Washington has again found itself in the middle of a fast-escalating conflict between two of its most important partners in the fight against ISIS.
In a move that infuriated Baghdad – and its Russian and Iranian allies – Turkey deployed roughly 500 troops to a military base in Bashiqa, Iraq, last December to train and advise local forces in preparation for the Mosul offensive that began last week.
Iraq denounced the move as a violation of its sovereignty, and it has insisted that the Turkish troops will not play any role in Mosul’s liberation.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter signaled to reporters Friday that the US does not unconditionally support Turkey’s involvement in the offensive.
“The Iraqi government will need to agree” toTurkey’s participation inthe Mosul campaign, Carter said, noting that “the practicalities” of such an agreement are still being “hammered out.”
The dispute between Turkey and Iraq has forced the US into a delicate balancing act – between staying on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s good side to prevent Baghdad from getting fully sucked in to Iran’s sphere of influence, and acknowledging its shared concerns with Turkey over Iran’s lofty regional aspirations.
In the end, however, Washington is more likely to defend Iraq’s sovereignty than to side with Turkey.
“I am not sure how much the US is now lobbying for the Turks,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy specializing in the politics and security of Iraq.
“I think US is caught between two allies, but if it has to choose then it will default to Iraqi sovereignty,” Knights added. “The US views the Turkish involvement as a huge headache but wants to minimize the risk of ether side acting rashly.”
Iraq has repeatedly denied Turkey’s requests to help liberate Mosul, which fell to ISIS in mid-2014.
“I know that the Turks want to participate. We tell them thank you, this is something theIraqis will handle,” al-Abadi told reporters after meeting with Carter on Saturday. He said that if Turkey intervened, “We are ready for them.”
But Ankara evidently isn’t taking “no” for an answer.
On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters that Turkish soldiers would be helping Kurdish Peshmerga in Bashiqa at the Kurds’ request. And on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey is involved in the Mosul operation “in a multi-faceted way.”
The back-and-forth makes it seem as though the agreement announced by Carter “is tenuous at best,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of Turkish parliament.
“Washington could succeed in lowering Iraqi-Turkish tension, but it might prove more challenging for the US to find a modus vivendi for Turkey’s military involvement in the Mosul operation,” Erdemir said. “There is a clear sectarian angle to the ongoing Ankara-Baghdad polemic, and there is little that the US could do in the short run to alleviate that.”
A Sunni ’boutique power center’
Turkey’s desire to maintain a military presence in Iraq is motivated by several factors, most stemming from Ankara’s desire to “balance the increasing Russia-led Baghdad-Tehran-Damascus alliance that is Shia in nature,” Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military expert who served as an adviser in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2008, told Business Insider last year.
Turkey, a NATO member whose citizens are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, is concerned about Shiite Iran’s ever-increasing influence over Baghdad.The amount of influence Iran and its proxy militias wield over Iraqi politics cannot be understated, and its opposition to foreign intervention in Iraq is in line with Tehran’s overarching objective to roll back western influence and expand its own power in the region.
As such, Ankara has “been trying to form a sort of Sunni ’boutique power center’ using three specific entities: the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] in northern Iraq, Iraqi Sunni Arabs near Mosul, and Syrian Sunni Arabs,” Gurcan said.
Turkey perceives its relationship with the KRG as key to containing the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently waging an insurgency in southern Turkey, said Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq is at least as important, since it could also be a step toward denying the Shiite country a land bridge through northern Iraq and Syria to Syrian president Bashar Assad’s Alawite homeland, Biddle said.
Iran has not been shy about its opposition to the Turkish intervention.
“It is not acceptable at all if a country, under the pretext of combating terrorism or any other crimes, tries to violate the sovereignty” of another country, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on Monday.
Turkey, meanwhile, has shown no signs of backing down as it tries to create de-facto realities on the ground.
“We will not wait for problems to come knocking on our door,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech last week.
“We will not wait until the blade is against our bone and skin, we will not wait for terrorist organizations to come and attack us,” he continued, referring to the PKK and the Islamic State. “I’m warning the terrorist organizations, the sectarian fanatic Baghdad government, and the Assad government that kills its own people: you are on the wrong path. … We are not obliged to abide by the role anyone has set for us in that sense. We have started carrying out our own plan.”
Days later, Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said that four Turkish F-16 fighters jets “are on standby for an air operation as part of the international coalition, ready for air strikes” on Mosul.
“There is a danger of a war within a war that could damage the prospects for retaking and stabilizing Mosul,” Zalmay Khalilzad, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, warned in a recent article in The National Interest.
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is not convinced.
While the Turks are “a wild card,” the stakes of the dispute may be overstated. “There is no way the United States is going to let the Turks and Iraqis trade blows,” he said.
Biddle agreed that preventing the dispute from becoming violent “is a major US priority.” But, he noted, “Iraqi-Turkish tensions certainly could escalate – Abadi is clearly very unhappy with Erdogan.”
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