Why the Erbil attack sent a message from Iran to Turkey

The rocket attack on Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil was believed to be a message from Iran-backed militias to the United States and Turkey.

On February 15, fourteen rockets struck points across Erbil including residential neighbourhoods and the international airport close to where U.S and coalition forces are based. Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) pledged to identify who was responsible for the attack, despite claims of responsibility from Awliya al-Dam, a known Iranian proxy. The attack underscored how high regional tensions as U.S President Joe Biden looks to re-engage Iran in negotiations over the nuclear deal his predecessor Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

Tehran may have had its eye on a wider audience than just Washington with this attack according to Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Strategic Vacuums Program at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. 

“They’re starting to turn their attention more to the Kurdish region of Iraq, the KRG government, and Turkey,” Rose told Ahval in a recent podcast interview. 

“The message they’re sending to Ankara is don’t mess with us in the KRI, don’t mess with us in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Days before rockets fell on Erbil, Turkey launched Operation Claw-Eagle 2 against militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) stationed along the Turkish-Iraqi border. After the discovery of 14 dead Turkish hostages in the Gare mountain range, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials vowed to expand anti-PKK operations inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S and Turkey, and it has waged an armed insurgency against Ankara since 1984.

Rose, who co-authored an analysis in the aftermath of the Erbil attack at Newlines, said that Iran views Turkey’s influence with the KRG as a potential challenge to its own strategies inside Iraq. Following the hostage rescue operation, the response of Iran and its allied militias inside Iraq was decidedly cool. 

The militias for their part were particularly hostile. On February 13, the day Turkey found its dead hostages, three brigades declared they would send forces to Sinjar province in the north. One group attacked the Iraqi government in Baghdad as “weak” before Turkey while another called on it to stand firm against Turkish aggression. 

Officially, Iran also made it clear they were against Turkey’s policies as well. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explicitly stated that Iran  “rejects the Turkish military presence in Syria and Iraq, and we consider Ankara's policies towards Damascus and Baghdad to be wrong" on state television. 

There was a recent tit for tat dressing down of ambassadors this weekend between the two sides. Iran’s Ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Mashed told Iraqi Kurdish outlet Rudaw on Saturday that Turkey should withdraw troops from Iraqi soil and respect borders, and that Tehran was strongly opposed to Turkish interventions in northern Iraq, as well as any other foreign presence in the country. Turkey's ambassador in Iraq said Iran was hardly in a position to lecture his country on interference. 

While difficult to state exactly how much of what Iraqi militias say is of their own initiative or with Iran’s blessing, Rose considers statements from Iran and its proxies a reminder of what remains a relationship defined still by regional competition. 

“It is important that you don’t jump to that point just yet, but Iran and Turkey are rivals in the region,” she explained. 

Iraq’s northern provinces are of strategic importance for Iran and its militia allies. The border crossings with Syria are a critical component to supporting Tehran’s policies there, and the militias’ domination of smuggling routes there are an important incentive to hold onto this zone. 

Rose cautions that Iran sees Turkey’s presence in this region, whether its military deployments or the relationship it has with the KRG, with a jaundiced eye. Their fear is that Ankara will seek to dominate this area the way it set itself up in northern Syria and stay in place for some time. 

To that end, Iran through its proxies has formed something of a tacit but surprising relationship with PKK or at least its affiliated factions in the Sinjar region. Rose notes that Turkey and Iran have engaged in limited cooperation in the past against these factions, pointing to last summer’s coordinated attacks on its positions as recent evidence, but not enough to mean they see eye to eye. 

This does not bode well for the October 2020 Sinjar deal that was aimed to bring stability to this critical province. Brokered with support from Turkey, the U.S and the United Nations, the Sinjar deal would allow for Baghdad to assume responsibility for the province’s security and crack down on local armed groups that included PKK-affiliates. 

The influx of Shiite militiamen into Sinjar poses a severe challenge to this arrangement, Rose warns. Though there may be cooperation now, she says none of these groups shared anything more than a perceived common enemy in Turkey and any partnership now could easily break down in the near future.

“Like the Turkish-Iranian relationship, there is limited cooperation.” Rose said. “With the potential Turkish offensive into Sinjar, there’s something to unite against but at the end of the day there’ll be disputes or how to control Ninewa province.”

One possible outcome of more Turkish-Iranian competition is that it could lead to closer coordination between Turkey and the U.S. 

“If Iran starts to get aggressive with countering Turkey in the north, the U.S will have to force itself to recalculate its relationship with Turkey to a certain extent,” said Rose.

Many of Iran’s militia proxies are considered terrorist organisations by the U.S and Turkish support for either Erbil or Baghdad could help empower both. These would come at a time when Washington is de-prioritising its engagements in the region which could leave plenty of space for Tehran to assert itself. 

Rose does offer a reminder that like with Iran, the U.S has its own reservations about Turkish policy in Iraq. While it has consistently spoken up for Turkey’s right to pursue its security interests, the U.S has not unequivocally endorsed its military actions either. This led to some recent friction following the failed hostage rescue mission by Turkish forces last weekend. 

Despite this, Rose suggests the U.S would at least be supportive if Turkish actions meant constraining Iran while empowering Washington’s local allies. 

“Turkish cooperation will be important to counter some of these Shiite militias and at least ensure the Iraqi forces will be able to further develop,” she said.