Turkish presence in Iraq spotlights regional struggle
Istanbul - A row between Syria’s neighbours Turkey and Iraq, coming in the middle of a major diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow, puts a spotlight on the escalating power struggle of regional players.
Baghdad strongly protested the deployment of Turkish tanks and hundreds of troops to a training camp near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, held by the Islamic State (ISIS) militia. While insisting its actions were legal and constituted a routine troop rotation, Turkey pledged to halt deployment to the Bashiqa camp following a threat by Baghdad to take the issue to the UN Security Council.
The dispute comes as Turkey and Iran compete for regional influence. Predominantly Sunni Turkey and Sunni Gulf states are calling for an end to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite sect linked to Shia Islam, while Russia and Shia power Iran are strong supporters of Assad.
“This is only the beginning,” Turkish political analyst Veysel Ayhan told The Arab Weekly. He said opposing camps in the region were getting into position as the future of ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq was on the line. “The central question is who will govern Sunni Arab regions like Mosul [in Iraq] and Raqqa [in Syria],” said Ayhan, an analyst at the International Middle East Peace Research Center and the Middle East Peace and Democracy House.
Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias play an important role in both Iraq and Syria. In Mosul, for example, “it is not acceptable for Sunnis to have the city taken by Shia forces,” Ayhan said. This is why Sunni groups asked Turkey to provide training ahead of a much-anticipated push by Iraqi forces to drive ISIS out of the city, he said. “The conflict will get bigger,” with a risk of countries of the region being drawn into a head-to-head confrontation, Ayhan said.
Ankara said the protests from Baghdad show the influence of Iran over the Iraqi leadership. Asked if Iran was behind the criticism from Baghdad, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Kanal 24 news channel on December 7th: “It is clear who is exerting the pressure here.” Cavusoglu criticised Iran’s approach to the Syrian conflict. “We do not support their sectarian policies,” he said.
Cavusoglu insisted Turkey sent military advisers to northern Iraq in response to invitations of regional authorities and the central government. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Mosul, also said Iraqi politicians knew about the Turkish deployment. “If Iraq’s leaders can’t face the Iranian influence — and act as if they don’t know about it — that’s something else,” Nujaifi said, according to the state-run Turkish news agency Anadolu.
Turkish troops have been training about 2,500 Peshmerga fighters of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq as well as members of the predominantly Sunni Arab militia Hashti Vatani. The Hashti Vatani fighters are expected to take part in the offensive against ISIS in Mosul. Groups of Syrian Turkmen, an ethnic group with ties to Turkey and another Sunni ally of Ankara in Syria, are also to be trained in Bashiqa, according to news reports.
Following the Turkish-Russian row over the downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish Air Force near the north-western Syrian border on November 24th, Ankara decided to boost the number of soldiers and troops to protect its military advisers in Bashiqa, 30 km north-east of Mosul.
Approximately 150 soldiers, backed by heavy weapons and tanks, arrived at the camp on December 4th, triggering the Iraqi protests. The Turkish ambassador to Baghdad was summoned by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. US officials said they were aware of the Turkish troop deployment and said the action was separate from the international anti-ISIS coalition, news reports said.
Iran accused Turkey of adding to tensions in the region. Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Turkey’s moves “will increase chaos and insecurity in the region”, according to the Iranian Fars news agency.
Iran also supported Russian accusations that Turkey was profiting from illicit oil exports by ISIS. “Iranian advisers in Syria have taken photos and videos of all the routes [used by] Daesh oil trucks [to move] to Turkey and these documents can be presented and published,” Iran’s Press TV quoted Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, an advisory body to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as saying. Turkey has rejected the allegations. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The Turkish troop presence in Bashiqa is also a message to the Syrian-Kurdish militia People’s Defence Units (YPG) operating nearby. The YPG is an offshoot of Turkish- Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has its headquarters in northern Iraq and has been fighting Ankara on-and-off since 1984. There have been tensions between the PKK and the KRG government, as the KRG is uneasy about the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq and the growing strength of the YPG in neighbouring north-eastern Syria. KRG President Masoud Barzani was expected to visit Ankara this week.