence in the oil-rich city. Apart from Tehran’s control over Baghdad, al-Hashed al-Shaabi militias, backed by Iran’s army, stormed the area.
Even though Ankara has forged a close alliance with Tehran over recent months, the former has undoubtedly lost influence over the Turkmen in Kirkuk to the latter. Many Turkmen have been among the ranks of the Iran-backed al- Hashed al-Shaabi.
The economic aspect of the post-KRG era is also of significance. Ankara’s oil trade with Erbil, most of which was thanks to the oil in Kirkuk, may be hampered. The Kirkuk region used to provide 340,000-550,000 barrels per day exported via Turkey.
Now that the Baghdad government has full authority over the oil fields, the Turkish government will not have the luxury to fall out with Abadi. Ataman argued there is no single actor with whom Turkey gets along very well. “Turkey may face potential problems with issues such as Bashiqa and oil trading… Economically and politically, Turkey has to revise its Iraq strategy,” he said.
Turkey places great emphasis on rebuilding the city as well. How the administrative posts will be shaped, especially after the Kurdish dominance, is of utmost importance. Burhanettin Duran, the director-general of the Turkish think-tank SETA, said Turkey could be much more influential than everyone gauges.
Arguing that Turkish-Iraqi cooperation must continue at full steam, Duran said it was “necessary to establish a political system in which Iraq can exist, which will keep Shias, Sunnis and Kurds together peacefully.”
Yunus Paksoy is an Istanbul-based Turkish journalist who covered the wars in Syria and Iraq.