Is Turkey ready for the Mosul battle?
On March 9, Iraqi Shiite militias intensified their attack against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) positions around Tikrit, around 150 kilometers north of Baghdad, to save Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the hands of jihadists. The clashes have intensified throughout this week, while there have been unconfirmed reports that Iraqi militias could soon take some important villages around Tikrit, in a sign that they would soon seize control of the town.
The Tikrit operation is important for various reasons, but most important is the fact that it would give a good green light for the Iraqi forces – backed by anti-ISIL coalition forces’ aerial bombings - to liberate the country’s third largest city, Mosul, from ISIL.
Again over the past week, Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Pesmerghas, along with a number of other Sunni tribes, have launched an offensive against the ISIL around Kirkuk, Iraq’s northern oil-rich town.
Both operations are backed by the strong aerial campaign of the anti-ISIL coalition countries and are seen as preparations for a massive offensive against jihadists to repel them from Mosul. U.S. Chief of General Staff Martin Dempsey paid a snap visit to Baghdad on March 9 to hold high level talks with Iraqi officials, advising them to be patient for the Mosul operation.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s special coordinator in combatting ISIL, John Allen, is expected to be in the region soon, and is set to visit Turkey after a brief visit to Jordan. Before him, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, was in Ankara to hold talks with Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel. However, a pre-scheduled meeting of U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was postponed due to a last minute change in the program of the latter on March 13.
All such developments are signs that a massive Mosul operation by the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition, supported by Iraqi ground troops, is in the offing, in a bid to wipe ISIL out of Iraqi territory.
There are various scenarios on the timing of the upcoming Mosul operation. It could be launched either in the spring or in the fall, depending on the success of the Iraqi ground troops against ISIL in other parts of the country.
Senior Turkish officials have made important statements about the line Turkey will follow during the Mosul operation. Both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have dismissed claims that Turkey will actively hit ISIL targets along with other coalition countries, stressing that Turkey will take an active combat role. However, they have left doors open to specific requests from the U.S. in using Turkish airbases, particularly the Incirlik base.
Çavuşoğlu said the base could only be used as part of a comprehensive strategy, but did not detail the plan to which he was referring. However, even this statement is good evidence that the two sides are negotiating over Turkey’s potential contribution to a military offensive against ISIL.
But there are concerns as well. The fact that the Tikrit operation is being handled by some Iranian commanders and there is a growing Iranian influence in Iraq, especially since ISIL started seizing large swathes of the country, Ankara is loudly urging all sides that this situation should not create a new environment of sectarian clashes. PM Davutoğlu made clear that Mosul should not be left to the control of Shiites alone if ISIL is defeated, calling on everybody to be responsible and cautious to this end.
The current parameters and potential consequences of a multilateral military operation in Mosul oblige Turkey to take more concrete steps politically and militarily. Having already designated ISIL as a terrorist organization, Turkey should play its role in the regional fight to eliminate jihadists from its immediate neighborhood and to show its commitment to the stability of the Middle East. This perhaps requires a new approach, recognizing that the elimination of ISIL will create better conditions for the toppling of Bashar al-Assad.