Mosul is a ticking bomb, but against whom?
The shouting match, filled with threats, displays no limits; no end is in sight. For days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Iraqi government have been engaged in nasty rhetoric over Mosul, as the international military offensive to retake the strategic Iraqi city approaches.
Mosul is said to be the “crown jewel” and bastion of the Islamic State (ISIS), an important front in the war against the jihadist group. However, the row between Ankara and Baghdad could devolve into a military confrontation between Turkey’s armed forces and those of Iraq.
The spark was Erdogan’s remarks to Dubai-based Rotana TV. In an “uncensored” version of the tape, he said: “Who will then control the city? Of course, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmens and Sunni Kurds.”
Continuing in the same vein, he added that Iraq’s Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMU) troops “should not be allowed to enter Mosul”.
Then, he unleashed his rage. The Iraqi parliament issued a resolution threatening to tear down bilateral treaties and taking to the United Nations what Baghdad saw as Turkey’s illegal military presence in Bashiqa, near Mosul. The term “occupational force” was used. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi and his spokesman were quick to retaliate, emphasising that Mosul was an internal affair and Erdogan was simply adding fuel to the fire.
Erdogan raised the stakes further. Responding to Abadi, he said: “You are not at my calibre or quality” and “No matter what, we will go our own way on Mosul.”
“Who is this Iraqi prime minister? He shall know his place, first of all. Iraq had certain requests from us regarding Bashiqa,” Erdogan said, “and now they are telling us to leave but the Turkish army has not lost so much prestige as to take its orders from you”.
Iraq denied that it had requested Turkey to set up a military camp at Bashiqa. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu echoed Erdogan’s message that it is inappropriate to have Shia elements in Iraqi forces involved in the Mosul offensive. The Badr Corps, a large Shia military force, issued a statement calling Ankara “to pull your troops back from the camp or else you collect their corpses”.
The US intervention was in favour of Iraq, underlining that all its neighbours should respect its territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Both Russia and Iran remarkably kept silent.
The non-Sunni segments in and around Mosul, particularly the traditional allies of Turkey, the Turkmens, did not conceal their discontent with statements that jeopardise their fragile status. For the others, the perception of Erdogan treating Iraq and Syria as Ottoman territory led to sharp resentment.
History plays its tricks again. If Kosovo was a symbol for Serbian identity, Mosul is one carved deep into the psyche of republican Turkey. It represents the loss of precious, oil-rich territory. Many Turks, be they staunch secular Kemalists or Islamists like Erdogan, see this as the result of the tricks of Western powers in the 1920s. Mosul bears the weight of history and the city itself has, therefore, turned into a fuse.
It has joined Aleppo as an epicentre of a storm. Its fate will define the outcome of a Gordian knot of problems, merging Syria and Iraq into a bundle of full-scale explosive conflict.
Mosul, perhaps more than Aleppo, emerges as the perfect tool for Russian President Vladimir Putin to intensify the quest for asymmetrical domination over the region; at least restoring the power balances of the Cold War. Putin may think he has caught a golden opportunity by observing the growing gap between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama.
Reading into the Turkish president’s disgruntlement with the West in general, Turkey is set to use its double-layered, traditional fears.
Having spectacularly failed in its “zero problems with our neighbours” policy, Ankara’s profound frustration with developments has pushed it into open enmity with its two southern neighbours and its current reflexes define its reactionary policies: Against Kurdish self-rule or what the pro-government media calls the “Shia belt” alongside its southern border.
Such a narrow-minded policy leaves Turkey vulnerable to manipulation by every actor that intends to expand its regional interests. With his own Kurdish conflict left bleeding, Erdogan wants to forge a lasting alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, although both the divisions among the Kurds in the region and Barzani’s fragile position vis-à-vis Iran and Russia, do not promise a stable entrenchment.
The problem, in such historic moments, is about whom you choose as your allies and enemies. Erdogan’s issue has to do with standing in limbo, by “politics of constant tension”.
It threatens not only Turkey but also its uneasy ally, the United States, as targets of the ticking bomb.