Diagnosing Iraq’s problems

Divisions within Iraq among the Kurds and the Shia militias do not bode well for Iraq’s capacity to defeat ISIL.

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands guard in fighting against ISIL as the sun rises in Sinjar, Iraq [AP]
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard in fighting against ISIL as the sun rises in Sinjar, Iraq [AP]

Last week the Iraqi government in Baghdad claimed that Turkey had violated its sovereignty by deploying troops and tanks to the town of Bashiqa, north of Mosul. Turkey has stated that this deployment is part of a previously agreed plan to train Iraqi Kurdish forces to combat ISIL. Some Iraqi officials in the central government deemed it a Turkish “invasion”.

The deployment, which had the blessing of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, but resulted in condemnation from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, is symptomatic of the schizophrenic foreign policy of post-2003 Iraq, compounded by a complete reversal of a Turkish policy of allying with Iraq’s Kurds against Turkey’s own Kurds.

Kurdish gains against ISIL worry rival militias

I am not using “schizophrenia” to be dismissive of this medical condition. Adham Saouli, professor at St Andrews University, applied this “condition” to Iraq, writing: “As fragmented states, Lebanon and Iraq suffer from what one may call political schizophrenia. Like schizophrenia, this is a personality split resulting from the coexistence of opposed sets of identities and pursuits.”

Confusing matters

To highlight this dynamic, the KRG in Iraq is governed by two Iraqi Kurdish factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Turkey is in an alliance with the KDP, the party of Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG.

To make matters more confusing, Fouad Massoum of the PUK is the president of Iraq itself, thus representing the central Iraqi government. The secular, ethno-national PUK has cultivated ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, yet is pro-US at the same time.

READ MORE: Analysis – Is Sinjar the new Kobane?

Turkey’s current alliance with the KDP is part of Ankara’s effort to ally with one Kurdish faction, the Iraqi KDP, in order to curtail the resurgence of the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey, which began waging a war against the Turkish government in 1984.

Turkey’s current alliance with the KDP is part of Ankara’s effort to ally with one Kurdish faction, the Iraqi KDP, in order to curtail the resurgence of the PKK…


A militia of Syria’s Kurds, the YPG, is an affiliate of the Turkish PKK, and has enjoyed a string of successes last summer against ISIL in Syria, partly owing to their ground campaign in tandem with support from US air strikes.

A ceasefire broke down between the PKK and the Turkish government around this time, and Ankara is concerned that the strength of Syria’s PKK-affiliate, the YPG, will only embolden Turkey’s Kurds.

The aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds is represented by the Turkish political party the HDP, which domestic critics accuse of being a “political arm” of the PKK, but nonetheless it fared well in parliamentary elections of June 2015, threatening the power of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is from the AKP. 

By now I must have certainly confused the reader with an alphabet soup of three-letter abbreviations. To simplify matters, Iraqi Kurdish factions are the KDP and PUK, and Turkey’s Kurdish faction is the PKK, with a Syrian affiliate, the YPG. Yet, the confusion will only be compounded by both Iraq’s and Turkey’s policy to all of these Kurdish parties and ISIL.

Turkish troops in the north of Iraq

ISIL was expelled from the Iraqi town of Sinjar during a fierce battle in November, but a second conflict emerged over which Kurds would take control over the town. YPG forces and KDP forces are jockeying for position. Turkey would prefer the KDP to be in full control, and this most likely explains the show of force of the Turkish military that was deployed in Bashiqa on December 3.

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in Hasakah city [Reuters]
Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in Hasakah city [Reuters]

Ostensibly, this started out as an intra-Kurdish rivalry, with Turkey taking sides with the KDP. The Turkish forces were relatively small, comprising 150 troops and 25 tanks.

Yet, the central government became involved when it delivered a 48-hour ultimatum to Ankara to withdraw its forces. In response to the standoff between Baghdad and Ankara, Masoud Barzani, both leader of the KDP and President of the KRG, said: “If the Turkish unit came to fight [ISIL], that’s a very good thing.”

The central government of Baghdad is also combating ISIL, so in theory it should be on the same page as the Iraqi KDP and Turkey.

However, Iraqi President Massoum, from the Kurdish PUK party, labelled the deployment as “a violation of international norms and law” and called on Turkey to withdraw. This statement echoes the calls of Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who holds the highest executive office, and hails from an Iraqi Shia party.

READ MORE: Iraqi Kurds – ‘Losing to ISIL is not an option’

This array of reactions highlight the schizophrenic policy-making process in Iraq. What has happened over the past week would be analogous to the governor of California calling in Canadian military forces to deploy to Los Angeles to train the California National Guard combat drug gangs in Los Angeles, without consulting US President Barack Obama.

The KRG is technically a federal constituent state of Iraq, with its own president, who comes from the KDP. While the KDP gave its support to the deployment of Turkish forces on its soil, the central government, whose executive posts are divided among Shia and Kurdish factions, oppose it.

To confuse matters even further, while the Kurdish factions in Iraq’s government tend to be pro-US in their outlook, various Shia political factions are allied with Iran, and have resisted recent US overtures to combat ISIL in Iraq. Iraqi Shia militias even declared they would target US special forces if they were deployed, even though both these militias and the US share a common interest in dismantling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIL.

Turkey’s tumultuous relationship with Iraq’s Kurds

While the term “schizophrenic” can been applied to Iraq’s foreign policy process, Turkish policy vis-a-vis the Kurds in Iraq is by no means “stable”. Back in October 2003, the Turkish parliament had passed a motion authorising the deployment of Turkish troops to Iraq. Back then Ankara feared that an emboldened semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq would inspire Kurdish separatism among Turkey’s Kurds.

Both the KDP and PUK had opposed the 2003 Turkish troop deployment and threatened that they would meet these Turkish troops with force. By 2007, Turkey was on the brink of declaring war against the KDP and PUK, as it felt the Iraqi Kurdish parties were allowing the PKK immunity to launch attacks against Turkey from its base in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq.

ANALYSIS: The fate of Mosul in Turkey’s hands?

During the Iraq War of 2003 Turkey declared a “red line” if the Kurds moved into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and incorporated it under the federal jurisdiction of the KRG. Ankara feared that such a move would create a financially viable Kurdish state in Iraq, which then could be in a position to break away from Iraq itself. Today, Turkey has not only acquiesced to Kurdish de facto control of Kirkuk, but is a political and economic alliance with the KRG.

The recent debates over the deployment of Turkish forces or US special forces serve as an example of how foreign militaries need to be invited into Iraq to fight ISIL, due to the divisions within Iraq’s government and security forces, which are divided among Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias who are vying with each other power, even though they both share a common enmity of ISIL.

This dynamic does not bode well for the military capacity of the Iraqi state to further an effective campaign against ISIL in the near future. This divide explains why Iraq’s fight against ISIL has been sluggish so far. The schizophrenic nature of the military campaign coordinated from Baghdad has enabled Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to endure.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.