A Collapsing Regional Order: Turkey’s Troubles in Iraq and Syria


Turkey continues to be a frustrating ally for the United States, with Ankara’s reluctance to allow for, or engage in kinetic strikes against the Islamic State emerging as the key source of divergence between the two old allies. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is ultimately governed by its regional interests. These interests, however, are often times at odds with other members of the anti-Islamic State coalition.

We must analyze Turkey’s actions in Iraq and Syria within the broader context of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East. Ankara’s actions are driven by its failures in Syria and its political difficulties in Iraq; its concerns about Iranian empowerment; and concerns about Kurdish nationalism. These interests often conflict with one another; resulting in a torturous decision-making process that results in policies that are at odds with their own long-term strategic interests.

Ankara’s efforts to address these challenges have fallen short, owing to its conflicting interests and difficulty in forming a coherent strategy to address the numerous challenges in Syria and Iraq; resulting in a reactionary policy-making process and declining Turkish options for the region as a whole.

Syria: A Failed Strategy

For much of 2011 and 2012, the Turkish government focused on developing the Syrian opposition and backing individual rebel groups to help topple the Syrian regime. In doing so, Ankara worked closely with Qatar. Beginning in September 2011, the two countries worked to empower the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Simultaneously, Ankara made a controversial decision: the Turkish border would be left open, thus allowing the then nascent Syrian opposition to take refuge and resupply from Turkish territory.

These units, Ankara believed, would be the tip of the spear of a much broader effort to mobilize an effective opposition that would quickly take over a liberated Damascus once Assad fell. They would need to maintain a highly centralized government apparatus once in power, in order to prevent the break-up of the country, which would exacerbate sectarian differences and empower Syrian Kurds.

As the conflict dragged on, Turkish concerns about once secondary threats (refugees and Kurdish autonomy) grew more acute. To address these problems, Ankara doubled down on its strategy. Turkey put pressure on its Muslim Brotherhood proxies to join the U.S. backed Syrian National Coalition in 2012. In parallel, Turkey’s intelligence agency, MIT, increased its support to the Syrian rebels, going as far as to help organize the rebel offensive in Aleppo; and supporting Salafi groups like Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

ISIL Spreads to Iraq: Turkey’s Declining Influence

Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict shifted in early 2014, after the Islamic State began to take territory from Turkish backed proxies. Beginning in February, Turkey began to take more aggressive steps to police it border to stop the flow of fighters to the conflict, as well as to prevent ISIL from smuggling oil through its territory. However, up until the fall of Mosul, Turkish officials continued to prioritize the battle against Bashar al Assad; treating ISIL as a secondary challenge that could be dealt with after the defeat of the Syrian regime.

Before the fall of Mosul in Iraq, Turkish officials blamed rising Sunni anger on the policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al Maliki, the Iraqi constitution, and the United States for the country’s sectarian related problems. The AKP has subsequently argued that it was the empowerment of the Shia, combined with the Maliki agenda that allowed for the Islamic State to gain widespread appeal in Anbar and elsewhere.

Thus, by extension, these factors have contributed to the further empowerment of Iran in Iraqi politics. In this regard, Turkey views itself in competition with the Islamic Republic for influence in different regions of Iraq. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in December 2014, called Iran a “sectarian” country and documented in his book, Strategic Depth, the extent to which Turkey and Iran are competing for influence in their geographic basins or “historical hinterland.”

The Rise of Iranian Influence: An Indirect Challenge for Turkey

The rise of Shia militias, therefore, poses a unique problem for Turkish strategists along two different fronts. First, Iran has played a pronounced role in the defense of Kurdistan, particularly near the city of Kirkuk and in Diyala province. Second, and relatedly, Iran’s position vis-à-vis the defense of Kurdistan has been far more pronounced to that of Turkey’s. At the outset of the siege of Erbil, for example, Turkey put off supplying weapons to the Peshmerga, telling their Kurdish allies, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), that they would increase support after the June 2014 election.

This contrast in support has undermined Kurdish trust in Turkey, while at the same time Iran’s standing in the Kurdistan Regional Government has grown, owing to the immediate supply of weaponry during the early days of the conflict with ISIL. Ankara has since sought to repair the damage, but the fact remains that Iran is seen as a more instrumental for the defense of Kurdistan than is Turkey. The same applies in much of Iraq, where Iran has direct control over numerous militias, with Turkey only having indirect links to certain tribes in Nineveh and ties to Sunni Iraqi Turkmens.

Similarly, Iraqi politicians (in Baghdad) have had to deepen their reliance on Tehran to aid in the defense of the country. This has resulted in a surge of Iranian forces into the conflict zone, which thereby deepens Iranian influence in the Iraqi central government. Turkey, by contrast, has few levers to exert influence in the Iraqi central government, outside of allies from Iraq’s divided and fractured Sunni political movement. Turkey’s main ally, Osama al-Nujaifi, is one of Iraq’s three ceremonial vice-presidents. However, his influence has declined considerably in recent years, owing to his accommodation with Kurdish political parties in Nineveh.

He, along with his brother, Atheel al-Nujaifi, have been calling for a Sunni autonomous region inside Iraq based on the Kurdistan Regional Government model. Turkey has indirectly expressed its support for elements of the Nujaifi proposal, most notably by calling for de-baathification. This policy, however, has little hopes of passing, owing to Shia led resistance in the Iraqi parliament. This means that Turkey has few levers of power inside Baghdad, whereas Iran indirectly controls key ministries, in addition to a slew of militias fighting alongside the Iraqi Security Forces.

Thus, while Turkey has prioritized its relationship with new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, there are ingrained structural problems that will prevent Turkey from playing a more pronounced role in Iraqi politics in the near future. By comparison, Iran’s influence has grown, both in terms of its actual control over elements of the Iraqi state, in addition to growing Iranian soft-power in areas inside of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Conflict Spills Over the Border: Resurgent Kurdish Nationalism

The wars in Syria and Iraq have also spilled over the border, particularly in Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast. Turkey’s policies during much of the Syrian civil war have resulted in the AKP being identified with the Islamic State by a large number of Kurds in Turkey. ISIL’s war against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq has contributed to these perceptions; further bolstering cross border (Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian-Iranian) feelings of pan-Kurdish nationalism. These feelings include an incredible amount of sympathy for the plight of Syria’s Kurds, symbolized by the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) defeat of ISIL during the battle for Kobane.

The PYD is a sister party to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been battling the Turkish state for decades to achieve greater political and cultural autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. Ankara has traditionally relied on Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, to counteract the widespread appeal of the PKK; however, after the PKK/PYD role during the battle with ISIL in Sinjar and the PKK led evacuation of Yazidis, Barzani’s political party, the KDP, has seen its support decrease in the disputed KDP administered territory along the Syrian border. Furthermore, it was the PYD that was on the front lines in Kobane, which has resulted in increased sympathy and support for the group: a political outcome that Barzani and Ankara would have liked to avoid.

The empowerment of the PKK/PYD has since had reverberations for Turkey domestically. After the PYD’s rise in Syria, the Turkish state restarted peace negotiations with the PKK. These negotiations have increasingly been affected by the events in Syria, and in particular, the way in which the collective Kurdish battle against the Islamic State has united the fragmented Kurdish movement behind one single cause: the defeat of ISIL. Related to this, in Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast, a strong anti-AKP narrative has taken hold: beginning in November 2012, Kurds have accused the Turkish government of backing hardline rebel groups that have attacked PYD territory.

The result is that Turkey was backed into restarting peace negotiations with the Kurds, after a particularly bloody 2012, and the concurrent emergence of PYD controlled areas in Syria. These dynamics have, in turn, strengthened the Kurdish negotiating position, after being at a relative disadvantage to the AKP during previous negotiations. It has also interjected two interrelated elements into the negotiations: First, the PKK’s war with ISIL means that the AKP calls for disarmament are likely to run afoul of the military leadership in Kandil; Second, Kurdish distrust of the AKP has grown more acute, after the rise of ISIL, and the perception that Turkey supports the group to challenge Kurdish autonomy in Syria.

This anger boiled over in October 2014, after the AKP surged tanks and troops to the border to deal with the refugees fleeing Kobane. In doing so, the Turkish state tightened control over the border area surrounding the town, which Kurds in Turkey had crossed with relative impunity to join the PYD’s militia, the YPG. Thus, for the majority of Turkey’s Kurds, the Turkish state’s response was akin to a blockade, which further reinforced the perception that Turkey was supporting ISIL.

The growing sense of solidarity with the PYD in Syria has spilled over into the town of Cizre – a small Kurdish majority village in Turkey that has historically been a stronghold for the PKK. The PKK’s youth group dug trenches around the center of the city to prevent Turkish security forces from entering their small enclave, before they were removed, after Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, stepped in to appeal for calm after weeks of tension and violent clashes.

Against this complicated backdrop, the AKP had hoped that Ocalan would issue a statement at this year’s Newroz celebration in Diyarbakir announcing the end of the PKK’s armed struggle against the Turkish state. However, after the AKP and Ocalan successfully negotiated the text of this statement, the Iraqi based PKK military command rejected the terms. In turn, the two sides revised the letter and read it in a televised address.

Ocalan outlined ten points, including the holding of a Kurdish congress, where the issue of disarmament will be discussed. This was clearly a compromise, but the extent to which the text was revised following the military command’s rejection is not known. In general, the PKK’s military command rejects the notion of laying down its arms before its demands are met. By contrast, the Turkish state has demanded that the PKK lay down its arms before it moves on concessions. The two sides have yet to find a solution to this “chicken and egg” political problem.

The Coalition: Turkey as a Bit Player

Against this complicated domestic and regional backdrop, Turkey argued against the efficacy of the current U.S. led war against ISIL; resulting in Ankara choosing to limit its role in the coalition to border enforcement, intelligence sharing, and the training of a rebel brigade to combat the Islamic State.

Ankara remains deeply skeptical about the intended aim of the U.S. backed military operation, arguing that the military efforts to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State are destined to fail because it is a symptom of Bashar al Assad’s brutality. Turkey has thus conditioned its support for expanding the air war on the removal of Assad from power: a policy at odds with the Obama administration’s oft-repeated political end goals in Iraq and Syria. These include the “degradation” and ultimate “defeat” of ISIL in Iraq and the training of a small rebel force to attack the group in Syria, purportedly as part of a broader push to enact local cease-fires; from which a more lasting political arrangement that results in Assad leaving office is reached.

Ankara’s concerns about the unfolding military action in Syria are threefold. First, by attacking the Islamic State, Ankara feels that the coalition is indirectly empowering the Assad regime. Absent the training of a larger rebel force, capable of taking territory cleared of ISIL, Turkey argues that the airstrikes will allow for the regime to reassert authority in Northern Syria. Thus, Ankara envisions the enforcement of a no-fly-zone over Northern Syria and the dramatic expansion of the on-going program to train and equip rebel groups. Second, absent putting increased pressure on Assad, Turkey argues that Assad will not face any real pressure to step down, in favor of a power sharing arrangement that all parties to the Syrian conflict can accept. Third, Ankara has indicated that it could accept a phased transition, but Assad would first have to step down, in favor of a deputy. The United States, by contrast, has shown some willingness for Assad’s removal to come at the end of a political compromise.

Ankara has sought to exert pressure on Washington by conditioning the use of Incirlik Air Force base on the coalition meeting these conditions. These efforts have failed, but Turkish officials remain optimistic that the United States will eventually have to enforce a no-fly-zone, after the train-and-equip program begins to ramp up. Meanwhile, there are increasing signs that Ankara is working with regional ally Qatar to foment a Sunni uprising in northern Syria. This uprising would include Jabhat al Nusra and take aim at ISIL, before turning its sights on the regime; suggesting that Turkey is eager to unify the fractured Syrian opposition, perhaps as part of a broader package to convince the United States to step up its support for the Syrian rebels.

Lasting Challenges

The turmoil in the region poses a set of unique challenges for Turkey’s leadership. For much of the past half-decade, Turkey focused primarily on the war in Syria. Ankara’s aims were twofold: Overthrow Bashar al Assad and maintain Syrian territorial integrity. Ankara has failed to meet these policy objectives, with Ankara now having to contend with something unthinkable in 2011: A PKK administered Syrian “statelet” similar to that of the Kurdistan Regional Government (including the indirect guarantee of Western protection from future aggressors) along its border.

The ISIL advance in Iraq has further complicated Turkish policies. The rise of Shia militias portends greater influence for Iran in Iraqi politics, which thereby means that Ankara’s influence will be relegated to the Sunni provinces. In these areas, however, Ankara’s allies have seen their appeal steadily decline. This portends continued difficulty for the execution of Turkish foreign policy in Iraq moving forward.

Looking ahead, Turkey faces numerous challenges, stemming from growing regional sectarianism, rising Kurdish-nationalism, and the continued threat of the Islamic State. Ankara has thus far failed to adopt a coherent policy to address these challenges; choosing instead to pursue a rigid policy centered on dealing with the Syrian regime first, and the region’s related problems thereafter. Despite external pressure to do more to combat the Islamic State, Ankara remains wedded to this policy, which further suggests that Turkey will remain outside of the coalition. These dynamics suggest continued friction with the United States.

More broadly, however, it shows how many of Ankara’s policies remain at cross-purposes with one another. Turkey’s outreach to Sunni groups in Syria, for example, is a source of irritation with the Kurds, with whom it is now negotiating with to end the war with the PKK. Similarly, Ankara is eager to tighten ties with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, who rejects the policies of Turkey’s closest ally in Iraq, Osama al Nujaifi.

Ankara has yet to resolve these political anachronisms, but nevertheless these problems will have to be worked out, before Ankara can chart a more comprehensive approach for the region’s problems.


Aaron Stein is a doctoral fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.