Despite official statements to the contrary, Ankara and Washington are not cooperating in Syria. There's a lot of friction. Ankara acquiesces much more to its former adversary Russia than to its traditional ally, the United States.
Turkey has been conspicuously silent on Aleppo's worsening plight brought about by the Syrian regime in Damascus, with Russia's backing. Until recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consistently called attention to Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which is perceived as essential to Turkey's interests in, and influence over, Syria. Turkey's silence during the darkest days of Aleppo's very long history is appalling.
A big question mark also hangs over the strategic town al-Bab, which lies only 30 kilometers (less than 20 miles) from Turkey's border. Erdogan once said Syrian rebels should liberate the town with the help of the Turkish army.
Al-Bab is the last remaining Islamic State (IS) stronghold in northern Syria, and it holds strategic importance for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey and the Syrian army supported by Russia. Erdogan implied that Turkey is committed to liberating al-Bab from IS. If that objective is achieved, the Kurdish aim of linking the Kurdish cantons along the border with Turkey will be thwarted, perhaps, once and for all.
But as we have not been hearing anything from Ankara on Aleppo or al-Bab, speculation is rife that Turkey has taken a step back to align its Syrian policy with Russia's.
After Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24, Moscow blocked Ankara from playing any significant role in northern Syria. It was the improvement of relations with Russia that enabled Turkey’s military incursion into Syria on Aug. 24, rather than US endorsement.
It appears the limits of Turkey's engagement in northern Syria are dictated more by Russia than the United States. And as it looks like Turkey's influence is somewhat circumscribed in northern Syria, Ankara has turned to northern Iraq, toward Mosul.
Speaking to Dubai-based Rotana TV last weekend, Erdogan said, "Mosul is for the people of Mosul, Tal Afar is for the people of Tal Afar. After the liberation of Mosul from IS, no one has the right to enter and settle in these towns. Only Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Sunni Kurds should stay there."
As preparations to retake Mosul are underway, Erdogan's warning on the sectarian consequences of the Mosul operation sparked strong reactions from the predominantly Shiite government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Erdogan clearly was objecting to the use of the Shiite militiamen that Baghdad will rely on for the "liberation" of Mosul.
What further exacerbates the tension is the presence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa, a few miles north of Mosul. It is a facility provided to Turkey by the former governor of Ninevah province Atheel al-Nujaifi, the brother of the Sunni vice president of Iraq. The Nujaifi brothers are notables of Mosul, belonging to a family known as "Turkey's arm" in Iraq's third-largest city.
The unspecified number of Turkish military personnel in Bashiqa are involved in — among other activities — training Iraqi Sunni supporters of Nujaifi. Following the ultimate recapture of Mosul from IS, the Turkish plan is to hand over the city to Sunni control, preferably to those Sunnis who are pro-Turkey.
Erdogan expressed Turkey's willingness to join the imminent battle for Mosul.
All of these events led the Iraqi parliament to adopt a resolution Tuesday denouncing the Turkish troop presence in Bashiqa and asking the Baghdad government to consider them "occupation forces." Abadi, following the resolution, told reporters that the presence of Turkish troops "is one of the challenges" ahead of the Mosul operation. He warned that Ankara’s insistence could lead to "regional warfare."
Relations between Ankara and Baghdad are so soured that each one's Foreign Ministry summoned the other's diplomatic envoy to exchange protest notes.
Baghdad has demanded the immediate withdrawal of forces that it said Turkey "illegally" sent into Iraq.
An extremely strong-worded response came Oct. 5 from Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who said, "Whatever the Iraqi government says, the Turkish military presence will continue to remain in order to fight against [IS] and to prevent the change of the structure of the region by force."
Yildirim apparently meant "to keep the region from falling under the influence of the Shiite-led Baghdad government," and to keep Kurdish elements from having military dominance in the nearby town of Sinjar, which is adjacent to Syria's Kurdish territories under the control of the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party and the YPG.
The Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil and the United States and its allies in Baghdad are preparing for the offensive to oust IS from its "crown jewel" of Mosul. But meanwhile, the Mosul issue is turning into a potential geopolitical confrontation with strong sectarian overtones.
Turkey seemingly relies on playing the card of Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani — if not the full deck of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — when it comes to Mosul. Numan Kurtulmus, the Turkish deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said, "About the Bashiqa issue, it is obvious that the [Kurdish] regional administration in northern Iraq and the Barzani administration had asked for [Turkey's] support and sought help from Turkish troops, especially for training their local forces to rescue Mosul. This is not disputable. Turkey will not let the Bashiqa issue become a matter of debate," stressing that Turkey's presence in Bashiqa is "not an occupation."
The wild card is Washington.
Col. John Dorrian, the American spokesman for the International Coalition Force in Iraq, said in reference to the Iraqi parliament's resolution, "The Turkish military force in the Iraqi territory [Bashiqa] is not a part of the coalition force and it has not been there with the invitation and the permission of the Iraqi government, therefore it is illegal."
If this is interpreted as a boost to the Baghdad government's stand, it will embolden Barzani's opposition in the KRG — opposition that mainly consists of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Movement for Change Party, both of which enjoy Tehran's support.
The shift of Turkish attention from Aleppo and al-Bab to Mosul not only complicates regional alliances that are already dangerously tangled over Syria, but also complicates the operation for Mosul.
Washington may need to recalibrate its regional military cooperation with Ankara, not only in northern Syria but also in northern Iraq.
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