Turkish intelligence chief pursues several objectives in Baghdad

Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan became the country’s first official to hold high-level talks in Baghdad after bilateral tensions escalated in July. While Fidan’s visit was aimed at easing tensions, it was also a Turkish attempt to exert influence in Iraq’s political crisis.

Tensions have skyrocketed following a bloody attack on Parakh, a tourist retreat in Iraqi Kurdistan, which Iraqi leaders have blamed on the Turkish military. The July 20 artillery strike killed nine civilians and injured more than 30 others, sparking anger against Turkey across the Iraqi political spectrum. In a remarkably harsh reaction, the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr – a key player in the government crisis in Iraq – called for the cancellation of all security agreements with Turkey, a halt to air and ground traffic between the two countries and the taking of measures against Turkey in the United Nations.

The massacre came amid growing Iraqi apprehension over Turkey’s long-running pursuit of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraqi territory, which has grown significantly in recent years.

In Baghdad, Fidan met with President Barham Saleh, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Speaker of Parliament Mohammad al-Halbousi. He underlined Turkey’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq, but claimed that Turkish cross-border operations would continue as long as the PKK maintained its presence on Iraqi territory, according to Iraqi Kurdish media. The PKK, which Ankara designates as a terrorist group, has long used the steep mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan as a rear base.

Fidan said Turkey was ready to set up a joint commission to investigate the Parakh massacre, for which Ankara has denied responsibility.

According to a presentation by the Iraqi Defense Ministry to parliament days after the massacre, Turkey has set up more than 100 military bases and outposts on Iraqi territory, stretching 105 kilometers (65 miles) from the border. , and deployed more than 4,000 troops inside Iraq, as well as tanks, helicopters and heavy weapons.

In a speech in August, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to confirm Ankara’s intention to expand its bases and maintain permanent control over Iraqi territory. Linking his safe zone plan in Syria to Iraq, Erdogan pledged to “secure [Turkey’s] southern borders throughout with a corridor extending to a depth of 30 kilometers (19 miles).

According to sources close to the PKK, Fidan’s visit to Iraq was aimed at soliciting support for an escalation of the military campaign in the fall because Turkey has failed to achieve its objectives in the border areas of Zap, Metina and Avashin, home of the long-time PKK. fields.

Fidan’s talks with Sunni leaders also stood out during his visit. Besides Halbousi, who leads the Taqqadoum party, Fidan met Khamis al-Khanjar, the leader of the Azm movement, reiterating Ankara’s advice that Sunnis should unite in the process of forming the government. On the Shiite side, he met with Faleh al-Fayyad, the head of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), according to Shafaq News.

During the meetings, Fidan reportedly discussed Turkey’s operations against the PKK, the issue of water sharing regarding the cross-border Euphrates and Tigris rivers and the possibility of Turkey providing military equipment to Iraq and to help overcome the political crisis in the country.

Judging by the photos of the September 10 meeting between Fidan and Khanjar, Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Guney, did not accompany the intelligence chief in his talks in Baghdad. Contacted by Al-Monitor, Guney declined to share details, citing the level and sensitive nature of the visit.

Fidan’s role in Turkey’s foreign relations has grown in recent years, especially on security-related issues. His meeting with Khanjar also speaks of the involvement of the Turkish secret services in political affairs. His contacts in Iraq, Syria and Libya point to the role that Qasem Soleimani, the assassinated leader of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, has played in Tehran’s foreign affairs.

His visit to Baghdad should be seen both as an effort to readjust bilateral relations after the Parakh massacre and as an attempt to influence the crisis of government formation in Iraq.

In February, Fidan helped bring foes Halbousi and Khanjar to Istanbul for talks with Erdogan. The Sovereignty Alliance, formed by the groups of the two Sunni leaders, and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) had joined Sadr’s quest to form a majority government, which fueled Shiite divisions and pitted Turkey against the Iran in the political stalemate that has plagued Iraq since October 2021. .

Amid the Turkish-Iranian rivalry for influence in Iraq, Sadr has emerged as the lesser evil for Ankara against the Coordination Framework, a bloc of pro-Iranian Shia groups. Still, Sadr’s heavy-handed reaction to the Parakh massacre might have prompted Ankara to reconsider its bets.

Having failed to install a government, Sadr called on the Sovereign Alliance and the KDP to work together to dissolve parliament in order to force a snap election. His former partners, however, were hesitant to heed his call, opening the door to the Coordinating Framework. As their decisions coincided with Fidan’s visit, some speculated that Turkish influence was at stake.

Growing anti-Turkish sentiment among Shia parties weakens Ankara’s ability to influence Iraqi politics. If Fidan was indeed seeking to pave the way for a new government, the Coordination Framework would have been satisfied. However, his meeting with Khanjar, in particular, seems to have provoked the annoyance of the Shiite bloc.

Shia perceptions of Turkey turned largely negative in the upheaval that led to the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in 2014. And with the Sunni political scene shifting in the process, Ankara’s channels of influence in Iraq collapsed. It is in this atmosphere that Khanjar and Halbousi imposed themselves. While the two leaders appreciate Ankara, they have forged close ties with the Gulf and shown that they remain attentive to signals from Tehran. Turkey is therefore now trying to reopen its channels of influence and must do more to engage with the Shiites.

As things spiral out of control in Baghdad, a new understanding is apparently emerging between Ankara and Tehran. Some observers believe that Ankara could bring the Sunnis closer to the coordination framework, and a third option could be to reappoint Kadhimi as prime minister to lead the country to elections.

Specifically, Turkey hopes that the Sovereign Alliance will receive the Defense Minister’s portfolio. Such a gain for Sunnis, Ankara believes, would help curb PMU-affiliated elements that have opposed Turkey’s cross-border operations and have frequently fired rockets at Turkey’s Bashiqa base near Mosul.

After Fidan’s visit, Halbousi and Khanjar traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan for talks with KDP leader Masoud Barzani on September 11. The parties stressed the need for a constructive dialogue to resolve the political impasse before the holding of early elections.

According to Kurdish sources, neither the KDP nor the Sovereignty Alliance accepts the candidate for Prime Minister of the Coordination Framework, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. Moreover, the KDP maintains its reserve against Saleh, who was reappointed president by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main rival of the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some believe the PDK could give the green light to another PUK candidate to unravel the knot. Power-sharing agreements in the Iraqi constitution require the president to be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia and the speaker of parliament a Sunni.

The Coordination Framework parties, for their part, remain divided on whether Kadhimi and Saleh should keep their posts until the elections.

About Ariella McGuire

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