As the much anticipated battle for Mosul final began, the number of parties vying for a key role in the battle underscores the diverse and complicated ethno-sectarian landscape. Turkey, determined to protect its own interests, is intent on playing a key hand. However, relations between Ankara and Baghdad have become frosty and fueled by mistrust, whilst Kurds are in a difficult position between both sides.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding “you are not my equal.”
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim threatened Baghdad “not to talk big.”
The presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp in Iraq has led to deep friction and increasingly tough rhetoric.
Turkish forces have been training predominantly Sunni Muslim forces but also Kurdish Peshmerga forces since 2014. However, relations between Baghdad and Ankara worsened in December 2015 as Turkey sent hundreds of elite troops and tanks to bolster its existing force.
Ankara has insisted that the Turkish troops were deployed at the request of Iraq to train their fighters but Baghdad has viewed them as an occupying force.
Turkey is keen on ensuring that Sunni militias it has trained play a key role to dilute the influence of Baghdad and the powerful Shia militias aligned to Iran in the Post Islamic State (IS) era. The sectarian animosity in Syria and Iraq are very much interlinked.
The Kurds find themselves vital to the liberation of Mosul, but face a somewhat tricky position between Baghdad and Ankara.
The Kurds enjoy strong economic ties with Turkey with independent oil exports enabled by Turkey. In needs Turkish support to maintain economic prosperity, security, Kurdish control of areas liberated from IS and later even outright independence. Therefore, it cannot be an obstacle to Turkish interests. At the same time, Erbil cannot afford to antagonise Baghdad.
As Iraq struggles for any sense of unity, Turkey relies on the Kurds and Sunnis to serve its regional and strategic interests, away from any dependence on Baghdad.
The Turkish military intervention in Syria, after years of criticism that it was sitting on the fence, showed a new willingness for Turkey to play a more proactive hand in determining the outcome of regional storms.
It was faced with a choice. These political and sectarian fires, intensified with the rise of the IS, will forever change the shape of the Middle East. Either Turkey tries to influence these historical events to its benefit or such events force a new reality on Turkey.
The growing power and autonomy of the Syrian Kurds, where Turkey alleges their main force to be the same as the PKK, is a great example of an idle Turkey forced to face such realities.
Erdogan warned that they will take action they deem required to protect their interest, “we don’t need permission from anyone, nor are we going to ask for it.”
In no uncertain terms, Erdogan made clear that Turkish forces will not leave Bashiqa. The decision by Turkish parliament to extend the mandate of the forces in Iraq underpins the long-term role that Ankara views in Iraq.
“We will convey our request to coalition forces that we are determined to take our place in a coalition in Iraq. If they don’t want us, our Plan B will come into effect.” Erdogan said.
That Plan B is not clear, but if Turkey is not allowed to join the coalition in Iraq, then they will take matters into their hand. They are likely to bolster their existing force, embolden Sunni forces to play a crucial role and perhaps endorse the expanded Kurdistan borders.
Equally, Baghdad is likely to have its own Plan B, including the possibility of increased support to PKK or allowing the PKK a role in the Mosul battle.
By virtue of Erdogan’s statement, it’s not just about the liberation of Mosul but also the post IS reality that he wants to protect via direct force or certainly through further training of Sunni forces.
The eventual destruction of IS will end one danger but bring many dangers in its wake, not least potential for another influx of refugees from Mosul and regional proxy wars for sectarian supremacy.
Kurdistan also needs long-term stability in the area as it will face the direct heat of more sectarian bloodshed on its border.
Turkey is unlikely to withdraw their forces, certainly not at the request of Baghdad, placing the United Stated into a tough corner with two vital allies. On the one hand it must support the notion of a unified Iraq and thus central influence of Baghdad, but it can do little to influence the Turks, Kurds, Sunni and Shia, all with different goals and a level of autonomy in their decision making.
First Published: Kurdistan 24