Turkish Boots on the Ground
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The IRIS Iraq Report (IIR) offers on-the-ground reporting and analysis on Iraq’s most pressing issues. It is aimed at providing decision-makers and experts with solid research and analysis of Iraq policy. The Report is unique because it is produced in Iraq, and is based on in-country fieldwork as well as open source research. It is the brainchild of Ahmed Ali and Christine van den Toorn, both of whom have years of experience researching and writing on Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
By Ahmed Ali and Christine van den Toorn
Recent Turkish military deployments in northern Iraq caused political controversy. Iraq's Shi'a majority now views Turkey as a sectarian actor. Turkey may have chosen to deploy its military assets to counter the growing influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to bolster its regional standing in the face of the growing Russian role in the Middle East, and to support its political allies in Iraq. Turkey’s military deployment is intended as part of the posturing for a post-ISIS Mosul as well. Turkey will have to work closely with the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in order to position itself as an accepted player in Iraq.
On December 4, the Turkish government deployed military assets just outside the town of Bashiqa in northern Iraq’s Ninewa province. Bashiqa is a sub-district of Ninewa’s provincial capital Mosul, and is approximately 12 miles northeast of the city. Reportedly, the new assets included 20-25 tanks, Armored Personnel Vehicles (APCs), and 150 soldiers. The 150 soldiers are presumably replacing 90 Turkish soldiers who have been training a mixture of Iraqi Police (IP) and new recruits under an umbrella organization known as the “National Mobilization”. The members are mostly Iraqi Sunnis and so far the force is limited to Ninewa under the direction of the former provincial governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi. According to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, these military movements are part of “routine rotation” and that the military equipment is intended to be part of force protection for the trainers. Turkish military is not new to the area: about 10 miles east of Bashiqa is the Zilkan training camp where Turkish troops have been training the Iraqi forces from Mosul since the fall of the city to ISIS on June 10, 2014. Yesterday, December 14, some of the Turkish forces withdrew from the camp and were headed to the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing to Turkey.
These developments have caused uproar in Iraq’s political sphere. On December 5, three statements were issued by the federal Government of Iraq (GOI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, condemned the deployment, and called these movements a “dangerous violation” of Iraqi sovereignty because they took place without consultation with the Iraqi government. The statement also called on the Turkish government to withdraw the forces in 48 hours. Iraq’s president, Fuad Masum, issued a statement on the same day echoing Abadi’s condemnation and calling for the withdrawal of Turkish troops. On December 11, the Iraqi government appealed to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) when Turkey failed to meet the deadline to withdraw the forces. In a letter to the current president of the Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Ali al-Hakim wrote, “We call on the Security Council to demand that Turkey withdraw its forces immediately...and not to violate Iraqi sovereignty again.”
In response to the Turkish deployment, predominantly Iraqi Shi’a local governments in southern Iraq such as Maysan, Karbala, and Muthana have voted to boycott Turkish goods and condemned Turkey’s actions. These decisions are not binding for the federal government but do indicate the level of public discontent with Turkey.
In addition to governmental and official response, there were significant religious and popular expressions of discontent with the Turkish government. On December 11 as well, Iraq’s preeminent Shi’a religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the Turkish deployment. Sistani’s representative Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai referred to the deployment in his Friday sermon by stating that "the Iraqi government is responsible for protecting Iraq's sovereignty and must not tolerate any side that infringes upon on it, whatever the justifications and necessities.”
On December 12, there were popular reactions in Baghdad and predominantly Iraqi Shi’a provinces in southern Iraq. There were protests reportedly attended by thousands of demonstrators in Baghdad, Najaf, Thi Qar, and Basra. The protests were primarily organized by Popular Mobilization figures including Badr leader, Hadi al-Ameri, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who is a direct competitor to Abadi. These protests have diminished Abadi’s stature given the organizations behind it and the attendance of Maliki who is likely seeking to take advantage of the Turkish deployment to consolidate his own position at Abadi’s expense.
For its part, the KRG issued a statement explaining that the Turkish government, as part of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), opened two bases in Iraqi Kurdistan in the end of 2014. The statement added that Turkey has also opened a third to train “other Iraqi forces” in Ninewa as part of the same anti-ISIS effort. This is a reference to Atheel Nujaifi’s camp which is supposedly being trained as part of the campaign to reclaim Mosul.
Likely Strategic Rationale for Turkey’s Deployment
Turkey’s deployment was likely motivated by several security and political factors. First is the current role of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq within the context of the anti-ISIS war. The Turkish government still views the PKK as its main national security threat. Since the fall of Mosul, the PKK has played an increased role in the fight against ISIS. It is currently fighting or positioned in several areas that are close to Mosul. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the PKK plans to take part in the Mosul liberation. In the Makhmour area, 70 miles southeast of Mosul, the PKK has had a base in the area since the 1990s. The PKK’s role in Makhmour has been more visible and the organization played a role in reclaiming the area after ISIS captured it and advanced towards Erbil in August 2014.
It is worth noting that in addition to the Peshmerga, there is an Iraqi Army presence in the area. Makhmour is now the headquarters of the Ninewa Operations Command (NOC) under the command of Major General Najm al-Juburi, which will have a role in the planning and execution of the campaign to clear Mosul from ISIS.
The PKK also has a presence in Sinjar, and has been fighting ISIS there since August 2014. They played a role in the operation to liberate Sinjar district center last month. While their political viability long term in the area is questionable, their presence and popularity on another mountaintop in close proximity to the Turkish border – about 93 miles – is a concern for Turkey, especially with the YPG, which is backed by the PKK, carving out such a large autonomous area to the west.
Finally, the PKK is currently deployed around the Kirkuk area as well. Traditionally, Kirkuk has been important for Turkey given the presence of Iraqi Turkmen and Turkey’s interest in limiting the aspirations of an independent Kurdistan. Turkey still maintains an interest in keeping Kirkuk out of the official borders of the KRG as it considers that scenario to be a significant step toward the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Regionally, the Turkish move concerns its overall posture. Turkey’s role in the region has been challenged. Its stated objective of removing Bashar al-Assad from power has not materialized. Turkey’s Assad-centric policy was weakened further when Russia deployed military assets to Syria in September of this year to preserve the Assad government. The tensions between Russia and Turkey escalated on November 24 when Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian plane that entered Turkish air space. Finally, Turkey lost its ally in Egypt with the removal of Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and the ascendance of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Turkey has also watched Iran grow its regional influence most prominently through supporting Assad and in its neighbor Iraq. Consequently, Turkey perceives its deployment to Iraq as way to regain regional standing.
In the context of Iraqi politics, Turkey most likely decided to deploy its assets in part to shore up its Iraqi Sunni allies in Mosul and its Iraqi Kurdish ally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Turkey’s closest Sunni ally in Iraq has been the Nujaifi family. Since the fall of Mosul, both Nujaifi brothers have seen their positions diminished and have lost their political clout. In May 2015, the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR) voted to dismiss Atheel al-Nujaifi from his governor position. In August of this year, Atheel’s brother, Osama, was dismissed from his vice president position as well, even though he still enjoys the privileges of the vice presidency including the salaries and bodyguards. The Nujaifis have been working to reclaim their political influence. On November 23, Osama spearheaded an effort to establish a “Higher Coordination Committee” that included 13 major Iraqi Sunni leaders. The purpose of the Committee is to consolidate the political power of the Iraqi Sunnis who have traditionally been politically divided. This political component is now strengthened with the Turkish military deployment.
The Turkish move may also be perceived by some as a demonstration of support for the KDP. The KDP still maintains its position as one of the two leading parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, but last October it saw its domestic standing challenged by public protests over the economic crisis and political gridlock surrounding the presidency issue in the province of Sulaimaniyah, where several KDP offices were attacked. Also, there is still tangible tension between the KDP and the PKK, which was visible during the November Sinjar Operation.
Turkey’s Iraq deployment is about posturing for post-ISIS Iraq. It is likely that Turkey is preparing for a post-ISIS Mosul and creating facts on the ground now that will position it to be more influential in the future. In that sense, Turkey is thinking ahead of other countries, including the United States, in terms of the future of Mosul.
First, the Turkish role may push the Iranian and Russian governments to be more aggressive in their Iraq policy. Russia will likely perceive the Turkish role and may choose to respond by deploying further assets to Syria or ramping up its military operation in northern Syria where Turkey is pushing for a no-fly zone.
Turkey’s future position in Iraq will be challenged. It is now seen as a sectarian player in Iraq’s politics. The negative reactions among Iraqi Shi’a to its deployment have been consistent. This includes reactions from Sistani’s office, Prime Minister Abadi and influential figures in the powerful Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). The protests, boycotts, and condemnation may not be binding for the federal government in Baghdad but they do indicate the weakening of Turkey’s standing within the Iraqi Shi’a community. Moreover, these developments reverse gains that the Turkish government has made in southern Iraq since 2003. Turkey is effectively now seen as an ally of the Iraqi Sunnis and the Nujaifis.
Moving forward, questions will remain about the Turkish military position in Iraq. The Turkish military has now established a new foothold in Iraq and the Bashiqa area is effectively its new strategic depth. The Turkish military has had firm presence in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1990 in the Duhok area of Bamerni and Amedi. Turkish planes have bombed PKK positions in Qandil, and they have sent ground troops in to target the PPK in the past.
The Turkish deployment presents challenges for U.S. policy in Iraq. The U.S. is still Iraq’s most influential international partner, and the largest contributor in the war against ISIS. The fact that Turkey – one of America’s most notable Middle Eastern allies – has deployed military assets presumably without coordination with the U.S. creates the perception that the U.S. cannot or does not support the Iraqi government. The perception of lack of support may be the result of the Iraqi reaction that has condemned the Turkish role. At worst, the U.S. appears complicit in a deployment that is seen as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty by the country’s Shi’a majority. Therefore, the U.S. has to be prepared to counter any narratives by anti-U.S. Iraqi political forces. The U.S. should also urge Turkey to increase its efforts to counter ISIS and be a more effective partner in the fight against it.
In the post-ISIS context, the deployment takes place in the ever-shifting struggle for control of territory and power. Bashiqa is part of the Disputed Internal Boundaries areas (DIBs) claimed by both the federal Iraqi government and the KRG. The town center is majority Yazidi with Christian and Sunni Muslim minorities and its rural areas are majority Kurd and Shabak. Bashiqa is a sub-district of Mosul, and hence was administratively a part of the Ninewa province and the Iraqi state before 2003. The town was tied to Mosul economically and the majority of its inhabitants speak Arabic. Post-2003, the KRG has made significant political inroads in Bashiqa through economic support and appealing to the area’s Yazidi population. The KRG later expanded its influence in Bashiqa when it signed a contract with ExxonMobil in 2012 for oil exploration in the area. In the same year, a political alliance was forged between Governor Atheel Nujaifi and the KDP, former foes. As in the case of Rabiaa, after ISIS leaves, there will be deals made by local actors as well as Baghdad and Erbil with the influence of Turkey as to who will control Bashiqa and its oilfields.
For Abadi, this is his first major foreign policy confrontation. At the same time, the Turkish deployment may present an opportunity. He has been struggling with political, military, and public demands. His August reform package has not progressed and public support for him appears to be eroding due to his slow action. To regain his footing, he may continue to respond to Turkey’s deployment by pursuing measures that he perceives to be aggressive. For instance, he ordered reconnaissance flights over the Turkish military’s new positions and has consistently used aggressive language to criticize Turkey’s actions. It is unclear as of now if he can effectively capitalize on this crisis to burnish his credentials as a commander-in-chief given the hardline positions currently expressed by senior PMU figures and Maliki. Abadi will not be able to take sole credit for the Turkish withdrawal. For the moment, he will have to contend with sharing the credit with the PMUs and local governments. One of his mistakes was not controlling the agenda and orchestrating the popular response even though he is positioned to do so given his position as Prime Minister.
The withdrawal of some Turkish troops does not indicate the end of the crisis between Iraq and Turkey. Turkey has now become part of Iraq’s sectarian politics and it will need time to recover from this position. More than time, Turkey will need to show through concrete actions that it supports the war against ISIS and is not biased towards any political group in Iraq.
Reference: van den Toorn, Christine and Ahmed Ali. "Turkish Boots on the Ground.” IRIS Iraq Report. Institute of Regional and International Studies. December 15, 2015. URL: http://auis.edu.krd/iris/iraq-report/turkish-boots-ground
Christine van den Toorn is the Director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies. Ahmed Ali is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies.