Erdogan had harsh words for Iraqi Prime Minsiter Haider al-Abadi. On the diplomatic front, the Turkish President may well have transgressed on Iraq’s sovereignty and there are legitimate question marks over the presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil. However, in the wider context, Erdogan has simply described the current status quo, and called out the Iraqi demands for what they actually are.
Although the crux of the matter appears to be the stationing of Turkish troops at Bashiqa on Iraqi soil, the real problem for Erdogan, and why his statements carry harsh truths, is that Abadi is not expressing anger as an Iraqi Prime Minister, but as Iran’s messenger.
Iran and Turkey have been locked in a war of influence as the former seeks to cement its de facto authority by propping up the Hashd al-Shaabi as the saviour of the Iraqi people, and the latter seeks to temper this growing influence by backing the Kurds and tribes in Northern Iraq. Moreover, Turkey stands to gain much should the Kurds and local tribes take Mosul, a city that has been subject to much tussling domestically between the North and Baghdad. Should Mosul fall to the Kurds, who happen to be on very friendly terms with Ankara under the leadership of Masoud Barzani, then not only does Ankara gain significant influence over Iraq, but also benefits from Mosul’s oil fields. More importantly, Ankara would also gain a formidable buffer against any attempts by the YPG and PKK to form an independent Kurdish state. Tehran wants to prevent this by ousting the Turkish forces that are training the local tribes and have exerted immense pressure on Abadi to invoke national sovereignty to do so.
With ISIS in retreat, and eyes on the final battle in Mosul, Ankara is insistent that the tribes and the Iraqi army lead the operation, whilst Tehran maintains that the Hashd, whom the US has sought to limit its involvement, has been the main fighting force and should be at the forefront of the liberation of Mosul.
There is no doubt that Iran’s mobilisation of its militias in Iraq into the semi-coherent body that is the ‘Hashd al-Shaabi’ has been very effective at driving back ISIS. Even the Hashd’s critics, and there are many, privately confess that but for these militias, Baghdad would have fallen to ISIS years ago as the Iraqi army crumbled.
However the sectarian nature of these militias, as well as their overwhelming power reflected in their blunt rejection of Abadi’s proposal to form a national guard, as well as their threats to protestors in Baghdad that successfully blunted their potency, has given particular cause for concern over the future of the social fabric of Iraq. With forced migration and arbitrary killings on sectarian lines documented by human rights groups, as well as the presence of a rather weak and as yet incompetent Iraqi army, Hashd is considered by many as the next threat to Iraq’s stability after the fall of ISIS.
Abadi has been powerless in reining in the Hashd, and it is in this wider context that Erdogan addressed him:
“You are not at my level…It’s not important at all how you shout from Iraq. You should know that we will do what we want to do…know your place!”
Erdogan’s brazen comments suggest he does not fear the diplomatic repercussions, and nor should he. The US are also highly concerned over the participation of the Hashd in the campaign to liberate Iraq from ISIS, having emphasised on numerous occasions that the conventional Iraqi army should be at the forefront of the campaign. This concern has been demonstrated in the past during the campaign to liberate Tikrit, where the US imposed conditions that it would only provide aerial support if the Hashd remained on the outskirts of the city, and similar conditions were imposed during the liberation of Ramadi.
Moreover, unlike Syria, Turkey and the US have mutual interests in Iraq in empowering the local tribes and cementing the Kurds as a powerful body within Iraqi politics.
Erdogan’s comments are astonishingly unconventional to say the least. However, purists will quietly laud the Turkish President for being open about the actual state of affairs instead of tip-toeing around protocol.