What does Turkey want in Iraq?
Turkey’s latest military gambit in Iraq could be a strategic game-changer, writes Salah Nasrawi
As Iraq continues to suffer, Turkey’s incursions into its war-torn neighbour have become ever more brazen. On 4 December, a column of Turkish troops and equipment crossed the border in the far south of the country at the Ibrahim Al-Khalil border crossing with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region.
The convoy of several hundred Turkish soldiers and flatbed trucks carrying armoured vehicles made its way at night through territory and checkpoints controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces to Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh, some 80 km to the south.
Turkish media later reported that some 150 to 200 Turkish soldiers backed by 20 to 25 tanks had been sent to Bashiqa, traditionally a Christian Chaldean-populated district north-east of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell to the Islamic State (IS) terror group in June 2014.
The Turkish Hürriyet newspaper reported that Turkey plans to set up a permanent military base in Bashiqa under a deal signed between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president Massoud Barzani and former Turkish foreign minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu during the latter’s visit to northern Iraq on 4 November.
By establishing a foothold in Bashiqa, seized by the Peshmergas after IS advances last year, Turkey will be able to establish another bridgehead in this strategic part of northern Iraq. Since 1995, the Turkish army has built at least four known military bases inside Iraq in the Dohuk Province, which is under the control of Barzani’s Democratic Kurdistan Party (DKP) administration.
When news of the incursion broke, prompting an angry reaction from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu acknowledged the intervention but said the soldiers had been deployed to provide training for unspecified Iraqi troops in response to a request from Iraq.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi denied “a request or authorisation from the Iraqi federal authorities” for the deployment had been made and told Turkey to “immediately” withdraw its forces, including tanks and artillery. The deployment “is considered a serious violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” Al-Abadi said in a statement.
Turkey’s relationship with Iraq has been tense over a host of issues ranging from its routine military incursions into Iraq, water conflicts, illegal oil exports, and disputes over what Iraq perceives as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interference in Iraq’s sectarian disputes.
What the newly assembled Turkish force tells us, however, is something more significant than the building of a new bridgehead inside Iraq, which the Turkish military buildup indicates. The buildup hints at a wider intervention aimed at creating a new reality on the ground in the war-torn country which is now threatened with breakup.
The past several weeks of Turkish activities in Iraq and Syria demonstrate that Ankara has found a new tactic for carrying out its overreaching strategy for achieving its goals and interests in both countries. Turkey’s course of action in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts clearly signals its intention to assert its regional policy aims and objectives.
The new Turkish troop deployment comes amid preparations by the Iraqi security forces, Iran-backed Shia militias, and pro-government Sunni tribes backed by the US-led international coalition to storm the Iraqi town of Ramadi and take it back from IS militants.
If Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar Province, is to be liberated from IS militants, the combined Iraqi forces are then expected to move to take back Mosul, Iraq’s largest city still under IS control.
The Turkish intervention, therefore, would seem to precipitate any move by the Iraqi forces and the Shia militias to take back Mosul for reasons related to Ankara’s views about Iraq’s inter-communal conflicts, its future as a unitary state, and the regional strategic balance, especially with Iran.
The camp in Bashiqa is currently being used by a force called Al-Hashd Al-Watani (National Mobilisation Units), which is made up of about 4,000 to 6,000 mainly Sunni Arab former Iraqi policemen and volunteers from Mosul.
The force, believed to be equipped and trained by Turkey, was formed by former Mosul governor Atheel Al-Nujaifi, who is close to Turkey.
The new Turkish troop dispatch came a few days after Iraq rejected a US proposal to deploy a new force of special operations troops in Iraq to conduct raids against IS there and in neighbouring Syria. The Turkish move has now created a new reality on the ground that will make it impossible for Baghdad to move to retake Mosul unilaterally without confronting the Turkish troops.
The presence of foreign ground forces is a contentious issue in Iraq, whose Shia-led government feels caught between the United States and its powerful neighbours. Last week, Al-Abadi rejected a proposal by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to deploy a special forces contingent to carry out raids against IS.
He also rejected a proposal by two senior US senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for Washington to send a 100,000-strong force from Sunni Arab countries like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to Iraq as part of a multinational ground force to counter IS.
All this is compounded by the fact that the conflict in Iraq is now hurtling into a downward spiral. The Turkish buildup will most likely complicate the fight against IS in both Iraq and Syria and especially the new international alliance that is emerging to take down the terror group.
The United States has distanced itself from Turkey’s putting its troops into Iraq, saying that Turkey’s deployment of hundreds of soldiers in northern Iraq is not part of the activities of the international coalition it leads in Iraq and Syria.
The new crisis triggered by Turkey’s intervention in Iraq is likely to be the latest complication in the war against IS, especially after US President Barack Obama pledged this week to “destroy” IS following its claiming the attack in San Bernardino, California, and the increasing role of NATO in the campaign.
Since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last month, the country’s western NATO allies have scaled down their coordination with Ankara in the war against IS. Germany has reportedly drawn up plans to prevent sharing intelligence with Turkey as it prepares to support international air strikes against IS.
But Ankara seems to have remained defiant, and the Turkish media reported this week that the country may increase its presence in Bashiqa by hundreds more soldiers in order to bring the total number of troops near Mosul to more than 2,000.
A pledge by Davutoglu that Turkey would not send in additional forces was not good enough to placate Baghdad, which has threatened Ankara with UN action and resistance to the buildup.
This may explain how Turkey plans to make the crisis over the troop deployment in the Mosul area a strategic game-changer in Iraq and Syria after tensions with Russia escalated following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last month.
The flare-up has thwarted Turkey’s plans to establish a safe haven in northern Syria, where it had hoped to use the zone to expand its influence in its southern neighbour and block Turkish Kurdish separatists from operating from an emerging autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria.
Ankara’s adventure in Iraq, therefore, seems to be a two-pronged strategy: a slight change in its plans in Iraq to make up for its aspired safety zone in Syria, and a way of exploiting the turmoil in Iraq in order to advance its long-term agenda in its other southern neighbour.
It is no longer a secret that Turkey has stakes in Iraq, and ever since the 2003 US-led invasion Ankara has been a major regional actor in the beleaguered country, apparently trying to counterbalance Shia Iran’s increasing influence there.
In addition to using its beefed-up presence in northern Iraq to undermine the Kurdish Workers Party’s (PKK) objectives, including having free rein in both Syria and Iraq, the Turkish strategy aims at confronting the increasing Iranian influence in Iraq which is likely to receive a further boost if the Shia militias take part in liberating Mosul from IS.
Underlining Turkey’s aspiring role as a regional Sunni powerhouse and a traditional competitor with Shia Iran for influence in Iraq, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu blasted Tehran’s “sectarian policies” in Iraq and Syria on Monday, which he said were a danger to the region.
To understand the reasons behind the Turkish military buildup in Mosul, one should also pay a brief visit to recent Middle Eastern history. According to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, signed by Turkey and the allies in the First World War to define the Turkish border following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mosul was given to the newly established Iraqi state.
Many in Turkey believe that Mosul, at that time an Ottoman velayet, or province, that included all northern Iraq, was unduly cut off from the remaining territories of the Empire, what is today Turkey, and they now aspire to see it connected back to the Turkish homeland.
Many experts worry that Erdoğan, who is showing an increasing obsession with reviving Ottomanism, may now try to take advantage of Iraq’s troubles to advance a territorial agenda that includes the annexation of Mosul if the country breaks up.
“If Turkey has reinforced its troops in Mosul with the secret intention of gaining land, then it has launched into a very dangerous venture,” Turkish columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News on Monday.