Baghdad can do little about Turkish armed forces in northern Iraq

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s recent deployment of troops and tanks into northern Iraq has caused a major diplomatic row between Ankara and Baghdad, but experts say Turkish forces are there to stay.

“Honestly speaking there is not much Baghdad can do,” former Turkish consul to Erbil [capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq] Aydın Selcen said.

On December 4 Turkey sent at least 150 soldiers and 20 – 25 tanks to a military facility in the small Kurdish town of Bashiqa in Iraq, 19 miles north of Mosul, where it’s been assisting in the training of Iraqi forces

The so-called Islamic State (IS, ISIS, or ISIL) militant group captured the mostly Sunni city of Mosul, which has a population of about 1.5 million, in a shocking lightning offensive in June of last year. Plans to retake the city have stalled, though recent progress has been made by Kurdish forces to cut its supply routes.

Baghdad says the Turkish troops don’t have permission to be there and must leave immediately, calling the situation a ‘crisis’ and threatening to go to the United Nations. Powerful members of the Iraqi parliament have called for military strikes against the Turkish forces, though such a drastic measure is unlikely.

Ankara claims Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi himself had invited the troops, and refused to withdraw its deployment, though pledged to not send any more. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the troops were needed to protect its already present forces in Iraq from ISIS fighters, to train Iraqi forces to fight ISIS, and to maintain stability in the region.

Washington, which has been leading air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for over a year,has said it doesn’t support military deployments in Iraq without Baghdad’s consent.

Massoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous KRG that currently controls Bashiqa, welcomed the Turkish troops and said he signed the agreement for their deployment on November 2.

Selcen says that the deployment shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone since it’s merely a reinforcement of Turkish forces that have been in Iraq for decades. Turkish military trainers have been working with Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen fighters in Bashiqa for about two years. Ankara has also had military units including heavy armor stationed throughout northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to counter militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Selcen says the latest reinforcements have transformed Bashiqa into a permanent forward operating base, but said Turkish soldiers won’t be used offensively, such as in an expected assault on Mosul. “That would be stretching reality a bit.”

He said the expansion of the facility sends a clear signal of Turkey’s intentions to retain its presence in northern Iraq.

“It’s given a signal, a political message to all parties interested. To Erbil, it means, ‘we are with you.’ To Baghdad, it means more or less ‘we don’t care much about what you say.’ To Tehran and Moscow it means [that] in a now unified war theatre in Syria and Iraq ‘you are not on your own, we are here too.’ To Washington it says […] ‘we are allies with you in this but we are also able to move when need be according to our own national interests.’”

Hüseyin Bağcı, head of Middle Eastern Technical University’s international relations department, says the primary goal of Turkey’s armed forces in northern Iraq is still countering the PKK.

“Turkey’s main enemy is not ISIS, but the PKK,” Professor Bağcı said.

Akın Ünver, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, says Turkey’s deployment is also about regaining lost prestige. In June 2014, ISIS overran Turkey’s consulate in Mosul and took 49 Turkish citizens hostage, releasing them the following September.

“It was actually one of the biggest national security and intelligence failures,” Ünver says. “They want to rectify that mistake. There’s a prestige issue there.”

Soner Çağaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at The Washington Institute, says that Baghdad has only now decided to voice its concern at Turkey’s long-time presence in northern Iraq because it’s being pressured by Russia and Iran, who are both vying for influence in the country.

“This is in my view a coordinated Iranian-Russian pushback,” he said. “They have gone to the government in Baghdad and told them to stand up to the Turks.”

Russia in particular is still furious over Turkey’s downing of its SU-24 jet on November 24 after the aircraft allegedly entered Turkish airspace.

However, Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, says that Shia-dominated Baghdad already views Turkey negatively regardless of Russian or Iranian influence.

“There is overwhelming, near-unanimous opposition [to Turkey] on the Shia street,” Sowell says, speaking from Ottawa.

He says there was never a formal agreement between Ankara and Baghdad allowing Turkish forces entry. Sowell believes the friction between the two countries comes not only from sectarianism (Turkey is majority-Sunni and Iraq majority Shia), but because of Turkey’s support for the KRG and a widely-held but only anecdotally-supported belief that Ankara supports ISIS.

The KRG, already enjoying significant autonomy, has long-followed a policy aiming for independence from Iraq, much to Baghdad’s chagrin. Turkey and the KRG have enjoyed very good relations at least since 2010, when Ankara established a consulate in Erbil, and are currently better than ever.

“Erbil right now is essentially a colony of Turkey,” Sowell says. “The only reason it’s able to function at all is because the Turks keep loaning them money.” Erbil is also only able to export oil independently of Baghdad through Turkey.

Ankara has recently been accused of following a sectarian policy in northern Iraq, supporting the very unpopular Sunni Nujaifi family. Atheel Nujaifi is the former governor of Nineveh Governorate (where Mosul is located), but was impeached in May.

“Basically Nujaifi is completely isolated,” Sowell says. “If the Turks themselves don’t realize how isolated their allies are, then they’re in bad shape.”

He says the Nujaifi family is trying to create an autonomous Sunni region in Iraq, and Turkey is working with them because it wants influence over that theoretical region.

“This Sunni autonomous agenda, there’s just no way it’s going to happen. It can never pass in the Iraqi parliament,” which is dominated by Shia factions, Sowell says.

Ankara is using the base in Bashiqa to train not only Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but also the Nujaifi’s Sunni Arab militia, al-Hashd al-Watani (Popular Mobilization Forces).

“This is basically a Turkish-backed Sunni Arab militia. They don’t have any legal status, especially now that Atheel [Nujaifi] is no longer governor,” Sowell says, calling the Popular Mobilization Forces Nujaifi’s personal militia.

He says the militia, which is meant to take part in the liberation of Mosul, is in no shape whatsoever to do so. “They’re kind of a joke. They don’t really have weapons to train with.”

Sowell says the only force strong enough to retake Mosul is the Iraqi Armed Forces, possibly with the assistance of Shia militias and the Peshmerga. However Baghdad’s army has proven itself unwilling to take casualties and is notoriously disorganized. Furthermore, it can only reach Mosul by crossing through territory held by the KRG, so would need the permission of KRG president Masoud Barzani.

However, former consul Selcen disagrees.

“You cannot ‘liberate’ that kind of a [large Sunni] city with Shia forces or the so-called national Iraqi army. It’s up to the Mosul Arabs to get rid of ISIL there,” he says.

Professor Ünver says any kind of Shia force retaking Mosul could end up a disaster.

“If a Shiite group comes in and acts like a bull in a china-shop and starts killing Sunni civilians, that’s going to create even more tensions, which feeds into the whole ISIS narrative of being the only ones who can defend Sunnis.”

Professor Ünver says the Peshmerga should be further armed to take Mosul instead. He says a recent vote in the US House Foreign Affairs Committee allowing Washington to directly arm the Peshmerga without going through Baghdad is a significant development.

Ünver says retaking Mosul will be very difficult because of the huge number of civilians in the city, who ISIS doesn’t allow to leave. This will make airstrikes impossible without large civilian casualties.

“Basically ISIS is forcing whoever is going to retake Mosul into a street-by-street, building-by-building Stalingrad type of war.”

On Thursday Turkish National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan and Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu traveled to Baghdad. On the same day, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said there will be a meeting between Turkey, the US, and KRG officials on December 21.

A version of this article was published here.

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