What does Turkey want in Iraq?

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.

Analysis: The fate of Mosul in Turkey’s hands?

Analysis: The fate of Mosul in Turkey’s hands?

Turkey keeps the world guessing as it moves militarily in Iraq – but it’s all about geopolitics.

Salah Nasrawi

On December 4, less than two weeks into the standoff with Moscow over thedowning of a Russian jet operating in Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, sent a convoy of several hundred Turkish soldiers, bolstered by tanks and armoured vehicles, deep into Iraq’s territory, stirring another conflict in his country’s troubled southern backyard.

The incursion embittered relations between Ankara and Baghdad and increased tensions among Iraq’s embattled communities. The dispute has also threatened to draw in the rest of Iraq’s neighbours, who have high stakes in the war-torn nation.

On Monday, some Turkish troops started leaving their camp in Iraq and moving north, a Turkish military source and a senior official said.It may be too early to figure out Turkey’s motives behind its military build-up in Iraq, but in many ways the confrontation appears to have been waiting to happen.

Ankara says its soldiers were sent to guard a training camp for Iraqi Sunni volunteers stationed in Bashiqa, near Mosul. The volunteers are training to take back the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group. Ankara also claims that Turkish troops are in Iraq at the request of Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister.

While Abadi denies making such a request, the country’s top Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, instructed the government not to tolerate any infringement of Iraq’s sovereignty.

Iraq’s Iran-backed Shia militias, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s powerful Mahdi Army, meanwhile, have vowed to put up a “decisive” fight against the Turkish soldiers.


In that context, and as Erdogan insists that troop withdrawal is “out of the question”, Turkey appears to be heading towards an escalation with Iraq.

Ankara’s operation in Iraq is still relatively limited in scale, but its military campaign marks a testing ground for Turkey’s strategy in dealing with regional conflicts and for its attempt to be accepted as a key actor in the Middle East.

So, why did Ankara decide to intervene directly in Iraq, knowing that it could cause issues both with Iraq’s Shia community and with Iran, which has enhanced its clout in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003?

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Friday, Erdogan shared some of his deep and bitter feelings about what he views as the reasons behind the flare up, saying Ankara’s problems with Baghdad stem from the latter’s “sectarian polices” against Sunnis and its alliance with Iran. The Iranian and Iraqi cooperation with Russia, Turkey’s new nemesis, was another reason for the tensions.

There is much to untangle here. Relations between Iraq and Turkey have remained strained since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which empowered Iraq’s Shia community and allowed Kurds to establish full autonomy in northern Iraq. Iraq’s Shia community cemented relations with Iran, while some Iraqi Sunnis sought patronage from Turkey.

As the gap between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad widened, Ankara also succeeded in co-opting Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, whose acrimonious relationship with Baghdad has become poisonous since his Peshmerga forces seized disputed territories retaken from ISIL.

The latest display of Turkish frustration at Iran and Iraq’s Shia-led government, however, is a result of Russia’s build-up in Syria, which threatens Ankara’s plans to establish a safe haven in northern Syria.

Ankara had hoped to use the zone to expand its influence and block an emerging autonomous Kurdish enclave on its southern border that could fall under the control of its arch enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

While its beefed-up presence in Bashiqa will allow Turkey to act aggressively to thwart the PKK’s efforts to build new bases in territories retaken from ISIL, as it did in Sinjar, the Turkish strategy also aims to confront increasing Iranian influence after Iraqi forces eventually retake Mosul from ISIL.

But there are more long-term and strategic challenges that may illustrate why Turkey’s response has been so determined and aggressive.

With many Iraqi Sunnis now fearful that their liberated cities will be under the control of Shia militias, Iraq is facing a severe crisis. In reinforcing its military presence in Iraq, Turkey seems to be getting out in front of the country’s possible partitioning, in an effort to gain territorial advantage.

With Mosul being the last Ottoman vilayet (administrative division) to fall in World War I, the city given to Iraq under the Sykes-Picot agreement has a particular claim on the hearts and minds of many Turks.

“The sudden and dramatic moves are linked to each other. It’s a stage for interested parties and local players to position and reposition themselves as events unfold,” wrote Yavuz Baydar, a columnist, in the Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman, on December 7.

Indeed, many Turkish politicians and commentators have been sending signals that the fate of Mosul will be Turkey’s most serious challenge if Iraq collapses.

First published in  Al Jazeera on December  15, 2015

Shia power struggle in Iraq

Shia power struggle in Iraq

At the root of the Iraqi Shia’s troubles lie the competing ambitions of their leaders, writesSalah Nasrawi

The first thought that must have crossed the minds of many Iraqis when they learned about the fight that broke out between a Shia member of parliament and a Shia politician at a Baghdad television building was that the much-feared Shia power struggle had come to pass earlier than many had expected.

“This is a state of militias,” was a comment widely posted by Iraqis on social networks this week, referring to the surge in the number of Shia paramilitary groups in the country and the increasing militarisation of the Shia political factions and their meddling in both public life and state affairs.

The brawl began in the reception area of the Dijla TV station when MP Kadhim Al-Sayyadi of the State of Law bloc and Baligh Abu Galal, a spokesman of the Citizen’s Bloc, accidently ran into one another.

Both groups are within the Shia National Coalition that has been in control of the Iraqi government since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

The brawl started when Abu Galal, scheduled to appear on an evening talk show, did not return the greetings of Al-Sayyadi when the later appeared in the reception area on his way out of the studio. The bickering that followed quickly escalated into a fight that turned into shooting.

Both Al-Sayyadi and Abu Galal have a long history of squabbling with other Shia politicians, sometimes inside parliament or on the air. In May, Al-Sayyadi was beaten up by Shia Sadrist Movement MPs during a debate to elect two ministers. A few months ago, Abu Galal was at the centre of a dispute with an influential Shia tribe that had accused him of slandering an MP belonging to the tribe.

Beneath the chaos looms a complex struggle between Shia leaders that reveals much about the country and the surprisingly opaque nature of power in Shia-led Iraq. On the surface, the Shia National Coalition is a broad grouping encompassing the country’s main Shia factions. Real power, however, rests with an inner circle of oligarchs.

The most recent, and probably the most daunting conflict, grew out of the reforms that Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi has promised to carry out in response to the widespread protests that have taken place since August against rampant government corruption and poor services and in favour of calls for change.

The struggle has also been fueled by the rise of the Shia militias that first arose after the US-led invasion to confront Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups and were reinvigorated following the seizure of swathes of Sunni-populated territory in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS) group, threatening Baghdad and Shia-dominated central and southern Iraq.

Al-Abadi’s reforms, though too meagre to matter, have been met with resistance by the Shia oligarchs who dominate the government and parliament. Last month, the parliament withdrew its support for Al-Abadi’s reform package, accusing the prime minister of overstepping his powers.

Many of Al-Abadi’s reforms, such as scrapping top government posts, target Shia politicians accused by protesters of corruption, incompetence and negligence. Among those whose jobs have been axed is Al-Abadi’s predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki who has the post of vice-president in Al-Abadi’s administration.

Some of the measures introduced by Al-Abadi, including cuts to the hefty benefits received by MPs and senior officials that have been key demands of the protesters, have been challenged by Shia politicians who use their positions to fill their pockets through endemic corruption.

Four months after promising the reforms, Al-Abadi is still battling opposition that threatens his authority. Last month, Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was again declared off limits a few days after Al-Abadi said he would open it to the public. Lifting restrictions on the 10 square km area has been a major demand of the protesters.

But the emergence of the Shia militias remains the most serious challenge to Al-Abadi. The Iran-backed paramilitary forces that have officially become part of Iraq’s armed forces as the Hashid Al-Sha’bi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), are quickly moving to the centre stage of Iraq’s politics and becoming a threat to Al-Abadi’s authority.

Last month, PMF leaders pressed the parliament to send the draft 2016 budget back to the government, demanding increases in funding for their units which they said was not sufficient to allow them to fight IS.

They leaders have also been pushing for increases in the numbers of the Forces, which are now believed to include some 120,000 fighters and aspire to play a larger role in the country’s domestic security.

Al-Abadi seems to be under the hammer of his fellow Shia politicians, who are taking advantage of Iraq’s troubles to cash in on his faltering efforts at curbing corruption, improving government efficiency and taking down IS militants.

The future of Al-Abadi’s government is currently the most discussed topic in Iraq. In recent weeks, there have been frequent reports in the Iraqi media about efforts by Al-Abadi’s opponents to call for a no-confidence vote in his government in parliament.

Other reports have suggested that the beleaguered prime minister has lost the support of Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has been backing Al-Abadi’s reforms. During a visit to Najaf, the seat of Al-Sistani’s authority, last month, Al-Abadi did not meet the cleric, a sign that Al-Sistani is probably discontented with the slow pace of reforms.

Opposition to Al-Abadi is also growing within his own Dawa Party, and Party leader Al-Maliki, who fought to stay in office and prevent Al-Abadi from taking over following last year’s elections, is widely believed to be working to overthrow Al-Abadi.

In a stunning remark, the head of the Party’s bloc in parliament, Ali Adeeb, told the Washington Post last week that Al-Abadi was perceived to be “illegitimate.” The statement reflects the deep divisions within the Dawa Party, which has shelved a conference planned this month to elect a new leadership and review the stances taken by Al-Abadi.

After 13 years in power following their rise in US-occupied Iraq, the Shia religious parties are sinking into ever-deeper disarray. Their corrupt and power-greedy leaders are sacrificing competence and unity in the face of the country’s political chaos.

Their maneuvering to block the badly needed reforms, insistence on clinging onto power, and in particular their fierce competition for power and resources have led them to be at war with themselves.

Worse still, the increasing role played by the militias and the militarisation of the Shia groups could drive the country into a political showdown. The prospect of an internecine Shia war looks steadily more alarming and its possible impact on Iraq’s national politics is growing.

On Saturday, Al-Abadi made a passionate appeal to his rivals to abandon a “competition which is aimed at finding fault with others”. He urged them “to belong to the country and not to their political affiliations”.

As if to test the will of his opponents and disperse perceptions about his own weakness, Al-Abadi also trumpeted his achievements in terms of reform and vowed to continue implementing his anti-corruption programme.

Both assertions, however, are now looking rather doubtful.

Al-Abadi may stay in office until the end of his term in 2018, thanks to the complicated political procedures that will be needed to find a replacement. But he will be a lame duck at the mercy of a conglomerate of Shia oligarchs and militia leaders whose agenda is to keep the government under their control.