Does Turkey want to take Mosul?

Does Turkey want to take Mosul?

The question in the title is on the minds of most of us these days. Turkey’s ongoing military operation in northern Syria and its subsequent rhetoric on Mosul have triggered this question. Ankara’s growing tension with Baghdad and the U.S. has further reinforced our curiosity.

On top of that, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement last week also raised eyebrows. “Turkey can no longer stay the same at this point. The status quo will change somehow. We will either leap with moves forward or we will be bound to shrink. I am determined to make forward moves,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying in his opening speech at the cabinet meeting. 

Does this mean Erdoğan wants to take Mosul? Is that the motive behind Ankara’s recent rhetoric?
What Erdoğan meant was not the expansion of Turkey’s territory. Rather, he was pointing to the risk of shrinking in light of the rising threats from Iraq and Syria. Only an onward move unsettling the status quo could hinder this and save Turkish territory, he said. 

We witnessed the embodiment of this approach most recently in the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria, which has been going on for 50 days. This offensive was intended primarily to prevent the foundation of a Kurdish corridor by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated groups along Turkey-Syria border. Turkey has succeeded in achieving this so far. 

The same risk, (i.e. the PKK presence), also applies to Iraq. The PKK was previously based only in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains, but now it is also settled in Sinjar, a town west of Mosul. It is also now being reported that PKK-affiliated groups may join the expected Mosul operation soon. 

This all hints at a possibility that the Kurdish corridor in northern Syria could connect to the PKK entity in Iraq. This is the main reason why Ankara is emphasizing Mosul, and why Erdoğan says “Turkey’s struggle in Iraq and Syria is not a question of preference, but an existential obligation.” Nevertheless, this forward move does not mean Turkey will be sending more troops to Iraq. Rather, Ankara is insisting that the Sunni forces it has been training in the Bashiqa camp for the last two years take part in the upcoming offensive. 

Ankara’s second concern about Mosul is not about preventing Turkey’s shrinking. Rather, it is about expanding - though not in physical terms.

Ankara argues that the Sunni-dominated Mosul should not be saved by only the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia, both of which are under Iran’s influence. It worries that this might trigger another sectarian war in Mosul, ending up with the massacre of the Sunni population by the Shiites, as has happened in many other parts of Iraq.

Along the same lines, Ankara is also concerned that the Shiite militia would massacre the Turkmen population in Tel Afer, an entirely Turkmen town in Mosul that Turkey has been keeping its eye on 24/7. Ankara fears that the Turkmens might also come under Iran’s influence and Tel Afer will become another Iranian base. 

This concern of Ankara’s is not about Turkey’s national security and territorial integrity; it is an effort to expand and secure a say in the newly emerging equation in Iraq.

In other words, Turkey’s intention is not to change the borders and integrate Mosul into its own territory. Rather, it simply aims to have a say in the re-configuration of Iraq and Syria, just as the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany and Iran do.

This rationale sounds exactly like the dynamic approach of the late President Turgut Özal, who had insistently emphasized “a Turkish world from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China.” The intention is not to expand Turkish territory, but expand Turkey’s sphere of influence. It is not a physical expansion, but an economic and cultural expansion.

However, while securing its presence in Iraq, Turkey should pay attention to two principles. It should stay away from drawing a sectarian line and continue its presence only in coordination with all parties, embracing conciliatory rhetoric and the tools of diplomacy.

This is the only way Turkey can enhance its sphere of influence in the region. It is certainly not an easy task, but it is possible.