Turkey might join the fray as the battle over Mosul escalates. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is asserting that his country needs to take a stance in Iraq, which raises alarm bells amongst officials in the Iraqi government.
The Turkish president insists that his nation’s involvement should be expected because Turkey has been historically involved in the Middle Eastern region. This history stretches back to the Ottoman empire, which lost its grip in the Middle East following defeat in World War I.
Seeking to maintain Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, President Erdogan is looking to assert Turkish military presence in Iraq in order to gain a role in negotiations to end the conflict. In response to Turkish intentions, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is warning that his nation’s military is poised to retaliate.
The tensions between Turkey and Iraq have overarching geopolitical implications. As they have seized control in the region, the Islamic State has been blurring the borders of not only Iraq, but also Syria. In turn, Turkey has taken advantage of the vulnerability of these nations and stationed troops in both regions without the permission of either government.
Indeed, the Turks already have troops stationed at a base in Bashiqa, which is located near Mosul in northern Iraq and surrounded by lands controlled by the Islamic State. While the Turks have been occupying this area, they have also been training local forces, including Kurdish forces and Sunni Arab fighters. However, even Turkish efforts to train local fighters has faced opposition from the Iraqi government.
Fighting only recently erupted in Mosul again when Iraqi and Kurdish forces banded together. Their efforts are aimed at reclaiming dozens of villages outside the city as they work to retake the second largest urban center in Iraq from the Islamic State.
Though Turkey, a NATO ally, is professing a desire to help in the reclamation of Mosul, its actions are more of an impedence than an aid. Similarly, Turkish actions in Syria have been counterproductive in fighting against ISIL. In Syria, Turkey has even opposed and sometimes conducted bombings against Syrian Kurdish allies who are working with the United States to defeat ISIL.
Although in the fight for Iraq Syria is seeking to aid rather than counteract Kurdish allies, its actions are still undermining the fight against ISIL through a lack of cooperation with the U.S. government. Currently, the United States is backing Kurdish and Iraqi forces battling to reclaim Mosul through administering advice on military tactics as well as conducting airstrikes on villages outside the city.
Turkey has refused to comply and act under the United States’ direction in a coalition. As part of its lack of cooperation to U.S. and Iraqi wishes, Turkey is keeping about 600 to 800 troops stationed in Bashiqa. Furthermore, this past Sunday, these troops took action unauthorized by the Iraqi or U.S. government. While Kurdish forces fought on Sunday, Turkish forces fired on Islamic State positions. However, the lack of coordination of Turkish actions with U.S. and Iraqi forces is ultimately counterproductive.
With the tensions between Iraq and Turkey coming to a boiling point, a war within a war might result. If Iraq began fighting against Turkey, it would be forced to divide its forces. Fighting ISIL with a divided front would weaken Iraq, diminishing the nation’s chances of taking Mosul back.
The major offensive to recover Mosul is critical. Mosul is the last major stronghold held by ISIL in Iraq. The terrorist group has already lost its control in the cities of Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi. The efforts to retake Mosul represent the last major push to erase ISIL’s influence in Iraq.
Strategically, Mosul has wider implications for ISIL’s strength in the Middle East as a whole. Mosul is an important trading city located close to the border between Syria and Turkey. If ISIL lost Mosul, the movement of fighters, weapons and supplies in those countries would become more difficult. This would diminish the strength of the footholds that the terrorist group has in these areas.
Losing Mosul would also be a major economic blow. The city is located near some of Iraq’s major oil fields, which give ISIL a major monetary boost.
Because of how important the push to take back Mosul is to the defeat of ISIL, the United States is stepping in to alleviate some of the tensions between Iraq and Turkey. American diplomats are attempting to negotiate a compromise between the two countries.
Potentially, the terms of the agreement would prohibit the Turks from being directly involved in any military offensive carried out to reclaim the city. However, Turkey can, hopefully, be assuaged by allowing the country to offer medical and humanitarian support. Iraq is taking a firm stand in rejecting Turkish involvement otherwise. Iraqi government officials are looking to get Turkey to promise to leave Iraq after ISIL’s control in Mosul falls.
The United States is seeking to maintain a tricky balance in these negotiations. Both the sovereignty of Iraq as well as Turkey’s historic involvement in the Middle East must be considered.
However, getting Turkey to relinquish the entirety of its presence in Iraq will likely prove difficult. Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq is largely self-serving. The region is populated by Turkmens and Sunni Arabs, whom the Turkish government would like to protect. In particular, Sunni Arabs could potentially counter the influence of Shiite Iran, whose influence leaks over into northern Iraq. Furthermore, extending the area of Turkey’s influence is reminiscent of the glory days of the Ottoman empire.
U.S. diplomats hope that Turkish ambitions can be kept in check. Though both Iraq and Turkey are taking a stand against ISIL, tensions between the two nations may undermine opposition forces to the terrorist group.