Turkey’s Involvement in Iraq Raises Eyebrows

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The rotation of a small Turkish military training force in Iraq has become the latest headache for Turkey’s government and its president. The forces are ostensibly in Iraq to provide training for anti-ISIS fighters, including Iraqi Kurds. However, in the last few days the Iraqi government has expressed alarm at Turkish plans to replenish their forces, including sending over 20 tanks to buttress its military force in the Bashiqa district of Mosul. The debacle has invited strong reactions from critics of Turkey’s president, many of whom believe Ankara’s position in the region may be in danger.

There is genuine uncertainty about Turkey’s intentions following its announcement that it would rotate its token force stationed in Iraq. But the threats that are coming out of Iraq, according to the Albawaba website, are leading to a general state of confusion about the real situation on the ground: “Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has issued an order for his country’s air force to be on alert as a deadline to Turkey to pull out its troops from the Arab country approaches. Sources in Abadi’s office said on Monday that the Iraqi premier has demanded that members of the Iraqi Air Force be ready to defend the country’s ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty,’ according to the Sumeriyah news channel….Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari again warned on Monday that Iraq would raise the matter of the illegal deployment before the United Nations Security Council if Ankara fails to pull out the troops and their heavy weaponry.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish politicians, including Mr. Masoud Barzani ,have tried to downplay Turkey’s involvement in the region: “President of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government Masoud Barzani said Tuesday that Turkish forces came to Iraq in coordination with Baghdad to provide military training for ‘Al-Hashd al-Watani’ (National Mobilization) that will participate in the anti-Daesh operation in Mosul. During a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeiera, Barzani said that ‘there is an agreement between Baghdad and Ankara about deploying Turkish forces near Mosul.’ He described reactions to the matter as ‘exaggerated.’”

Meanwhile, according to Good Morning Turkey, Russia’s fury at the downing of its fighter jet has already made Turkey’s involvement in Syria and Iraq a matter of UN Security Council consideration: “Russia has asked the United Nations Security Council to hold closed-door discussions on Turkish military action in Syria and Iraq, diplomats said on Dec. 7, in the latest sign of increasing tensions between Moscow and Ankara….Separately, Iraq has accused Turkey of violating its sovereignty by deploying a heavily armed contingent of forces to a camp near the front line in northern Iraq last week. It threatened to refer the case to the Security Council unless Turkey withdraws its forces. It was not clear if Russia intended to raise the specific Iraqi complaints, nor was it clear if the Russian delegation wanted the council to take action.”

The Khaleej Times editorial cautions both sides against taking hasty action: “The Turkey-Iraq standoff over Turkish troop incursions will need cool heads for a quick resolution. Iraq has threatened diplomatic action through the UN. Ankara should immediately pull back its troops before the situation spirals out of control. Turkish troops are near Mosul, a hotbed of Daesh activity, where they are training friendly Kurdish troops against the terrorists, but they may have gone too far into Iraqi territory….Ankara’s current approach will not help in easing tensions. Turkey has already crossed swords with Syria and Russia, and this new confrontation with Iraq will make things worse, impacting peace and security in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has defended the move as a routine troop rotation at a pre-established camp, should reach out to his Iraqi counterpart Haider Al Abadi, and sort out the issue before Daesh gains from divisions between the two sides.”

Turkish commentators and observers have been careful to put the events in the proper context, even though many of them have been especially critical of their government’s actions and decisions. In a recent op-ed for the Hurriyet Daily News, Murat Yetkin notes that “There is also a PKK dimension to the Turkish reinforcement, as well as the fight against ISIL. The military presence of the PKK in northern Iraq is considered a major threat for Turkey and a matter of political rivalry for the KRG. The PKK and the militia of its Syrian extension, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been fighting against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but they have been trying to benefit from the situation for their own political agenda to establish a Kurdish state under its control in the region. Ankara thinks the situation after the downing of the Russian plane could end up leading to a fertile environment for manipulation of the PKK against Turkish anti-ISIL training camps in Iraq by pro-Russian of pro-Iranian agitators.”

Today’s Zaman’s Yavuz Baydar, on the other hand, posits a geo-political explanation: “Official reactions — particularly the one from Baghdad — offer a lot for deeper consideration as to what is really taking place as compared to what appears to happening….In what appears to be a prelude to the funeral of the Sykes-Picot Agreement dating back a century ago, the sudden and dramatic moves are linked to each other. It’s a stage for interested parties and local players to position and reposition themselves as events unfold. The bits and pieces of information coming from Ankara point to a position on Iraqi soil that may be long-lasting, aimed at having a stake in the chess game that so far has caused a series of instances of backlash for the AKP government.”

Critics of Turkey’s president and of his policies, like Semih Idiz, believe that Turkey’s Middle East policy is a failed one: “Blinded by their limited understanding of foreign policy and regional calculations grounded on their Islamist/Sunni outlook, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu walked into traps they set internationally, by quixotically chasing after pipe-dreams, not the least of which was the assumption that Turkey was a natural leader for the Middle East….Today, though, Turkey has no ties with Israel, no ties to speak of with Egypt, has alienated Iran and – as the last verbal sparring between Ankara and Baghdad over Turkey’s deployment of troops north of Mosul shows – has strained ties with Iraq….Having set out to reduce Turkey’s “servility,” they increased Ankara’s dependence on outside support for its security from regional threats. They also left Turkey hanging on the coattails of other powers in an effort to regain some of its lost regional influence. All of this points to one thing: A totally failed Middle East policy.”

Cafer Solgun expresses a similar sentiment in a recent op-ed, noting that this failed policy is a result of the ruling AKP’s stubbornness, hubris, and lack of foresight: “It is not hard to figure out that Iran is behind Iraq’s forceful stance. But what really deserves some focus for us here in Turkey is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s apparent inability to predict results from the steps taken in foreign policy….the transfer of Turkish troops to the Bashika military camp near Mosul seems to be a move not adequately calculated by Ankara….It is right that Turkey would desire a presence and an influence in the ridding of the Mosul area of ISIL forces. After all, this is the reason at the root of Ankara’s presence in international anti-ISIL coalitions in the region in general. But what Ankara ought to avoid is acting according to its own ideas on this front. The AKP leadership has become accustomed over the years to a very arbitrary sort of ‘I’ve done it, it’s over’ type of governing. The area where this just does not work is in foreign policy.”

Turkish officials do not seem to have thought through the implication of the involvement of Turkish forces in and around Mosul, which according to a prominent opposition politician, includes thinking about the possibility of a greater Kurdish presence in Mosul should ISIS forces be defeated: “Ankara’s former consul general to Mosul, Öztürk Yılmaz, has raised questions over what will happen next if Turkey helps to clear Mosul of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants by sending troops to Bashiqa…. ‘Even if Turkey clears Mosul of ISIL via a ground operation, what will be its next step? Who will control the area? If the area is to be controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG], what is the significance of this action for Turkey?… If Mosul is seized from ISIL then it will be major blow to the group, but who will then control Mosul? If it is to be controlled by Kurds like Sinjar, then a completely different scenario comes into play,’ said Yılmaz, claiming that Kurdish fighters in the region were keen to take control of both Kirkuk and Mosul in order to extend their area of control. Yılmaz also suggested that if this scenario takes place, a larger area in Syria would likely come under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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