Row between Ankara and Baghdad sidetracks Mosul operation
Turkish and Iraqi governments’ dispute casts pall on effort to oust Islamic State
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in the town of Naweran, near Mosul, on Sunday. Photograph: Azad Lashkari/Reuters
A growing spat between the Turkish and Iraqi governments has cast a pall over the operation to oust Islamic State from Mosul.
On Saturday, Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi warned the offensive is “an Iraqi battle”, while earlier this month the Iraqi parliament said the 2,000 Turkish troops at a base in Iraqi Kurdistan north of Mosul, ostensibly to train Iraqi and Kurdish military forces, is illegal, and called for a review of relations with Turkey.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by claiming Abadi was not at his “level”. Ankara says its troops will stay in northern Iraq until Islamic State is driven from Mosul, and insists it will take part in the week-old operation.
The division highlights the various competing interests at play in northern Iraq, where Kurds, Shia militants, Turkey and the Iraqi government are all wrestling for control and influence of regions soon expected to be taken back from Islamic State.
A constellation of forces involved in the operation, which began last Monday and which has seen a string of villages north and east of the city already taken back from Islamic State, includes Iraqi police forces, the Iraqi security forces, irregular Shia militants, Kurdish peshmerga, Turkish troops and local Turkmen armed groups. It also features air and ground assistance from the US and other coalition states.
But the large number of competing groups involved point to broader political problems in Iraq, where former president Nouri al-Maliki is said to be spoiling to wrest back control of the government by deepening ties with the powerful Shia paramilitaries backed by Iran, and thought to number more than 100,000. Maliki resigned as prime minister in August 2014 after Islamic State – also known as Isis – swept through much of western Iraq.
When that happened, the Iraqi army ran for their lives, leaving US-supplied, cutting-edge military equipment and vehicles to the extremists. Analysts say locals in Mosul have since tolerated Islamic State’s presence out of a greater fear that the Shia militants now dominating the Iraqi security forces would plunder their homes and families, as happened following an operation in Falluja last July, when 900 men and boys were kidnapped and tortured, and 50 killed by Shia militias.
Turkey shares this concern even as high-ranking US officers say an agreement has been made to keep the Shia paramilitaries out of the city in a bid to avoid exacerbating sectarian tensions. Turkey also fears that some among the coalition, namely Kurdish militias, may seek to change the demographic makeup of Mosul, a majority Sunni city, once Isis has been driven out.
Ankara has also been battling Kurdish forces across the border in northern Syria for several weeks and fears a continuous Kurdish presence along its entire southern border. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on October 13th¨: “Reports that the PKK may take part in the Mosul operation greatly worry us . . A mistake made there could result in hundreds of thousands of people becoming refugees [and] will not be limited to Iraq, it will impact the whole region.”
More than 5,000 people have already been forced from their homes because of the operation, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Though Turkish troops have so far played no part in the the battle, and war planes only a minor role, prime minister Binali Yildirim admitted on Tuesday he had no details of information on the ground operation itself. Erdogan has been speaking publicly at every opportunity of the historical importance of Mosul to Turkey, and Ankara’s role in regaining the city.
The KRG, which has long held strained ties with Baghdad over the contested distribution of oil revenues, has used rather more diplomatic language over Turkey’s potential role in Mosul, saying that it is “not aware of any other plans” for the Turkish forces outside of training local forces – an indirect way of saying it expects Turkey to play no role in the Mosul operation. Observers say an active incursion by Turkish troops so deep into Iraqi territory would be unwelcome by both the KRG and Baghdad.
Feisal Istrabadi of Indiana University, who served as an ambassador for Iraq to the United Nations, says the friction is a distraction for Baghdad.
“If I were advising the [Iraqi] prime minister, I would tell him not to engage in this negative standoff with Turkey, a much more powerful country than Iraq. Any disunity in the region regarding confronting Isis does benefit them, certainly if it distracts from the overarching mission of defeating them,” he said.
“Iraq cannot afford to engage in tit-for-tat escalation with Ankara. Turkey holds the fate of Iraq largely in its hand. Iraq, the weaker party, should de-escalate the tensions.”
According to Dylan O’Driscoll, a researcher at the Middle East Research Institute in Irbil, the Iraqi government’s post-Isis plan for Mosul is as important as the operation itself.
“Nineveh [province] should become a federal region with decentralised power sharing within. This would protect the Sunnis from being politically dominated, as there will be an element of self-governance,” he wrote in a wide-ranging report published last month.
“It is important for the population of Mosul to know that local forces are liberating them as well.”