As the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State gathers speed, the ongoing row between Baghdad and Ankara over the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq shows no signs of abating. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to insist that Turkey has a “historic responsibility” to participate in the offensive and that it will do so whether Iraq wants it to or not.
Erdogan's blustering is prompting growing concern in Baghdad — and in Washington — of unilateral Turkish action in its former Ottoman dominion that could derail the Mosul campaign.
Erdogan asserted, “We will be in the field and at the table. Our preparations for the field are underway.” His speeches on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, which also invoked a 1920 document adopted by the Turkish parliament including Mosul and Kirkuk as part of modern Turkey, came amid unconfirmed reports from Iraqi sources that Turkish troops were massing north of the Iraqi border.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim claimed that the US-led coalition had “reached agreement” on a Turkish role.
Coalition officials speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said they were “unaware” of any such agreement. Washington has consistently said that the Iraqi government must “approve and coordinate” the presence of "all foreign military forces.” And Iraq says it wants the Turkish troops stationed in Bashiqa, north of Mosul, to leave at once.
A Turkish delegation led by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Umit Yalcin returned from Baghdad empty-handed after the Iraqis rebuffed Turkish demands that the troops, which Ankara insists came at the invitation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, stay put until Mosul is “stabilized.”
Erdogan’s talk of being “at the table” and his allusions to an impending Shiite-Sunni conflict imply a possible carving up of Ninevah province, of which Mosul is the capital, along sectarian lines. Yet he has never specified between whom. In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is every bit as opposed to the participation of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in the battle to retake the city, as are several government-aligned PMU leaders themselves — notably Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of one of the largest Iran-sponsored militias, the Badr Brigade — precisely because they want to avoid potential clashes with Sunnis, who make up the overwhelming majority of Mosul’s population.
Yet, pro-government media outlets continue to make the case for Turkish intervention by playing on anti-American sentiment, Ottoman nostalgia and more invidiously, on Sunni sectarianism. Their other major argument is the presence of several hundred Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters in the Sinjar region west of Mosul. Pro-government columnists echo the government line that the Kurdish rebels fighting the Turkish army mainly inside Turkey were inserted into Sinjar “by America” to offset Turkish influence in Mosul.
Similarly, Ankara accuses Abadi of using the PKK-affiliated Yazidi militia known as the Sinjar Resistance Units to undermine Turkey. Baghdad cut off the group's funding around two months ago, mainly at Washington’s bidding. Most analysts agree that any Turkish intervention would most likely target the PKK in Sinjar or come in response to a PMU advance on the mainly Sunni Turkmen city of Tal Afar.
Still, the most likely reason Turkey is scrambling to take part in the battle for Mosul is that Erdogan says it should, all part of a bid to project power and drum up nationalist support for his executive presidency at home. This much became clear when Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar met with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, in Washington this week and sources close to the talks said he appealed for Turkey to be “shown” to be participating in the Mosul campaign. It may also explain why Yildirim felt pressed to claim that Turkish jets were taking part in coalition airstrikes in Mosul. Yildirim declared, "Those who say 'Turkey has no business in Mosul' have gotten their answer," only to retract the statement a few hours later. Turkish planes would take action “when necessary,” Yildirim said.
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