How Should the West respond to Turkish-Iranian Strikes in Iraq?

Intensified relations between Turkey and Iran continue to develop as the two nations recently joined together to launch a series of coordinated artillery barrages and air strikes on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq over the last eleven days, according to Arab News. 

The strikes included assaults on areas located near the Iraqi-Turkish border. The border is of strategic importance to both Tehran and Ankara as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants remain active there. Other strategic targets that Iran and Turkey plan to target include Yazidi areas near Sinjar on the Iraqi-Syrian border; and areas on the Iraqi-Iranian border, which is where other Iranian Kurdish opposition groups maintain a presence alongside the PKK.

Iran and Turkey Argue Operation is Valid Self-defense

This scenario presents a dilemma for the different alliances of nations that are emerging in the Middle East. Both Turkey and Iran argue that they are engaged in legitimate self-defense against Kurdish groups starting incursions against them from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ankara quickly blamed the PKK for a string of recent bombings in northern Syria, which is home to many Kurds.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi no doubt feels intimidated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The Iraqi Government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe that the strikes are an apparent violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

However, the rest of the world, particularly the US, remains silent on the issue and both Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government remain too weak to do anything about Turkish-Iranian strikes.

Soleimani’s Death Weakened Iran’s Influence

Fortunately, Iran’s influence in Iraq has been weakened by the assassination of its former influential general, Qasem Soleimani, and this was recently confirmed by Israeli journalist and veteran war correspondent, Ron Ben-Yishai. He managed to retrieve this information from Israeli security assessments. The Israeli journalist also believes that Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, will struggle to gain the status of his predecessor.

There is no doubt that Iran’s influence in Iraq has been weakened because of Soleimani’s assassination, but the recent Turkish-Iranian strikes should worry the US in particular. The 2003 Iraq War’s purpose was to eliminate Saddam Hussein and turn Iraq into a democratic nation with a free market economy. If Baghdad falls to both Tehran and Ankara, those sacrifices made by American troops during the 2000s would have been for nothing.

US President Donald Trump insists that he wants to end America’s involvement in “pointless wars,” but if both Turkey and Iran continue to violate Iraqi sovereignty, it not only places Baghdad in danger, but all of America’s strategically important allies. This includes Saudi Arabia. As Trump continues to focus inward because of the coronavirus, he still leads a country that has a duty to protect vulnerable allies from the influence of powerful leaders like Rouhani and Erdogan.

Trump Must Continue to Help Iraq

Throughout his entire presidency so far, Trump has made tackling Tehran one of his main priorities, but if Turkey and Iran use these strikes as an opportunity to further advance into Iraq, then that will only result in victory for both Erdogan and Rouhani and embarrass the US.

The US President is unlikely to achieve his original goal of bringing all NATO and US troops home. In the short-term, he may have to increase America’s military presence in Iraq. But there are other actions he can take to strengthen Baghdad, too. The Center for American Progress argues he can recruit Sunni Arabs into Iraq’s security forces, strengthen the US’s cooperation with its NATO allies to cut off the Islamic State’s funding and propaganda, and continue to ensure that the PMF’s influence completely diminishes.

US intervention in Iraq may be unpopular, but until the nation is safe from ISIS, Turkey and Iran, Washington must maintain its relationship with Baghdad and monitor Turkish-Iranian military developments carefully.