What is Turkey up to in Iraq?

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

Sleeping with the enemy

Salah EB

Sleeping with the enemy

Washington’s way of doing business with Iraq’s Shia militias will test US strategy in the Middle East as never before, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Iraq’s Shia militias began rising to prominence following advances made by the Islamic State (IS) terror group in 2014, the United States put Baghdad on notice that it could lose military support if Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi did not reign in militiamen accused of stocking sectarianism.

Official US policy towards the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), the umbrella organisation of scores of Shia militias, was negative.

On many occasions the Obama administration threatened that the US-led coalition fighting IS would withhold support for the Iraqi security forces if the Iran-backed militias were deployed in battle, claiming that their involvement could help the militants rally Sunni residents to their cause.

Things have changed a lot since then. Another script is now running, as Washington seems to be looking favourably on a long-term enemy whom the United States and its regional Sunni allies have accused of being Iran’s proxy in the conflicts in Iraq.

The first glaring sign that Washington had found a new friend in Iraq’s Shia militias came from Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s point man to Iraq officially known as the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS.

On 21 October last year, McGurk tweeted that “the US commends progress by Iraqi security forces & popular mobilisation forces against #ISIL terrorist in Baiji.”

In another tweet he wrote “these units performed heroically over months of fighting, and we now look forward to strengthening our partnership in coming offensives.” Soon Washington dropped its former resolve, and policy began moving in an affirmative direction towards the old adversary.

Now the United States is no longer objecting to PMF participation in battles against IS, and in many operations US warplanes have provided aerial support to PMF units.

On 12 March, US consul-general in Basra Steve Walker visited the Al-Sadr Teaching Hospital in the city to pay his respects to wounded members of the PMF. The visit marked the first time a top US official had publicly met members of the Shia militias.

In June, a declaration by a state department-sponsored coalition conference in Washington officially endorsed the PMF as a partner in the war against IS.

But the most dramatic shift in the US strategy in Iraq came nearly two weeks ago when Western diplomats working closely with Washington met secretly with PMF leaders outside Iraq.

The Monitor, a US-based media outlet specialising in Middle Eastern affairs, reported on 19 August that the Lebanese capital Beirut had been the scene of a series of secret meetings between Western diplomats and UN officials and PMF leaders.

It said the meetings, arranged by “one of the UN organisations operating in Iraq,” had been held in a Beirut hotel from 8 to 11 August. A PMF delegate told the media outlet that the meetings had been requested by Western governments and insisted that they were closely coordinating the move with Washington.

A spokesperson for the PMF in Baghdad gave a slightly different version of the discussions, however. Moein Al-Kadhumi said the meetings had been sponsored by the Helsinki-based International Dialogue on Peace Building and State Building to discuss the future role of the PMF in the war against IS.

The Monitor, however, quoted the militia leader as saying the discussions with the Western diplomats “covered almost everything”.

Among the key issues the diplomats wanted to clarify was whether the tens of thousands-strong paramilitary force would be “fully merged with the Iraqi army,” as Al-Abadi has decreed.

“Our answer was clear. We will be a military force that is part of the Iraqi state, but not part of the Iraqi army,” the leader told Al-Monitor. He said the PMF delegation had made it clear that “we will be an alternative army subordinated to the state, just like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

The PMF leader said the Western diplomats also wanted to know if the militias were considering plans to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018 and if they would join any political alliance or participate in the government.

“In terms of our relations with the various components of the Iraqi people, we stressed that the PMF had emerged from all of the Iraqi people,” Al-Monitor quoted him as telling the Western delegates.

“Because they insisted on meeting us alone and discussing the same issues, we deduced that the Germans were actually representing the United States in the meetings, and that this meeting was a preliminary step that would pave the way for subsequent direct or indirect contacts [with the United States],” he said.

“If liberating Fallujah brought us to Beirut, what will the liberation of Mosul bring,” asked the PMF leader, referring to last month’s recapturing of the IS stronghold in Anbar Province from the militants and their intention to participate in the battle for Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.

By and large, the Beirut rendezvous, which must have the blessing if not the support of Washington, was nothing less than a strategic shift in US policy towards the Iraqi Shia militias. But the exchange also underscores the militias’ cool pragmatism.

Militia leaders have often threatened that they will attack US forces in Iraq, rejecting any attempt to send more American troops to the country or to set up US military bases. Muqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Peace Brigades militia, blasted Walker’s visit to the country and those Shia officials who had welcomed the gesture.

According to US officials, there are up to 100,000 Iran-backed fighters now on the ground in Iraq. Last week Chris Garver, a Baghdad-based US military spokesman, confirmed to the US TV outlet Fox News that the fighters were mostly Iraqis, adding that the Iranian-backed Shia militia “are usually identified at around 80,000”.

At least one group, Kataib Hizbullah, is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

There are thousands of Iranian-backed forces in Syria fighting in support of the Alawite-controlled regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. In addition to fighters from the Lebanese group Hizbullah and Shia militias, some of these Iranian-backed forces come from as far afield as Afghanistan, and hundreds have died fighting against Sunni rebels.

The new US approach towards the Shia militia in Iraq, however, raises three key questions far beyond the usual selective and situational relationships that have seemed to define Washington’s approach in the war against IS.

First, is the United States prepared to overcome its twitchiness and do business with the Shia militias, which have long been considered as a US enemy?

Second, is the United States readying itself for a new strategy in Iraq after the defeat of IS in which the Shias may expand, consolidate and institutionalise their power at the expense of both the Arab Muslim Sunnis and ethnics Kurds?

Third, does this mean that the United States will recognise Iraq as a playground for Iran and accept the Islamic Republic not only as the main actor in Iraq but also as a key regional superpower?

Of course, the answers to these questions will largely depend on the outcome of the war against IS and the new political landscape in Iraq and Syria that is expected to emerge. This will have broader implications for a region strewn with local conflicts that have been exacerbated by the interventions of regional and international powers.

Pragmatism, to say the least, has been the norm in the US way of doing business in the Middle East, including recasting policy to engage actors other than its traditional friends and allies.

With the Obama administration keen to snatch victory over IS before the end of the president’s term in January, Washington may think its new-found tough love approach to the Iraqi Shia militias could make that victory easier.

Yet, it remains to be seen if the next administration will embrace the new approach towards what has long been considered one of America’s most dangerous adversaries in the Middle East.

If that happens, it will represent a tectonic shift from the past, with dramatic consequences for both the region’s conflicts and US Middle East policy.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on August, 25, 2016