Kurdish soldiers stand guard in Arbil, Kurdistan, Iraq. Photo: iStock
Kurdish soldiers stand guard in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo: iStock

The killing of 13 Turkish citizens inside Iraq in February has sparked a far-reaching political row that now stretches all the way from Washington to Tehran – and shows no signs of stopping. So serious has the row become – and so determined does President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to want to keep it going – that it may lead to Turkey expanding its controversial Syria strategy to Iraq itself.

On Sunday, the row escalated further, when Turkey summoned Iran’s ambassador to Ankara to protest remarks made by another Iranian diplomat about Turkey’s involvement in northern Iraq. In response, Iran summoned Ankara’s ambassador.

The row stretches back to mid-February, when Turkish troops, on an operation against Kurdish militants inside Iraq, found the bodies of 13 Turkish citizens who had been kidnapped by insurgents from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Erdogan immediately took aim at Washington for what he said was an insufficiently forceful condemnation of the PKK. “You are with them and behind them, pure and simple,” he thundered. Turkey then arrested more than 700 people in connection with the killings.

The US State Department eventually capitulated after the first conversation between the two foreign ministers in the Joe Biden era and placed the blame more concretely, affirming that “PKK terrorists bear responsibility.”

But not before Erdogan made his most explicit threat, to export the border strategy from Syria and form a “safe zone” across northern Iraq.

“The event in Gara [in northern Iraq] has strengthened our opinions about a safe zone across our borders,” he told party supporters. “We will stay in these places, which we will secure, for as long as it takes so that we are not subjected to such an attack again.”

Such are the tangled relations across that whole region where Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran abut that what can seem a relatively contained, although tragic, incident could yet end up reshaping relations between Turkey and Iraq, and Iraq and Iran.

Turkey’s border strategy in northern Syria is both controversial and, from Ankara’s perspective, successful.

Starting from 2016, Turkey carried out military operations on the Syrian side of the border, with the aim of pushing out Kurdish militias that were carrying out cross-border attacks. In their place, Turkey has carved out safe zones: de facto statelets guarded by Turkish soldiers, served by Turkish utilities and run in conjunction with Turkish and Syrian officials.

It is to these zones that hundreds of thousands of Syrians, previously refugees in Turkey, have returned. Ankara plans to return potentially millions more, ending the refugee crisis inside its borders.

It goes without saying that these safe zones survive in a legal limbo, existing only because Syria is riven by civil war and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has little interest in taking back these regions by force.

But extending similar safe zones to Iraq would be enormously controversial. Iraq may still be divided by conflict, but the central government is in control of its borders.

Turkish fighter jets and soldiers do cross the border to carry out operations inside the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and that has been a feature of the area for some time, but a permanent “safe zone” would be a significant escalation. To have Turkish soldiers shift across and occupy parts of the country would provoke conflict, unless it were coordinated with Iraqis.

And therein lies a clue as to why the row shows no sign of ending. Because in Ankara, in Baghdad and in Tehran, there is a realization that, as shocking as the idea of a Turkish safe zone may be, there are some in northern Iraq who may just be able to accept it.

On Saturday, Masrour Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the region in which the attack took place, gave an interview in which he said the problem of the PKK had been “exported” to Iraq from Turkey, and laid the blame for Turkey’s actions squarely on the militant group.

“There has to be no justification for the intervention of Turkish forces,” Barzani told French television, “and at this time, the PKK is giving them that justification.” He refused to rule out accepting a Turkish “safe zone” in his region.

That the head of the Kurdistan region of Iraq refused to condemn a foreign country for intervening and even blamed fellow Kurds for inciting it shows how alliances may yet shift. This is because the Kurdish region of Iraq is not monolithic.

It is in fact internally divided between two rival political factions, the KDP, of which Barzani is part, based in Erbil and so closer to northwestern Iraqi regions where the fighting is, and the PUK, based in Sulaimaniya. If one faction, the KDP, accepts more Turkish involvement, that has a knock-on effect on its rivalry with the other faction. It also has a knock-on effect in Baghdad itself, because the current Iraqi president belongs to the Kurdish PUK party.

It’s only once you follow the thread of politics through to Baghdad that it becomes explicable why a diplomat from Iran – a country that shouldn’t really have any opinion on what happens in northwestern Iraq – waded into the argument.

And no ordinary diplomat, either. Because the remarks that Ankara last weekend summoned the ambassador over came from Iraj Masjedi, the current Iranian ambassador to Iraq, but also a general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose posting to Baghdad is his first in diplomatic service.

Anything that changes the power calculus inside Baghdad matters enormously to the IRGC, which in effect runs Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq. And anything that could impact the ability of the IRGC to move freely in and out of Syria – the crossing points are also in the northwest – matters enormously to it.

And so this one incident, in the mountains of Iraq far from the centers of power, has now tumbled down to the capitals of every country in the region. This crisis started because of a military mission that saw Turkish soldiers cross the Iraqi border. It may yet end with a permanent footprint on the other side of that line.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.