Although Ankara justifies its military presence in the Mosul area by claiming it is a training mission against the Islamic State (IS), the rivalry over who will have a say in the destiny of the region complicates the issue.
After Turkey sent a reinforcement unit accompanied by 25 tanks to Bashiqa camp 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Mosul, the Iraqi government demanded a withdrawal in 48 hours. Turkey, in response, announced it had suspended a second reinforcement unit but wouldn’t withdraw its troops already at the camp. Despite all the efforts to ease the tension, both sides stood firm by their positions.
Head of the Turkish National Intelligence Service Hakan Fidan and the Foreign Ministry's Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu who were sent to Baghdad proposed a middle course that stipulated instead of withdrawing their troops as Baghdad wants a new formula to keep the Turkish troops. The Turkish Foreign Ministry made the following announcement about the outcome of the contacts two senior Turkish officials had with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi: “An agreement was reached to rearrange the military personnel and to set up new mechanisms in conformity with sensitivities of the Iraqi government.”
Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly declared that there is no question of withdrawing the troops from Iraq, diplomatic sources say the number of soldiers could be decreased without giving the impression of a withdrawal. But the Iraqi front remained inflexible. The Iraqi Prime Ministry in its statement said: “The Turkish delegation was informed that the only solution would be a total withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraq.”
On top of that contradictory statement, Abadi instructed his Foreign Ministry to lodge a complaint with the UN Security Council.
Even more unexpected was a declaration by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani setting out his position on the crisis with Turkey. Through his spokesman Sheikh Abdulmajid Karbalai, Sistani stated, “The government should not allow any foreign power to violate Iraq's sovereignty.”
Bearing in mind that Sistani’s words as marja-i taqlid (source of emulation) has the weight of order to be obeyed by Shiites of Iraq, Iraq’s unyielding position against Turkey is likely to continue.
This is the first time Ankara encountered such an unwavering resistance to its military presence, which it has had in northern Iraq since the 1990s.
This surprising resistance can be attributed to two key factors: First, there are many who hold Ankara’s Sunni-indexed policy accountable for the capture of Mosul by IS, and second, there is unexpected apprehension over Ankara’s policy for northern Iraq.
What is new and interesting is that Ankara has abandoned its protective patronage of Turkmens and policy that the status of Kirkuk should not be altered, but instead focuses on shaping a regional policy based on Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
As relations with Baghdad become tenser, relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been assuming strategic dimensions. Like never before, a red carpet was laid out for KRG President Massoud Barzani. Barzani, who was hosted at the highest levels in Ankara following the Mosul crisis, met on Dec. 9 with Erdogan, Prime Minister Davutoglu and Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz. A Kurdistan flag was hoisted for his meeting at the Prime Ministry. Even more interesting was Barzani’s visit to the headquarters of the Turkish Special Forces who are involved in the training of his peshmerga forces. The level and pomposity of welcome given to Barzani was an indicator of a crucial change. A few years ago, one could not even dream of such treatment of Kurdish leaders. Obviously, Ankara was offering Barzani a partnership in dominating the region populated predominantly by Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Ankara is trying to legitimize its military presence at Mosul on two elements: training Kurdistan’s peshmerga defense force and the need to protect the Sunnis.
Erdogan, while stressing that Turkish troops were training the peshmerga, said, “Our troops in Bashiqa could be increased or reduced according to the number of peshmerga they are training." To further confront criticisms, Erdogan also came up with the argument that “Sunnis need protection.” In an interview with Al Jazeera TV, Erdogan accused Iran and Iraq with sectarianism and said, “What will happen to the Sunnis here? There are Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmens and Sunni Kurds. What about their security?”
All the developments and declarations give rise to a new, serious question: Is there an intention for a new regional design that will cover Kurdish and Sunni Arab areas?
After the First Gulf War, when the airspace between the 32nd and 36th parallels was declared a no-fly zone, Mosul was left out of it. At that time, some Turkmen representatives asked Ankara to include Mosul in the no-fly zone but did not receive backing. While the no-fly zone assisted the Kurdistan region in consolidating its strength, Turkmens lost ground politically and demographically. The Turkish government, with its sectarian approach, ended up protecting only Sunni Turkmens.
Even if soldiers are withdrawn from Mosul, this policy doesn’t have much chance of success given the new dynamics of the region. Ankara blames Iran’s influence over Baghdad for the backfiring of Turkey’s policies. While focusing on Iran’s role, two external factors are ignored: Although the United States backed Turkey over the shooting down of the Russian plane and dismissed accusations that IS oil is transported to Turkey, it also issued a warning by saying, "Dispatch of troops to Mosul is not within the activities of the anti-IS coalition.”
The second factor that could lead to Turkey losing ground also in Iraq after Syria is the influence of military partnerships Russia has been developing with Iraq and Iran’s increasing weight in the region.