Turkey's parallel war in Iraq and Syria
Turkey's?air force is constantly bombing the area behind the Iraqi city of Suleymanya, where the PKK has its headquarters. The last airstrikes was less than three days ago.? Photograph: (AFP)
The Mosul offensive, arguably one of the most important military attacks in the past five years in Western Asia, is approaching. It is most likely only days before the Iraqi Prime Minister orders its forces to advance towards the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq. Everything seems to be ready and coordinated except one thing: the role of Turkey.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is willing to deploy troops to attack Mosul, whatever the cost. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Habadi, who is also the Iraqi army's commander-in-chief, does not share the same idea. Recently, he defined Turkish troops as an “occupying force”. Tones of the dispute are heated. Erdogan, speaking at the ninth Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul, told the Iraqi Prime Minister, “know your place” and “you are not my interlocutor, you are not at my level”. The two countries have withdrawn their respective ambassadors for consultation.
Ankara’s military presence does not come out of the blue. Turkish forces have been located in Iraqi Kurdistan on the basis of an agreement with Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. In the past few years, Barzani has become the main interlocutor and advocate of a Turkish presence in the region, especially due to the volume of investments Ankara is undertaking in the territories he administers.
Erdogan considers the right to participate in the battle of Mosul as the natural right of Turkey to fight against the Islamic State, but this seems more of a pretext for a renewed activism of the Turkish President, who aims to become a major power, if not the major power, in Western Asia.
After the failed coup, Erdogan needs to project an image of strength in order to stabilise his position both on the national and international stage. It is no secret that the purges against more than 100,000 workers have contributed in worsening Turkey’s international reputation.
Erdogan, speaking at the ninth Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul, told the Iraqi Prime Minister, “know your place” and “you are not my interlocutor, you are not at my level”.
Repression has been particularly tough in Turkey’s south-east where a majority of Kurds live. The iron-fist Erdogan is showing the Iraqi Prime Minister is part of a series of Turkish aggressive initiatives, starting with the purge.
A month after the coup, Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield in order to secure the last 95 kilometres of Syrian border under Islamic State control, an action which was presented as a major success. Too few asked themselves what took so long to secure such a small area which was commonly known as the “terror corridor” and from which foreign fighters, supplies, oil and ammunitions kept going and coming from IS territories.
Erdogan’s offensive began soon after the Kurdish militias, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), crossed the western banks of the Euphrates river, the red line Ankara established for them. That very segment of border divides the Kurdish-controlled region of Rojava in north Syria and the Kurdish-controlled area of Afrin, in north-west Syria. Turkey wanted to secure it to avoid an autonomous Kurdish area right across the border, and President Erdogan made it clear then that the war will not end until every terrorist organisation, including the YPG and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), is defeated. Turkey directly links the YPG with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an organisation they classify as terrorists, against whom they fought a three-decade guerrilla war.
Soon after the operation, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed rebels of the undefined Islamist assortment under the name of Free Syrian Army, started fighting against the Kurds, forcing them to retreat.
This created diplomatic problems with the Department of State, which was a direct ally of the Syrian Kurds, with whom they liberated a significant part of Northern Syria and important cities like Kobane and Manbij from the IS.
The situation paved the way for Russia that is also using the Syrian civil war to renew its presence in Western Asia. During their last meeting in Istanbul on October 10, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Erdogan agreed to normalise relations, which became tense after the Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. They signed an agreement to build two gas pipelines and other trade agreements which will help Russia to overcome the EU sanctions.
Another reason for Turkey to insist on keeping their troops in Iraqi Kurdistan is the presence of the PKK in the Qandil mountains. Turkey's air force is constantly bombing the area behind the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, close to the Iranian border, where the PKK has its headquarters. Airstrikes were registered less than three days ago.
The conflict between Ankara and the Kurdish Workers' Party is another phenomenon the Iraqi Prime Minister wants to eradicate from his territory, and an additional reason to ask Ankara to withdraw its troops. Al-Habadi declared at the end of September that “Iraq is not a place for the PKK and Turkey’s struggle”.
Deteriorating relations between Turkey and the Iraqi central government could result in the delaying of the Mosul offensive which is a symbol of the war against Islamic State in Syria in Iraq. A highly fragmented conflict, made of wars-within-the-wars where regional powers, ethnic groups and political parties use the fight against the Islamic State as a pretext to increase their military presence and areas of influence on the ground.