Will There Be a Coup in Iraq?

Iraqi security forces members patrol the oil fields in Basra, southeast of Baghdad on July 25. Michael Rubin writes that more than 40 percent 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. Essam Al-Sudani/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

What might be the impact of the crisis in Turkey upon Iraq?

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 ISIS.

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 U.S. 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 ISIS 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.

Could the same thing happen in Baghdad?

True, there are huge differences between Ankara and Baghdad. Erdogan has had a stranglehold on Turkey for the past 13 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 percent 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 Shiites 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 ISIS, 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 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.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.