Turkey could have been a game changer in Mosul
It was in June 2014 when the Islamic State (ISIS) stormed the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The fall of the city came as a shock because the Iraqi Army did not quite resist the vastly outnumbered militants.
More than two years later, US President Barack Obama decided that it was time to retake Mosul, ISIS’s last stronghold in Iraq, before leaving office in January 2017. Even though there are dozens of countries in the coalition to strike ISIS with fighter jets, the United States put faith in the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga forces on the ground.
Questions were asked about whether the Iraqi Army and the peshmerga would be sufficient in the battlefield. Sectarian and ethnic differences were also a matter of discussion.
Despite the risk, the United States spearheaded the air strikes in the Mosul operation, which began October 17th. Nearly two months into the offensive, the Iraqi Army is still on the outskirts of the city. It has reportedly suffered heavy losses in the face of ISIS suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices and land mines.
US and Iraqi officials have noted on a number of occasions that the Mosul operation has met difficulties. It is not a surprise to anyone that the Iraqi Army’s offensive has been going slowly.
A peshmerga commander told me on the front lines near Bashiqa in October that it “could take more than a year” to recapture Mosul.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a vehement opponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has repeatedly turned down Turkish offers to help the cause. Turkey reportedly has several hundred special forces stationed in the area, which recently led to a diplomatic crisis with Baghdad.
Abadi called the Turkish presence an invasion, urging a swift withdrawal. Erdogan rebuffed the calls, saying that Abadi had requested the Turkish presence in Iraq years ago.
Looking at the arguable failure of the Iraqi Army so far, one could contend that highly trained Turkish troops could have been a game changer in the Mosul offensive. Why turn down having additional and more experienced ground forces fighting ISIS?
We have seen how Turkey has been successful in clearing many areas in Syria of any ISIS presence. Why not try to repeat that — even partially — in Iraq? With the approval of the Iraqi government, such an operation could be even more successful.
The former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, told me in Erbil in October that the people of Mosul “trust Turkey more than any other actor” to provide security and peace. Why say no to having Turkish forces, which are trusted by many among Mosul’s population?
We have seen how with Turkish backing, peshmerga fighters managed to liberate Bashiqa from ISIS. Why not try that elsewhere?
The Turkish government wanted to take part in the Mosul offensive. That being said, Erdogan apparently believes that Turkey should sit at the table to decide the fate of Mosul after the city is liberated.
A place at the table is crucial for Ankara because it fears that a sectarian conflict will emerge in Mosul if Shia militias take control of the city. As many as 30,000 Shia fighters could enter Mosul.
The Iraqi government could have benefited greatly from Turkish cooperation on the ground; however, it missed the chance. There is now a chance for Abadi. He can overcome his differences of opinion with Erdogan and let Ankara help free Mosul and keep its people safe.