Is Turkish military intervention in Syria and Iraq inevitable?
Dubai - With nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, a weak Baghdad unable to appease either its large Sunni diaspora or manage relations with its resource-rich Kurdish north, Iran’s growing influence and a Syrian civil war giving birth to the Islamic State (ISIS) and a new generation of anti- Turkish Kurdish militias, Turkey’s Middle East policy has been left with few options but to assume a more assertive and interventionist role.
Turkey’s policies regarding Syria and Iraq are increasingly framed around national security and counterterrorism concerns but these invariably create repercussions.
Turkey aims to prevent Kurdish hegemony in northern Syria and block anti-Turkish Kurdish groups from creating a corridor along its southern border to threaten its territorial integrity.
On August 24th, Turkey launched a large operation — the Euphrates Shield offensive — in northern Syria when its artillery shelled ISIS targets before Syrian rebel fighters crossed into Jarabulus under air cover provided by Turkish and US forces.
Turkey is hoping to retake Al Bab and Manbij and gain access to Aleppo’s rural areas as it reverses gains made by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and ISIS.
But, with the battle for Mosul, the focus of Turkish activity has shifted to Iraq.
On November 1st, as Iraqi forces entered Mosul, Ankara ordered tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles to Silopi near its border with Iraq in preparation for what Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik described as “important developments in the region”.
Ankara had been vying for a role in the anti-ISIS offensive in Mosul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Turkish parliament in October that Turkey would resist any obstacles to play a role in Mosul with the goal of ensuring the city did not fall to PKK-affiliated Kurdish groups or into Shia control, both of which were threats to Turkish security interests.
Mosul is the second most populous city of Iraq, with a population that has dwindled from 2.5 million when ISIS took control to perhaps 1.5 million today. It has a large Sunni Turkmen and Sunni Arab population.
Mosul was under Ottoman rule for almost four centuries and was one of three provincial capitals for Ottoman Iraq until its capture by Britain in 1918. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne assigned Mosul to Iraq under the British, though the Turks always contended the decision by the League of Nations was unjust. Erdogan recently called for the Treaty of Lausanne to be reconsidered, saying it confined Turkey to a “vicious circle”.
On October 24th, Turkish-Iraqi tensions intensified as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that Turkish troops near Mosul were supporting peshmerga forces “with artillery, tanks and howitzers” following a request from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and had assigned F-16 aircraft to provide air cover when necessary.
Ankara wants to keep PKK-allied forces away from the Mosul operation and block their advance into Sinjar, which could allow PKK-allied forces in Rojava, Syria, to survive Turkey’s land blockade there.
Erdogan recently warned Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi: “You are not at my level… The army of the Turkish republic has not lost such standing as to receive instructions from you… You should know that we will do what we want to do.”
In response, Abadi told Turkey that any incursion into Iraq would be treated as an invasion and Baghdad would be forced into war with Turkey, which would prove costly to all.
Turkey has 2,000 troops deployed in Iraq, including 500 in Bashiqa. The Turkish parliament recently extended Turkey’s deployment for another year.
The Bashiqa camp was established under the provincial assembly of Mosul and with consent from the KRG but Baghdad has charged Turkey with violating Iraqi sovereignty.
Ankara has developed very close ties with the KRG in recent years and there are about 18 Turkish military and intelligence bases around Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has thus justified its military presence in Iraq and extended considerable assistance to Iraqi Kurds, whose political aspirations of independence and a redrawing of national borders represent Baghdad’s greatest challenge.
Turkey hopes Iraq’s Sunnis will sympathise with its agenda in any potential competition with Iran if the partition of Iraq occurs as many predicted following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The battle for Mosul will shape not only the city post-ISIS but potentially Iraq itself. This is why Baghdad and Iran have become increasingly concerned by Turkish encroachment.
On the other hand, Ankara sees the emergence of ISIS as a direct result of Baghdad’s failure in developing inclusive policies and Sunni distrust of the Iran-allied, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Mosul fell to an estimated 800 ISIS militants in 2014 before Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi announced his caliphate from Mosul’s Great Mosque. There have been widespread reports of Shia militias from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) abusing Sunnis during anti-ISIS operations in Falluja, Tikrit and Amirli.
It appears to be more inevitable that Turkey will intervene militarily in Syria and Iraq. The Turks have been actively involved militarily but this activity has been limited in nature and scope. The emerging stakes may push Turkey into expanding its military role in Syria and Iraq.