Turkey’s decision to deploy a limited number of troops to a military base near the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq, last weekend was quickly condemned by leading Iraqi officials who called the incursion a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
Iran-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi led calls for Turkish troops to be withdrawn immediately, which were echoed by Iraq’s main Shia political parties — some of whom called for Iraq to launch airstrikes on Turkish soil if Ankara did not comply.
Among Turkey’s harshest critics was Russia, who called the move “illegal” and asked the UN Security Council to hold a meeting on Turkish military action in both Iraq and Syria on Tuesday.
Turkey and Russia are in the midst of a showdown over Turkey’s decision to down a Russian warplane that allegedly violated its airspace two weeks ago. But that is only one reason why Russia’s condemnation over the Turkish incursion into Iraq was to be expected.
Russia has been sharing “security and intelligence” information about the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) with Iraq since September — when Russian, Syrian, and Iranian military advisers began building a coordination cell in Baghdad in an effort to bolster the Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting ISIS in northern Iraq.
With Iran’s implicit blessing, Russian president Vladimir Putin has therefore taken on a greater role in Iraq — a role that comes with certain political and military expectations.
“The presence of the Turkish troops near Mosul certainly further complicates the situation between Russia and Turkey,” Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider in an email.
“Not long ago there was buzz about Russia potentially deploying forces to Iraq. In light of current developments, the possibility of such a deployment may gain steam once again.”
He added: “If Turkey continues the deployment in Iraq, I would expect more bellicose language from Iraqi, Russian, and Iranian leaders. This only continues to raise the tensions and stakes in the regional conflict.”
‘Setting up cards’ for a dangerous new game
Iraq has not taken kindly to overtures by members of NATO to deploy troops on Iraqi soil — even if it is in the name of fighting ISIS in the north.
Earlier this month, the US announced that it intended to send a team of around 200 special-operations forces to conduct raids against ISIS militants operating in northern and western Iraq.
Iraq’s ruling alliance and powerful Shi’ite militias responded in force. A lawmaker from the Iran-backed Badr Organisation announced that “if Abadi makes a unilateral decision to approve the deployment of American special forces, we will question him in parliament.”
He added: “He is aware that a questioning could lead to a vote of no confidence.”
amount of influence Iran and its proxy militias wield over Iraqi politics cannot be understated, and its opposition to foreign intervention in Iraq is in line with Tehran’s overarching objective to roll back US influence and expand its own power in the region.
Russia, moreover, is an important Iranian ally. It was Qassem Soleimani, leader of the powerful Quds Force brigade — the military wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp. — who travelled to Moscow in late July to reportedly ask Russia for help in bolstering the Iranian proxy militias in Syria fighting on behalf of the regime.
To that end, Abadi “could face further pressure to accept Russian assistance, an outcome that has become popular among Iranian proxies and the Sadrist Trend since Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria on September 30,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted on its blog last weekend.
Indeed, that “a Russian force” could intervene to expel Turkish troops has already been floated by at least one Iraqi politician, according to the ISW.
It is unlikely, however, that Russia would risk a military confrontation with NATO to expel 100 Turkish troops from Iraqi soil.
“I don’t think Russia will get directly involved in trying to expel the troops,” Paul Stronski, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Business Insider in an email. “I think Russia is stretched thin — but they mightn’t object to Iran doing it.”
In any case, Turkey is keenly aware of the power that comes from being a member of NATO, which may explain its boldness in deploying troops to a Russian sphere of influence in the midst of a showdown with Moscow.
“That Turkey sent military reinforcement to the temporary training camp in Bashiqa, effectively turning Bashiqa into a permanent military base, can be considered Turkey’s answer” to Russia’s aggressive military build-up along the Turkish-Syrian border, Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military expert who served as an adviser in Afghanistan between 2002-2008, told Business Insider.
He added: “It looks like Turkey is setting up cards for a new game by changing the space of its crisis with Russia.”
A Sunni ’boutique power center’
Turkey’s desire to maintain a military presence in Iraq is also fundamentally motivated by Ankara’s desire to “balance the increasing Russia-led Baghdad-Tehran-Damascus alliance that is Shia in nature,” Gurcan said.
Turkey, whose citizens are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, has “been trying to form a sort of Sunni ’boutique power center’ using three specific entities: the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] in northern Iraq, Iraqi Sunni Arabs near Mosul, and Syrian Sunni Arabs,” Gurcan said.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a freelance journalist and expert on Kurdish affairs embedded in Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed that the desire to bolster Sunni Arabs in the region was an important motivation for Turkey’s incursion into Iraq.
“Turkey just wants to empower Sunni Arabs and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to counterbalance Iran and Baghdad,” van Wilgenburg told Business Insider on Monday.
“Turkey used to have a lot of influence among Sunni Arabs in Mosul, but they lost everything when ISIS took over all the Sunni Arab areas. That’s why they are trying to work to empower Sunni Arab police forces around Mosul.”
He added: “Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi is under pressure from [former Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shia militias, that’s why they are making a lot of noise.”
Merve Tahiroglu, a Turkey expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, argued that Turkey was using the Peshmerga less as a counterweight to Iran than to its longtime enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is headquartered in northern Iraq.
“This could be Turkey’s way of showing the anti-IS coalition that it is helping the fight by working with the Kurds — just the group of Kurds it prefers,” Tahiroglu said in an email.
In any case, Turkey seemed surprise by the uproar, and alleged that it had sent the troops at the request of the Iraqi defence minister to train Iraqi soldiers and the Kurdish peshmerga to fight the Islamic State.
Still, Ankara has refused to withdraw its troops — and shows no signs of doing so anytime soon.
“Turkey’s moves in Iraq are, at least in part, a message to Russia that it too can act unilaterally or boldly in the region — but sometimes bold is not terribly helpful in defusing such a difficult diplomatic issue,” Stronski said, noting that the incursion “adds one more layer of complication to the entire Russia-Turkey showdown and further muddles the fight against ISIS.”
Gurcan largely agreed.
“For the first time, Turkey — which was once a giant talking too much but unable to bite — is trying to create de facto realities on the ground,” he said.
“This is a new thing for Russia, so we’ll see how Moscow responds — and how the US manages the emergence of the new power center Turkey is seemingly trying to create. But at the end of the day, the winner is ISIS.”
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