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Is Turkey’s insistence on a military role in Mosul a strategic miscalculation?

Dr Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 28, 2016

    Turkey’s insistence on a role for itself in the ongoing joint offensive of Iraqi armed forces and Kurdish Peshmarga supported by limited US ground forces and air strikes to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State’s control has created rifts between Ankara and Baghdad. In the run up to the operation, named Qadimun ya Naynawa (We are coming Nineveh), on 11 October, while addressing a press meet in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “know his place” in response to Abadi’s call for Turkey to withdraw its troops from Bashiqa. Iraq is wary of a role for Turkey as it fears that the latter can undermine the Abadi government’s ability to control Mosul after liberation from the Islamic State. For its part, Turkey insists on a role to protect its interests (see below). Attempts by the US to mediate and coax Turkey into working under the US-led coalition have not yielded results.

    Turkey has multiple reasons for insisting upon a role for itself. Firstly, it argues that Turkish forces are based in Bashiqa to provide training for the Kurdish Peshmarga and that its forces have been invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It also argues that Baghdad had been informed of these plans and that Turkey is cooperating with the Masoud Barzai government in the fight against the Islamic State. Secondly, Turkey has interests in northern Iraq because of the domestic Kurdish question and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the breakdown of Turkey-PKK peace talks in mid-2015, Turkey has intensified military action against the PKK and does not want the latter to maintain military bases in northern Iraq. The Kurdish insurgency in Turkey is a major domestic challenge and numerous peace talks have failed to resolve the issue. Moreover, Turkey has been worried about growing Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and Syria and the chances of a transnational Kurdish movement for autonomy which can provide impetus to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

    Thirdly, Turkey is also concerned about the post-Islamic State power configuration in Mosul. It is supporting the former governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, and the Sunni militia loyal to him and wants him to have a leading role in Mosul after the city’s liberation. Turkey fears that a significant role for Baghdad and the Shia militia supported by Iran could lead to loss of Turkish influence in northern Iraq. Further, Turkey wishes to maintain good ties with the KRG for both economic and strategic reasons. But Iraq wishes to control Mosul and does not want it to slip under KRG control because of its oil-rich topography. Further, Iran is also insisting upon a role for the Shia militia as that will increase its own influence. Turkey also has concerns about the ability of the PKK and the Islamic State to launch attacks in its Kurdish dominated south-eastern region, which is already witnessing unrest.

    Fourthly, Erdoğan has domestic political reasons to insist on an independent military role for Turkey in the battle for Mosul. His going public with criticism of Abadi and telling the latter to “know his place” serves well to trump up domestic support for the AKP. In the last few months, Turkey has witnessed several terrorist attacks leading to a number of deaths as well as a failed ‘coup’ attempt leading to opposition parties accusing the AKP government of inability to maintain peace and stability, staging a counter coup and stifling dissent. Under these circumstances, a direct military involvement in Mosul would give Erdoğan a premise to thump up AKP’s traditional support base and also appeal to Turkish nationalists. Finally, Erdogan’s insistence on a direct military role also hints at his neo-Ottoman ambitions.

    Though Turkey has thus multiple reasons for insisting upon a role for itself in the battle for Mosul, the way Erdoğan has gone about it is fraught with danger. The situation in Iraq is fragile and sectarian violence frequent because of the rise of the Islamic State. Shia militias, especially those supported by Tehran such as the Kata’ib Hezbollah, have been accused of torturing and massacring Sunnis during the operation to liberate Falluja from the Islamic State’s control. If Turkey insists on a role for itself, the Shia militias will also want to have a role and that can lead to further bloodshed and an intensification of the sectarian violence. Moreover, it gives former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki a weapon to undermine the Haider al-Abadi government. It will also create problems between Baghdad and Erbil, which do not see eye to eye on Mosul’s future after its retake from the Islamic State. While the KRG wishes to bring Mosul under its control, for Baghdad this is not acceptable as it undermines the central authority.

    Notably, the situation in Mosul is complicated. Although early signs indicated a fast advance by the coalition forces, the Islamic State is unlikely to give up all that easily a strategic location like Mosul. The city is not only a political base for the Islamic State but also allows it to control the supply routes to its territories in Iraq and Syria. Reports suggest that the leadership of the Islamic State including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is no more located in Mosul and it has been argued that the Islamic State can enter into a prolonged urban warfare in and around Mosul which is a highly populated area. In such a situation, the battle for Mosul can turn into a humanitarian crisis and hence demands cooperation rather than rifts.

    Turkey’s unwillingness to agree to a role under the US-command emanates from domestic reasons – maintain the ruling party’s support base and underscore the Turkish ability to take military action to nullify all threats even if located outside its borders. However, such an approach is short-sighted as it can lead to an intensification of violence by PKK insurgents inside Turkey. Further, it risks escalating the already fraught sectarian situation in Iraq, undermining Iraqi sovereignty and not yielding any significant military or political gains for itself. By agreeing to work under the US command, Turkey can secure its interests without antagonizing Iraq or starting a strategic competition with Iran, and without risking further escalation in the sectarian fault lines that could engulf the entire region including Turkey. Given all this, Turkey’s insistence on a direct military role for itself in the battle for Mosul is an avoidable strategic risk.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.