US struggling to keep Turkey and Iraq on same page
WASHINGTON - Tensions between Turkey and Iraq over the battle for Mosul are signs of deep divisions over who will hold power in areas of Iraq and Syria liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Despite Iraqi protests, Turkey insists on playing a role along with Baghdad’s forces, Kurdish militias and a US-led international coalition to drive ISIS out of Mosul. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said artillery deployed in a camp in Bashiqa, north-west of Mosul, had killed close to 20 ISIS fighters since the start of the offensive October 17th. Turkey said its soldiers in Bashiqa were training anti-ISIS rebels.
Cavusoglu said four Turkish fighter jets were part of the coalition’s fleet of warplanes. “We are everywhere in the Mosul operation,” the minister told Turkish broadcaster 24 TV.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi demanded Turkish troops withdraw from Bashiqa. The fight for Mosul is an “Iraqi battle”, Abadi said after talks October 22nd with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Baghdad.
As Abadi spoke, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fanned the flames by alluding to his country’s Ottoman past, when Turks ruled the region around Mosul and Kirkuk before the fall of the Ottoman empire following World War I. “Kirkuk was ours. Mosul was ours,” Erdogan declared.
Sectarian and regional tensions play a role. Sunni power Turkey is concerned that the Shia government in Baghdad — and, by extension, Abadi’s ally Iran — may try to pressure the majority Sunni population of Mosul. Ankara warned against the participation of Shia militia in the Mosul operation.
“The demographic structure of the city must not be spoiled,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said earlier in October. “We are watching very carefully.” Ankara is also concerned that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey, may try to create a power base around Mosul.
The Turkish-Iraqi spat has left the United States, which sees both countries as important allies in the fight against ISIS, in a quandary. Washington says decisions about the Mosul offensive are up to Iraq but acknowledges Turkey’s legitimate concerns. During visits to Ankara and Baghdad, Carter said both sides had agreed in principle to allow Turkish participation in the Mosul campaign. However, just a day later, Abadi made it clear that he did not want Turkish participation.
“The US has a tightrope to walk here,” Beverley Milton-Edwards, a Brookings Doha Center visiting fellow, wrote in response to e-mailed questions from The Arab Weekly. “On the one hand it needs to keep Turkey — its NATO ally — in the tent but on the other it has swung decisively behind the government of Haider al-Abadi in Iraq’s mission to get rid of ISIS-controlled areas of the country.”
Some observers say tensions between Ankara and Baghdad could lead to a military confrontation that would weaken or even derail the Mosul campaign against ISIS. “There is danger of a war within a war that could damage the prospects for retaking and stabilising Mosul,” Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq, wrote in the National Interest.
“Ankara is concerned not just about Mosul proper but also about the surrounding area, where Iran would like to establish an outpost at the junction of the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish Kurdish regions,” Khalilzad wrote. “The Turks believe Iran is seeking a land corridor to the Mediterranean shores of Syria and Lebanon for which Mosul would present the shortest route from Iran — an outcome they want to block.”
Milton-Edwards said she doubted that the Turkish-Iraqi row could seriously weaken the attack on Mosul. “It may hamper it but the government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad is supported by powerful external allies united in a determination to oust ISIS,” she wrote.
The clash over who has the say in Mosul once ISIS is gone reveals the fears of the various players, Milton- Edwards added, writing: “Mosul is indicative of the concern not only by Iraq but other regional powers of fragility in spaces where governance is weak and is exploited by groups like ISIS. This presents a major security threat not just to Iraq but other regional state actors including Turkey, Iran, Syria and Gulf states.”
Mosul is not the only place where conflicting interests of US partners in the region are creating trouble. Turkey’s military and Turkish-backed rebels have been fighting ISIS and Kurdish militias in northern Syria since late August. Ankara is concerned that Kurdish gains there could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. US State Department spokesman John Kirby warned Turkey not to give “oxygen” to ISIS by attacking the Syrian Kurds, US allies in the fight against the jihadists.
Despite the warning, Cavusoglu said Ankara would not hesitate to send more troops into Iraq if it felt threatened by developments there. “If there is a threat against Turkey, we will use all our capabilities, including a ground operation,” he said.