The influence of Turkey in Iraq has diminished in the first election the country has had following the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), while the influence of Iran (and also America) is stronger than ever, experts and politicians say. Iran is now reaping benefits from its heavy involvement in the war against ISIS in Iraq, as compared to Turkey, whose Sunni and Kurdish allies were marginalized in the wake of ISIS.
Turkey always maintained economic and political influence in the Kurdistan region and the rest of northern Iraq, in Mosul in particular before 2014. However, allies of Turkey were marginalized after the war against ISIS. Sunnis backed by Turkey were not involved in military operations against ISIS, and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) now play a major role in Sunni Arab areas rather than traditional zones of influence for Turkey, such as Tal Afar and Mosul.
Even Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which was always close to Turkey, is now courting Iran rather than Turkey, in an effort to maintain its influence in the new Iraq that is being angered by the United States for lack of support in stopping Iraqi operations against the Kurds in October 2017. Turkey’s opposition towards the Kurdish independence referendum held in September last year is another reason for KDP’s recent stance.
Iran played a major role after all, in undermining the Kurds that voted for independence. The PMU and Iran made use of internal Kurdish divisions and the take-over of disputed territories from the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in October 2017.
Masoud Barzani met with Iranian officials, who are trying to convince the Kurds to back its proxies in Iraq, in early May.
“Iranians have more influence on the institutions. The Turks are doing more business and are more politically influential in the northern part of Iraq,” Dr. Nahro Zagros, the Vice President of Soran University told Ahval.
“There are Sunni parties close to Turkey but they cannot change the political landscape. Turkey is less capable of changing the political landscape in Baghdad than Iran,” he concluded.
The Sunni politicians that Turkey once supported have now been sidelined, such as Osama al-Nujaifi, the vice-president of Iraq. Ex-Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi was stripped from his post in May 2015, and sentenced to three years imprisonment in absentia, on charges of ‘’collaborating” with Turkey. The KDP was further weakened after the Iraqi’s took back most disputed territories and sanctioned the Kurdistan region.
“Yes, definitely. Turkey’s closest allies were the KDP and the Nujaifis and both have lost out. The KDP is secure in Erbil and Dohuk, but its standing has taken a big hit with the repercussions from the independence referendum. The Nujaifis have lost a lot a great deal of standing as well,” Iraq analyst Joel Wing told Ahval.
“They lost the governorship of Ninewa and the speaker of parliament and have lost out to others such as Speaker Salim Jabouri. They are also pushing issues , such as Sunni autonomy, which are not that popular anymore, and in fact many Sunnis want closer ties to Baghdad for employment reconstruction and the development political power,” he said.
“Sunni Arab groups who would potentially have become Turkish proxies in Iraq were compelled to engage in a reconciliation with US and Iranian-backed Shiite groups over the past two years. This was a natural outcome of Iran’s growing role and the US’ already strong position in Iraqi politics, and has significantly reduced the potential for a Turkish leverage on the same political arena,” said Ceng Sagnic, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies.
Meanwhile Iraq expert Dr Nussaibah Younis, an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Chatham House told Ahval that Turkey has little influence in Iraqi politics. ‘’Turkey has, together with a number of Gulf states, tried to unite Sunni blocs, but with limited success.”
Turkey in 2010 still had a lot of political influence backing Allawi’s Iraqiya list, who won most seats in the 2010 election, but failed to form the government. “I don’t think the Sunnis will play a kingmaker role. The fragmentation of Turkey’s allies will make it more difficult for them to gain seats,” Dr. Renad Mansour, a Research Fellow at the Chatham House told Ahval. “The real kingmakers will be those who make the agreement for the Shia to form a government together,” he added.
David M. Witty, a former advisor to the counter terrorism service in Iraq and an adjunct professor for Norwich University says, “Some have even said Iran will be the true kingmaker in deciding who the next Prime Minister is.”
“The parliamentary elections in Iraq will be the leading indicator of the future role of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. Do they transform from just being successful, but slightly uncontrollable militias, to the future of political power in Iraq? And what does that mean in terms of greater Iranian penetration in the Iraqi government?”
The next Iraqi government will most likely be formed by one of the main three Shia parties, such as the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance, Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, and Hadi al-Ameri’s Conquest Alliance that consists of the Iranian-backed paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and this after rounds of negotiations with other parties. Iran is most likely to play the role of kingmaker in this arrangement.
However, political risk analyst Kirk H. Sowell says Iran’s role will still be limited. “I think they realize they aren’t going to dominate this government. The fact that Ameri and Maliki are running separately make it essentially impossible to beat [US-backed] Abadi,” he said. “So I suspect they want Badr just to hold onto its fiefdom at the Interior Ministry,” he added.
Politicians agree that Iran’s role in Iraq is bigger. “Turkey is a neighbour, but of course Iranian influence is greater. First of all, there is cooperation between the majority Shia Iraq government with Iran and a longer border of over 1,200 kilometers between Iraq and Iran and 380 kilometers with Turkey,” Saadi Pira, the spokesperson for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party that is a close ally to Iran, said.
“They have the right to represent their interests, but it’s up to the Iraqi parties and people, they pull them in otherwise they cannot come in. We should try to take an independent decision,” he added.
Many locals are worried about a new war with Iran and the end of the Iranian nuclear deal, following the announcement this week from U.S. President Donald Trump on U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.
“We are in this area, and we will be affected and a victim also willingly or unwillingly. This is the effect of geopolitics,” said Fazel Mirani, a senior KDP member.
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former Kurdish foreign minister, has his fair share of concerns over Iran’s influence.
“From my personal perspective in serving in successive Iraqi governments and all the previous elections since 2003 until now, the influence was there. You could feel it and see it,” he said.
“In the view of recent tension between United States and Iran and Trump’s withdrawal from nuclear agreement, those tensions will be reflected in the formation of the next Iraqi government,” he noted.
Kurdish academic Nahro Zagros maintains that the decision of Trump certainly changed the political game in Iraq.
“A few days ago, both America and Iran were content with Abadi becoming the next PM, but after America pulled out of the agreement, this might have changed,” he said.
“Knowing that Iran is facing an economic and political crisis, this Iraqi elections are going to be very important for them. We will see surprises who will Iran back and support, but I am sure they are going to support Hashd al-Shaabi [Hadi al-Ameri’s Conquest Alliance],” he said.
For Dr. Younis, the Iraqi elections are a perfect opportunity for Iran to punish the US for withdrawing from the nuclear deal. ‘’Iran will invest heavily in trying to broker a governing coalition dominated by the Fatah [conquest] coalition,’’ she said, adding:
“Iran is able to wield substantial influence in Iraqi politics, either by using inducements or threats, and, is likely to be successful in its efforts unless there is a strong counter effort from the US.”
Iraq analysts Sowell holds that Turkey might have more pressing concerns to be focused on, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“Turkey, as you know, just sends troops into northern Iraq if it wishes. With Turkey their horizons have narrowed – they aren’t focused on Iraq as a whole; their foreign policy framework is now dominated by the supposed threat of Turkish/Syrian Kurds operating in Iraq,” Sowell pointed out.