The political situation between Turkey and Iraq is at its worst. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reiterated that his forces “will strongly participate in liberating Mosul” from ISIS.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi responded by saying “We will not allow Turkey to participate in the battle to liberate Mosul”. Disputes between the countries are not limited to the issue of Mosul and reflect the conflict and threats facing the region.
Iraqi media is portraying the role of Turkey in Mosul as sectarian and anti-Shia. This is a false portrayal that exploits the statements of Arab journalists who translate Turkish statements according to their whims. The truth is that Turkish military activity was never sectarian. The Turkish army has not fought a single battle against Shiites or Alawites. Neither have they fought against Assad’s forces, Iranian forces, Russian forces or Hezbollah.
All the battles that Turkish forces have waged have been against ISIS, Turkish-Kurdish separatists and Syrian Kurds allied with them. All of these groups are Sunni and not Shiite. The reason why Turkish forces are fighting them is because they pose a threat to the unity of Turkey and its stability. Turkish military operations are unrelated to the sectarian conflict as Iraqi leaders claim or as Arabs who naively think that Turkey is ready to engage in foolish sectarian wars are professing. Turkey itself is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country!
In my opinion, the Turks are now paying the price for not intervening in areas close to their borders at the beginning of the Syrian uprising and not indicating the areas that they consider threats to their national security and that they will defend by force.
For example, Aleppo represents their geographic and historic extension. As a result, Iran exerted its influence inside Syria and is bargaining with the west and Arabs over it.
Ankara wants to fight ISIS in Mosul and prevent the fighting from targeting the Turkmen and others. However, Iran is leading the political and military confrontation in Mosul and against Turkey also. We all know that the Iraqi government is helpless.
The Iranians succeeded in filling the void in the years that followed the US President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of all his forces. They founded sectarian militias that rival the government and they named them Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. Their aim was to weaken the central authority as they did in Lebanon, and these militias are now preparing to cross into Syria as well.
The Turks have tried diplomatic channels and sent a delegation to Baghdad. The Iraqis responded and sent a delegation to Ankara but their endeavours did not succeed. Will the Turks defend the residents of those areas that their forces surround? Will they confront Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi that is bound to occupy Tal Afar? Will they do something if Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias cross towards Al-Hasakah in Syria as preliminary information suggests they will?
The Iranians are acting quickly before the results of the US elections, and they want to take advantage of the slogan “Fighting terrorism”. They want to launch multiple wars aimed at tightening control over strategic border crossings between Syria, Iraq and oil rich areas.
Despite the risks to their interests, I do not think that the Turkish leadership wants confrontation despite knowing that its army is much stronger than Iran and Iraq and is better equipped. Iranian forces and the militias that it brought from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon are moving towards the Turkish border and are chasing Syrian opposition forces that are loyal to Turkey. They have also encouraged the creation of a buffer zone for the Kurds that will act like a scarecrow to the Turkish government.
At the same time, the Turks are paying the price on the economic and security levels; they are hosting more than two million Syrian refugees and are facing an Iranian-Russian plan to bring the fighting to their territory. This plan is supported by Turkey’s Kurds. Iraqis loyal to Tehran have explicitly declared that they will work to break up Turkey should it dare to challenge them in Mosul.
The situation is very difficult and the Turks will be mistaken again if they think that the war will end at the Ba’shiqah camp in Iraq where their forces are stationed. The Iranians want to control the political decision making centres in Baghdad, Damascus and oil rich areas in Mosul and Deir ez-Zor. They also want to restrain Turkey in the region.
Despite this, I do not believe that threats exchanged by the Iraqi and Turkish leaderships will lead to the two armies clashing. Rather, they aim to intimidate the Turks and force them to leave so that Iran can expand its influence over Ninevah, neighbouring provinces, trade routes, southern Syria and passages. Turkey is in a difficult situation that requires it to form an opposing camp that proves its credibility on the ground.