What is Turkey’s deal in Mosul?
The operation to save Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has begun. It is led by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, Shiite militias, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, some Sunni forces trained by Turkey, and of course the United States, which is coordinating the whole effort. Turkey, however, is rather angry about what is going on. Why? What is really going on?
Before giving you an answer, I must underline a few facts that go against the common narratives about Turkey in the Western media.
One narrative is that Turkey is somehow lenient on, or even supportive of, ISIL, the most brutal terrorist force the world has recently seen. But this is not true, as you can see in the Turkey-led military campaign going on in our neighboring country: Syria. Since last August, Turkey has been actively fighting ISIL through its military incursion into northern Syria. Last weekend, the Syrian Sunni militia supported by Turkish forces even liberated Dabiq, the city with a major religious (in fact, apocalyptic) importance for ISIL.
In Iraq, too, Turkey is a part of the anti-ISIL campaign, and only wants to engage in it more deeply. The only thing is that Turkey is also concerned about the “Sunni base” on which ISIL has been operating. (The Turkey of today, after all, is also unmistakably Sunni.) In Mosul, Ankara is worried that the Shiite militia that is eager to take the city could engage in vengeance, terrorizing the population. Given the visible brutality of some of those Shiite militias (check YouTube, if you are not too averse to gory images) that is not an unfounded worry.
The other fact I must underline is the complicated nature of Ankara’s take on “the Kurds.” If you read Western media, you often see “the Kurds” mentioned as uniform force in Iraq and Syria. In fact, however, there is a huge difference, at least from the Turkish perspective.
In Syria, the Kurdish forces are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been Turkey’s main terrorist enemy since the early 1980s. In Iraq, however, the main Kurdish force is the Peshmerga, which are the armed unites of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which Ankara considers a solid ally.
KRG leader Masoud Barzani has only good relations with Turkey. In fact, Turkey’s military presence in the much-disputed Bashiqa camp in northern Iraq was made possible thanks to Barzani.
The crux of the matter is that Ankara is not wrong to be concerned about the Mosul operation – or in its will to take a part in it, partly in order to protect the local Sunnis. After all, if the much-needed destruction of ISIL dominance in the city only turns into much-feared Shiite domination, Mosul’s Sunni masses will have only one safe place to go: Turkey. That could mean another million refugees heading to Turkey, which is already hosting three million refugees.
So, Ankara is not wrong in its take on Mosul. However, as usual, it is doing a terrible job in articulating this. My colleague Barçın Yinanç, editor and writer for the Hürriyet Daily News, explained this very nicely in her column yesterday. “Some of the foreign policy stances endorsed by Turkey do have a rationale,” she noted, “but when they are explained by Erdoğan, they lose all common sense.”
“When you start saying, ‘what Erdoğan says might be right, but the way he says it isn’t right,’ you risk being marked as a journalist who doesn’t dare contradict ‘Erdoğan the authoritarian,’” she added.
So foreign governments and observers should put aside that “Erdoğan factor” as a universal polarizer, and instead try to see Turkey’s point in Mosul. It is not as mistaken as it might initially sound.