Turkish jockeying for influence in Iraq

Turkey is keen on ensuring that Sunni militias it has trained play a key role to dilute the influence of Baghdad and the powerful Shia militias aligned backed by Iran.

As the much-anticipated battle for Mosul final began, the number of parties vying for a key role in the fight underscores the diverse and complicated ethno-sectarian landscape. Turkey, determined to protect its own interests, is intent on playing a key hand. However, relations between Ankara and Baghdad have become frosty and fueled by mistrust, while Kurds are in a difficult position between both sides.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding, “you are not my equal.”

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim threatened Baghdad “not to talk big.”

The presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp in Iraq has led to deep friction and increasingly tough rhetoric.

Turkish forces have been training predominantly Sunni Muslim forces but also Kurdish Peshmerga forces since 2014. However, relations between Baghdad and Ankara worsened in December 2015 as Turkey sent hundreds of elite troops and tanks to bolster its existing force.

Ankara has insisted that the Turkish troops were deployed at the request of Iraq to train their fighters, but Baghdad has viewed them as an occupying force.

Turkey is keen on ensuring that Sunni militias it has trained play a key role to dilute the influence of Baghdad and the powerful Shia militias aligned backed by Iran.

The Kurds find themselves vital to the liberation of Mosul, but face a somewhat tricky position between Baghdad and Ankara.

The Kurds enjoy strong economic ties with Turkey with independent oil exports enabled by Turkey. It needs Turkish support to maintain economic prosperity, security, Kurdish control of areas liberated from IS and later even outright independence. Therefore, it cannot be an obstacle to Turkish interests. At the same time, Erbil cannot afford to antagonise Baghdad.

As Iraq struggles for any sense of unity, Turkey relies on the Kurds and Sunnis to serve its regional and strategic interests, away from any dependence on Baghdad.

After years of criticism for sitting on the fence, the Turkish military intervention in Syria showed a new willingness for Turkey to play a more proactive hand in determining the outcome of regional storms.

Turkey was faced to decide between difficult choices. These political and sectarian fires, intensified with the rise of the IS, will forever change the shape of the Middle East. Either Turkey tries to influence these historical events to its benefit or such events force a new reality on Turkey.

The growing power and autonomy of the Syrian Kurds, where Turkey alleges their main force to be the same as the PKK, is a prime example of an idle Turkey forced to face such realities.

Erdogan warned Ankara would take action it deemed required protecting their interest. “We don’t need permission from anyone, nor are we going to ask for it,” he stated.

In no uncertain terms, Erdogan made clear that Turkish forces will not leave Bashiqa. The decision by Turkish parliament to extend the mandate of its forces in Iraq underpins the long-term role that Ankara views in Iraq.

Erdogan warned that their “Plan B will come into effect” if coalition forces refuse their request to play a hand in the coalition in Iraq.

That Plan B is not clear, but if Turkey is not allowed to join the coalition in Iraq, then they will take matters into their hand. They are likely to bolster their existing force, embolden Sunni forces to play a crucial role and perhaps endorse the expanded Kurdistan borders.

Equally, Baghdad is likely to have its own Plan B, including the possibility of increased support to PKK or allowing the PKK a role in the Mosul battle.

By virtue of Erdogan’s statement, it’s not just about the liberation of Mosul but also the post IS reality that he wants to protect via direct force or certainly through further training of Sunni forces.

The eventual destruction of IS will end one danger but bring many dangers in its wake, not least potential for another influx of refugees from Mosul and regional proxy wars for sectarian supremacy.

Kurdistan also needs long-term stability in the area, as it will face the direct heat of more sectarian bloodshed on its border.

Turkey is unlikely to withdraw their forces, certainly not at the request of Baghdad, placing the United States into a tough corner with two vital allies. On the one hand, it must support the notion of a unified Iraq and thus the central influence of Baghdad, but it can do little to influence the Turks, Kurds, Sunni and Shia, all with different goals and a level of autonomy in their decision-making.

  

Editing by Delovan Barwari