Firstly, there’s general consensus in both the United States and across Iraq that the ongoing military purge is going to handicap Turkey’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). With one-third of all commanders now in prison and many others rotated out of territory with which they are familiar, the Turkish military simply cannot do its job, even if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted them to. Many in US circles are more willing than Iraqis to give Erdogan the benefit of the doubt on this; there is widespread belief among Iraqis that Erdogan supports the Islamic State passively if not actively. In many ways, there is a corollary here to Pakistan, which talks a good game about fighting terrorism in Afghanistan but remains the Taliban’s chief foreign enabler.
A more provocative response from some of my interlocutors was to ask if the same thing could happen in Baghdad. True, there are huge differences between Ankara and Baghdad. Erdogan has had a stranglehold on Turkey for the past thirteen years, and he now seeks to usher in a period of absolute dictatorship. Since Iraq regained its sovereignty in 2004, it has had four governments, none of whom has approached the level of control that Erdogan asserts.
Both countries, however, are pulling apart at the seams. More than 40% of Iraqis were born after Saddam’s fall. Throw in those who were children at the time, and more than half the country sees only government dysfunction but has only a fading memory of the perils of dictatorship. The Iraqi military may be less well positioned than the Turkish army was to pull off a coup, but Iraq — like its neighbor to the north — does have a long history of coups. I don’t think it will happen, but should any unit try, it is doubtful Iraqis would pour into the streets to support the Green Zone government.
Assuming Iraq’s stability, however, an Erdogan dictatorship foreshadows greater Ankara-Baghdad tension. Erdogan at his core is a staunch sectarian. His disdain of Shi’ites might even surpass his hatred of Jews. This means that he will direct his government to undermine Iraq’s recovery and development for no other reason than he dislikes the way the majority of Iraqis pray. When it comes to sectarian warfare, Turkey and Qatar have surpassed Saudi Arabia as the greatest catalysts for Sunni radicalism. It is a reality of Middle Eastern politics that Turkey and Iran might wage sectarian warfare by proxy in Iraq while maintaining cordial relations between themselves.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of Kurdistan. Just as the Turkish army will be unable to counter the Islamic State, it will also be unable to put down the Kurdish insurgency which now rages in southeastern Turkey. Erdogan’s consolidation of power at first glance might seem to benefit de facto Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. After all, the two are business partners. But while there will not be a coup in Iraqi Kurdistan — the Kurdish peshmerga is less an army than a collection of party militias — this same disunity undercuts Barzani’s ability to crush dissent. Chaos in Turkey also empowers the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has a growing following in Iraqi Kurdistan (and especially among Yezidis) thanks to disgust with Barzani family corruption.
None of this paints a happy picture. But nothing is certain. In short, Iraqis are watching Turkey closely, but what happens is anyone’s guess.