Briefing on Turkey and Mosul

Bottom line up front: With Turkey’s growing military assertiveness in its region, the country is seeking to fulfil long-held ambitions of expanding its influence in Iraq, motivated partly by its energy insecurity.

  • Despite ire from Baghdad, Ankara continues to insist on having a troop presence in Iraq and is jostling for a role in the assault on Mosul to recapture it from ISIS.
  • In both Iraq and Syria, Turkey is aggressively pursuing its own agenda, seeking to make a reality of its ambition of having a friendly presence in its long-coveted oil-rich Mosul.
  • With its troops now in the field, Turkey has further embedded itself in the to-and-fro between the major powers in the Iraq-Syria-Yemen conflict nexus, with potential gains and risks.

Turkey’s activity in Iraq has received renewed attention, with angry exchanges between Baghdad and Ankara as the Turkish parliament voted to renew its troop presence there for a further year and insisted its forces would be involved in the assault to retake Mosul. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said he would take the matter to the UN Security Council (unlikely to matter given the US is a member) and claimed Turkey risked igniting a regional war. Turkey’s increasing assertiveness in Iraq and Syria is embroiling it further into wider regional proxy conflicts. This increased assertiveness demonstrates Turkey’s ambitions to reshape its neighbouring countries and solve its energy insecurity by doing so.

The likelihood of a regional war directly sparked by the Turkish troop presence in Iraq is currently very unlikely. Iraq’s largely ineffective relatively military, failing economy and more pressing concerns mean it simply would not have the capacity to successfully confront Turkey military. That said, the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq and Syria is a provocation that could draw Turkey into deeper proxy conflict with Iran and others and even put Turkish troops in the firing line of Iranian proxies.

At the start of the Syrian conflict, Turkey had been hoping for friendly Sunni entities in Iraq and Syria, with which it shares long, strategically vulnerable land borders. Turkey is likely hoping that by participating in the Mosul assault, it can work to establish a friendly entity there post-ISIS. Turkey likely does not want to occupy Mosul, rather it is aware that Baghdad’s reach is already weak and weakening, Iraq currently does not fully function as a state, and may break up into a looser federation. Under these conditions, Ankara believes it can extend its proxies’ influence. We understand talks have already taken place with the former, pre-ISIS occupation, mayor of Mosul and the Turkish government. Despite the potential tensions Turkey’s role could create in governing a liberated Mosul, the US will be unlikely to oppose Turkey’s role, preferring this to Shia militias in the fight against ISIS.

Turkey has long coveted Mosul for historic reasons. Oil-rich Mosul was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of WWI. The Mosul question went back and forth until eventually the newly formed Turkish Republic reluctantly ceded control to the British in 1926. Turkey’s loss of both Mosul and Kirkuk has long been seen domestically as a slight to Turkey and an act of imperialist injustice. Expanding Turkish influence into former Ottoman territory, including Syria, plays well with Turkey’s nationalist base and fits with the AKP’s neo-Ottomanist ambitions. Nationalist pandering aside, ultimately, much of Turkey’s activity, this issue certainly included, is driven by the need to solve its energy insecurity and secure its borders.

Turkey also seeks to prevent the existence of a unified Kurdish territory across Iraq and Syria with access to the sea. In the current make-up, Iraqi Kurds, with their significant energy reserves, have to deal with Turkey if they want to reach the rest of the world. While Turkey also fears support for its domestic insurgency from consolidated Kurdish power across the border, it is unlikely to move much further east than Jarablus for the time being. Instead, Turkey will more likely focus on establishing a foothold for its Sunni Arab proxies in northern Syria.

All these bold actions give Turkey leverage in negotiations between major powers in the nexus of conflicts spanning Iraq, Syria and Yemen that have drawn in countless regional and international players, including Russia, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is banking on being able to trade a compromise in one area in exchange for concessions elsewhere; for example, limit its expansion in Syria for an easing of Iranian pressure in Iraq. Turkey has however also now further exposed its troops, national interests and its proxies to its competitors.

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