By Afro-Middle East Centre
Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.
Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms . That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.
Turkey’s military goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.
From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.
Turkey’s refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.
Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of , prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?
Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.
Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.
Apart from , Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?
With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.