What is Turkey up to in Iraq?
Turkey is stepping up its confrontational rhetoric against Iraq. It is time to recognise its threat to regional geopolitics, writes Salah Nasrawi
The heated diplomatic bickering between Iraq and Turkey over the liberation of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) terror group prompts two questions. Is the worst of the tug of war between the two neighbouring countries now coming, and what impact will the conflict have on the regional order?
The latest row started when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that once Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was taken back from IS, it should be for Sunni Muslims only, excluding Shia Muslims and other religious minorities from the city.
“I want to make it clear that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Western coalition will not allow sectarian domination [in Mosul]. But there is a key question: Who will then control the city? Of course, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmens and Sunni Kurds,” Erdogan told a Saudi-owned television network on 2 October.
Iraq’s Shia-dominated “Popular Mobilisation Force PMF should not be allowed to enter Mosul,” Erdogan said through an interpreter.
Earlier, Erdogan said that the Turkish army would play a role in the looming battle to liberate Mosul from IS and that no party could prevent this from happening. “We will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating,” Erdogan told the Turkish parliament.
Turkey has an estimated 2,000 troops in Bashiqa some 12km east of Mosul. Ankara maintains that the troops are necessary to protect the Turkish military mission at a camp for training Iraqi fighters who hope to participate in the battle to recapture Mosul.
The Turkish parliament last week extended a government mandate by one year that allows Turkish troops to remain on Iraqi and Syrian soil. Turkey launched a major military operation in northern Syria in August to clear Kurdish insurgents from the frontier region, and the onslaught raised concerns of further escalation in increasingly fraught regional conflicts.
Erdogan’s escalation over Mosul immediately provoked reactions from Iraq. The Iraqi parliament labelled the Turkish troops an ‘occupying force,’ while the government requested an emergency session of the UN Security Council “to discuss the Turkish encroachment onto Iraqi territory and intervention in its internal affairs.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi raised fears that Turkey’s move could lead to regional war, and the leaders of Iran-backed Shia militias threatened to fight the Turkish troops and expel them from Iraq by force.
Ankara has, meanwhile, lambasted the Iraqi reaction and insisted that it will not withdraw its troops from Iraq. The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara to protest against the Iraqi parliament’s unacceptable resolution.
Baghdad then summoned the Turkish envoy in Iraq in a tit-for-tat move.
In examining the Turkish argument over the crisis, five claims emerge that underline Ankara’s policy towards post-IS Iraq.
First, Turkish troops have been invited into the country by Iraq and their presence there is upon agreement with the Baghdad government. Some Turkish officials say the troop presence was arranged through president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani.
Iraqi officials categorically deny that the Turkish troops are in the country with Baghdad’s permission or knowledge, however. They also say that Barzani has no legal authority to invite foreign forces into Iraq.
Second, Turkey maintains that troops from 63 foreign countries have been sent into Iraq without Iraq objecting. Baghdad says that only foreign military experts have been invited in by the Iraqi government and they are not combat troops.
Third, Turkey claims Iraq is fragmented and has no right to object to the Turkish military presence. Turkish officials say that the Iraqi authorities are weak and cannot control events on the ground. Iraqi officials insist, however, that their country is a sovereign state and that Iraqi security forces are capable of stabilising Mosul after its liberation.
Fourth, Turkish officials say their troops were sent in to protect Sunni Turkmen in Mosul and to ensure that the demographic structure of the region will not be changed following the city’s recapture from IS.
Fifth, Turkey maintains that the troops are there to fight IS militants alongside the US-led international coalition. Both Baghdad and Washington say the Turkish army is on its own in Iraq and is not part of the alliance.
Sixth, Turkey claims that Iran’s influence in Iraq has increased since the sudden advances by IS in the summer of 2014, with the leaders of the Tehran-backed PMF showing the determination of their Shia fighters to participate in the Mosul offensive. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, reject Mosul’s being turned into a battleground for proxy regional conflicts.
On this score, Turkey’s narrative about Mosul effectively illustrates its desire to assert a direct military and strategic role in Iraq. Turkish officials say their troops will remain in Iraq despite Baghdad’s growing anger ahead of the planned operation to retake Mosul from IS.
As the launch of the operation to liberate Mosul approaches, tensions between the two sides have escalated.
Baghdad insists that there is no role for Turkish forces in the liberation of Mosul. Al-Abadi has warned Turkey that the “presence of its troops in Iraq won’t be a picnic.” The leaders of the PMF have also threatened possible attacks against Turkish troops when the Mosul offensive starts.
For many analysts, the shrill rhetoric and sabre-rattling emanating from Iraq and Turkey in recent days threatens to turn the battle for Mosul into another regional conflict, with attempts by competing powers to gain advantage by changing the facts on the ground.
Turkey is playing a risky game in the Iraqi conflict that could even lead to a wider war. The presence of the Turkish forces in the vicinity of the war zone with IS could spark a direct military confrontation between the Turkish troops and the advancing Iraqi forces.
With the participation of the PMF fighters who regard Turkey as an expansionist power trying to create a de facto presence in northern Iraq, the stakes are high that the standoff will turn into a broader, and more dangerous confrontation.
Turkey has taken to arguing that it has no territorial ambitions in Iraq and that it is only in the country to defend its interests and fight Kurdish insurgents who threaten Turkey’s national unity.
Yet, there is a broad consensus that the assertive Turkish approach in Iraq entails far-reaching geopolitical interests that are more than what they appear to be in Turkey’s claiming to help to defeat IS.
To understand the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy in post-IS Mosul, it is necessary to ask why Turkey is extending its security interests to northern Iraq as the country prepares to retake Mosul from the militants.
Turkey’s long-term strategy is based on attempts to scuttle efforts by the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria to establish an independent Kurdish state on its southern borders.
In order to benefit from what is expected to be a prolonged period of instability in northern Iraq following the liberation of Mosul, Turkey wants the strategic city to be a cornerstone in its plans to create a pocket of territory separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Kurdish-held territories in neighbouring Syria.
Together with dozens of outposts inside Iraqi Kurdistan and the security zone Turkey is building in northern Syria, Turkish strategists hope to erect barriers that will make the Kurdish dream of a state on its southern borders a mere ‘Swiss cheese’ under its control.
The real problem with this approach, however, is that building military settlements with cooperation from local (Sunni) populations might be impossible to achieve without plunging the region into a broader ethno-sectarian conflict.
On Saturday, five major parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region blasted the presence of Turkish troops in Mosul as ‘illegal’ and demanded that Turkey immediately withdraw its troops from Iraq.
They said they were “committed to preserving the sovereignty of the land of Kurdistan”. Some of the groups, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have been working closely with Turkish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas who have exploited the chaos in Mosul to build up bases in the area.
Ankara’s other concern is that the possible power shifts and geopolitical changes that will take place after the liberation of Mosul could give Iran advantages over Turkey. Turkey fears that the presence of PMF forces, which it believes are an umbrella for Tehran-backed Shia militias, will shift the balance and strengthen Iran’s position in the region.
On Tuesday Erdogan escalated his barbs and insult against al-Abadi.
“Know your limits. You are not in my quality. Even you are not in my level,” Erdogan told al-Abadi in an address in Istanbul.
“The Turkish military will enter Mosul,” he added.
Nevertheless, by insisting that its troops will stay in Iraq despite its government’s rejection and widespread public opposition, Turkey is fundamentally challenging not only the established borders of Iraq but also the established regional order.
The sad reality is that the two countries have lacked diplomatic traffic or reasonable interlocutors to try to defuse the tensions and deter a flare-up. Hopes of a breakthrough are being undermined by Ankara’s insistence that it is not belligerent and by Baghdad’s rhetoric.
As things stand, northern Iraq may be heading towards a more dangerous confrontation after the collapse of IS in Mosul, and the entire region could face a greater threat than at any other point during the Iraqi and Syrian crises.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on October 13, 2016