Saturday, September 12, 2015

Regional Conflict between Iran and Turkey Manifests in Iraq

by: Sinan Adnan

Key Take-away: An Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militia kidnapped 18 Turkish workers in Baghdad and subsequently demanded concessions from Turkey related to its policies in Syria and Lebanon. Turkey has recently concluded an agreement with the United States to support the anti-ISIS coalition particularly in Syria, where Turkey has also increased its support to opposition groups fighting the Iranian-backed Assad regime. This kidnapping by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq is a new escalation in the regional sectarian and geopolitical war between Iran and the Sunni states in the Middle East. Iraqi Shi’a militias likely will increase regionally focused action to support Iranian foreign policy, particularly as the Iraqi government deals with significant political and military challenges that limit its ability to respond.

Unidentified gunmen kidnapped 18 Turkish workers from a construction site near Sadr City in eastern Baghdad on September 2. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but the demographics and history of the area implicated Iraqi Shi’a militias. The event’s occurrence in Iraq’s capital prompted the Iraqi government and security forces to act. A force from the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) attempted to rescue the hostages on September 3 from a location on Palestine Street near the kidnapping site. The BOC subsequently clashed with gunmen from the prominent Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, (KH) an Iranian-backed group designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. Treasury Department that enjoys significant freedom of movement in Baghdad. One ISF member died in the clashes, and three others were injured. Yet the Iraqi government ceased public discussion of the incident, suggesting that it wanted to avoid conflict with Iranian proxy groups, despite the blows such a move would deal to the government’s authority. The Iraqi government currently is facing challenges related to ISIS, internal power struggles, a major budget deficit, and an emerging security vacuum in the vital southern province of Basra.  Government actions against proxy groups could generate uncontrolled violence in Baghdad under these conditions. Therefore, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi chose to refrain from action against KH, despite his likely desire to target the groups.

The kidnapping was clearly the work of an Iranian-backed Shi’a militia. An unidentified group released a 3-minute video on YouTube on September 11, showing five masked gunmen signs reading “Death Squads” and “Labayk Ya Hussein.” The latter slogan is used by Shi’a Muslims and likely meant to show a Shi’a identity for the group. The kidnapping also took place in an area of Baghdad where it is unlikely that independent smaller groups would have freedom of movement to conduct such an attack without the involvement of Iranian proxy groups. Moreover, the gunmen in the video displays 18 Turkish-speaking individuals confirmed to be the Turkish hostages kidnapped on September 2, recorded with Arabic subtitles that depict the motives of the kidnappers. The Arabic translations of their remarks call for the Turkish government to abide by the “demands” of their kidnappers. The translation also criticizes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “aggressive behavior in the region.” The slogans of “Death squads” and “Labayk Ya Hussein” along with the messages regarding Turkey’s regional behavior indicate that the kidnappers are members of Iranian-backed Shi’a militias in Iraq.

Above: Screenshot of the video showing gunmen, the Turkish hostages, and the list of the demands.

The hostages read the kidnappers’ demands, which were also displayed at the end of the video. The kidnappers demanded that Turkish President Erdogan:

- “Seize gunmen” moving through Turkey to Iraq, a likely reference to ISIS’s foreign fighter pipeline which traverses Turkey and Syria and augments ISIS’s forces in Iraq;

- Halt the transfer of “stolen” oil from Iraqi Kurdistan through Turkey, a standard expression of Iranian proxies’ animosity toward the Kurdish Democratic Party;

- Cease support of Jaysh al-Fatah, a Syrian rebel coalition led by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

- Lift Jaysh al-Fatah’s siege of specific majority Shi’a regime-held enclaves in Syria, namely al-Fuaa, Kafariya, Nubul, and al-Zahra, that are defended in part by Lebanese Hezbollah in northern Syria. The demand follows two failed ceasefire agreements between pro-Syrian regime fighters and opposition fighters, mediated by Iran and Turkey.  Jaysh al-Fatah laid siege to these areas in order to demand that Lebanese Hezbollah, which is besieging the Sunni town of Zabadani, release civilian and opposition fighters there.

The kidnapping represented more than a backlash by Shia militias against PM Abadi for his reforms curbing the militias’ power. The Iranian proxies were motivated by a desire to further Iran’s regional agenda in response to Turkey’s increased commitment in Syria. The overt and violent support for Iran’s regional agenda by Iraq’s Shi’a militias is a step-change. These cross-theater demands demonstrate that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq will act on Iran’s behalf in the regional sectarian and geopolitical war between Iran and the Sunni states of the Middle East. This escalation will likely contribute to more destabilization and violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Locally in Iraq, this incident shows how Iran gains from nurturing and maintaining proxy groups to execute its regional agenda. Iran will therefore continue to act against measures by PM Abadi to execute a reform agenda that weakens the proxies by dislodging their ally, former PM Nouri al-Maliki, from his post as a VP and bringing militias under state control. Iranian proxies in Iraq recently obstructed the passing of the National Guard Law at the Council of Representatives, (CoR) a draft law that has the potential to bring these groups under state control. Iran and its proxies remain capable of creating conditions that can undermine the very partners that the U.S. supports to combat ISIS, particularly the Iraqi government and the ISF.

The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shi’a cleric, demanded the release of the Turkish hostages on September 12 and criticized the kidnapping for the damage it has on the authority of the state and the Iraqi government. The Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias, unlike most Shi’a in Iraq, do not follow Sistani, but rather, Iran’s Supreme Leader. Accordingly, this incident is likely to generate more intra-Shi’a friction and polarization within Iraq. The leader of the Sadrist Trend, Moqtada al-Sadr, also criticized the kidnappers on September 12 and their representation of Shi’a Islam. Sadr called for the government to take action to release the hostages and expressed “our” readiness to support, referring to the Sadrist Trend. Sadr alluded to the involvement of the proxies by reiterating his warning about the "brazen militias," a term he uses to describe these groups. In addition, Sadr called for "boycotting them" and distancing them from the Popular Mobilization. The Peace Brigades, the armed wing of the Sadrist Trend previously known as Jaysh al-Mahdi, also operates in areas near the kidnapping site and other Shi’a neighborhoods in Baghdad. His group is currently competing with the proxies and previously clashed with AAH in Baghdad, although previous clashes had been contained by the leaders of the groups. It is therefore important to watch if increased tension between the proxies and Sadr generates Shi’a group infighting in the capital.

The threat to U.S. interests emanating from the Middle East is not constrained to ISIS. Conflict among regional powers such as Iran and Turkey can undermine U.S. efforts and interests in the region. It is critical to watch for the response of the Iraqi government as internal and external pressure mounts, particularly if the government decides to take decisive military actions against the militias in Baghdad to preserve its image and state authority. The U.S. must also watch for additional coercive behavior by Iranian-backed groups as they act aggressively to preserve the Assad regime under pressure.