Iraqi-Turkish conflict complicates Mosul offensive
LONDON - A spat between Turkey and Iraq over possible Turkish participation in the battle to liberate Mosul remains unresolved despite US attempts to calm the dispute ahead of a military offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Iraq is host to an international anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States. In addition, it receives separate military support from Iran. However, the Iraqi parliament has singled out Turkey’s presence, calling Turkish troops stationed in a training camp in Bashiqa, 25km north-east of Mosul, an “occupying” force.
The Iraqi warning came after the Turkish parliament extended its military operations in Iraq and Syria for another year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that Turkey will be taking part in the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS, telling Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “know your place”.
“Your screaming and shouting in Iraq is of no importance to us. You should know that we will go our own way,” said Erdogan. Abadi responded on Twitter: “We will liberate our land through the determination of our men and not by video calls” in a reference to the Turkish president’s use of his cell phone during the failed coup attempt in July.
The dispute between Baghdad and Ankara over the presence of the Turkish troops is not new. The Iraqi government had called on Turkey to withdraw its forces last December. Turkey said its personnel have been training peshmerga and Sunni Arab fighters to battle ISIS at the request of Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani.
State-run Turkish media showed video footage of a news conference in Turkey in December 2014 during which Abadi, standing near then-prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, said that he is expecting Ankara’s “military, intelligence, arms and training support” as “[ISIS] does not only threaten the security of Iraq and Turkey but also threatens the whole region. That’s why there must be cooperation on that issue.”
Some observers saw the apparent change of the Iraqi government position as owing to pressure from Tehran. “Iran wants to extend its influence to all of Iraq and not just the capital and the south,” said Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the London-based Arab Lawyers Association. “It sees the presence of Turkey as a hurdle to achieve that aim.”
Turkish political analyst Galip Dalay agreed. “Abadi is listening to Iran, not his own people in Mosul, but Turkey does not want Iraq to be reduced to an Iranian protectorate, a mere satellite state,” he said.
Erdogan particularly angered the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias, known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), when he said that they “must not be allowed to enter Mosul”.
Fears that the liberation of Mosul could morph into a sectarian struggle were amplified when the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia Qais al- Khazali described the assault on Mosul as a “preparation for a state of divine justice” and a “revenge for the killing of Imam Hussein”, a reference to the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, the anniversary of whose death is commemorated by Shia Muslims at the festival of Ashura, which this year was on October 11th.
“Sunni Arabs as well as many Kurds are wary of the presence of [PMF] after the liberation of Mosul,” said Dalay.
Dalay also pointed to Turkey’s domestic pressures. “Turkish civilians are being killed by terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS and [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK militants who have a presence in Iraq and Syria, and so the Turkish government feels it must act to protect its people.”
Iraqi militia leaders see Turkey as interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. “We did not and will not allow the Turkish forces to violate Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Brigade militia.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby, speaking October 11th in Washington, said that “all of Iraq’s neighbours need to respect Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity. We want Iraq and Turkey to work this out together through dialogue.”
It remains unclear, however, if Turkey will actually take part in the Mosul offensive. “There is no international support for the Turkish presence in Iraq,” said Nadeem Al-Abdalla, project manager at the British-based Anglo Iraqi Studies Centre.
“The new political status of the city of Mosul after liberation will reflect the military make-up of the liberating forces,” said Abdalla, “but it is not expected to be a dramatic redrawing of the socio-ethnic composition of the city as the American presence will act as a balance of power to prevent any ethnic or demographic change.”