October 26, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Turkey’s Ambitions in Northern Iraq
As Iraqi security forces and their allies close in on the so-called Islamic State’s stronghold of Mosul, tensions between the Iraqi and Turkish governments over the fate of the city threaten to upend the fight against the Islamic State before it has even been won. A variety of political, security, sectarian and historical concerns have vested Turkey with an enduring interest in the fate of Mosul, often at the expense of Iraq’s central government. Recent statements by Turkish President Erdogan to Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi demonstrate Turkish resolve to be a determining force in the fate of northern Iraq.
The greatest point of contention is the presence of approximately 500 Turkish troops in the northern Iraqi city of Bashiqa, and Turkey’s desire to see these forces actively involved in the assault on Mosul. Turkey deployed the troops in late 2015, ostensibly to train anti-Islamic State forces. With the battle for Mosul in full swing, Turkey is seeking to use the troops in the assault on the city itself in order to protect the city’s Sunni and Turkman populations from retribution at the hands of Shi’a militias.
For Abadi, Turkish involvement is perceived as a threat that will not subside with the liberation of Mosul. The suggestion of expanded Turkish involvement in northern Iraq has drawn harsh criticism from the Iraqi government—including threats to eject Turkish troops from Iraq by force. The issue threatens to put Iraqi forces on the path to confrontation with Turkish troops, drawing resources away from the fight to retake Mosul. For the Abadi government—whose mandate already rests on precarious political ground—the question is one of national sovereignty. The perception that the Iraqi government is on the verge of defeating the Islamic State, only to allow Turkey to degrade the country’s territorial integrity, undermines Baghdad’s credibility.
Turkey’s expanding military role in northern Iraq serves several of the country’s security priorities. Turkey has been battling the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) for decades and has targeted the group’s safe havens in Iraq numerous times in the past. The increasing hostilities between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants in both Syria and southeastern Turkey only add to Turkish resolve not to let the PKK dominate northern Iraq; Mosul and its surrounding areas are fundamental to Turkey’s strategy to prevent Islamic State losses in Syria and Iraq from benefitting Kurdish separatists. Turkey’s foreign minister recently declared the country’s intention to create a ‘safe zone’ along the Iraqi side of the border to prevent infiltration from PKK militants, raising the possibility that Turkish troops could be in Iraq long-term. Thus, the expanding role of Turkish troops in Bashiqa could be instrumental in Turkey’s effort to strategically position itself and the forces it supports to prevail in the aftermath of the battle for Mosul.
Turkish interest in Mosul harkens back to the country’s imperial past. The city was previously under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, until the Treaty of Lausane after World War I passed control of the city to Iraq, then a British protectorate. Nearly a century later, the transfer of sovereignty remains contested by the Turks. Due to Turkey’s current economic and political influence across northern Iraq as well as the demographics of Mosul—mostly Sunni Arab, with a sizeable Turkman minority—most Turks consider the city to be rightfully within Ankara’s sphere of influence. Thus, Mosul maintains a position of unique historical relevance in Turkey’s collective memory.
The desire to maintain a degree of strategic depth in Iraq against the Kurds is compounded by the aspirations of Turkey’s current political leaders, who seek to restore the Turkish Republic to a position of geopolitical power on par with its imperial past. If Iraqi and Turkish priorities in Mosul continue to conflict, there is real danger of prolonging—or even interrupting—the capture of Mosul from the Islamic State. As each party seeks to advance its position post-Islamic State, they undermine the unity that is essential for the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq.
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