Is Mosul Turkey’s next move?

Is Mosul Turkey’s next move?

A prospective U.S.-led operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Mosul has become an endless story, having been delayed repeatedly. It had been announced that the operation would start in late September. Simultaneously, President Tayyip Erdoğan has also signaled Turkey’s military involvement in the Mosul battle. 

So is such an operation really around the corner?  And will Turkey really intervene in Iraq after its recent operation in northern Syria?

First of all, the U.S. was planning to start the Mosul battle in September – or latest October -preceding the presidential elections, so that the new president would not have to deal with this longstanding question.

But the operation has been delayed to November-December due to the slowly evolving military training of the Iraqi armed forces and the Sunni militias who will join the battle. Washington aims to engage 15-20,000 fighters on the ground, but currently the number of Iraqi security forces trained by the U.S. is only around 6 thousand, 2,500 of which are based in Mosul. The Sunni tribes trained by the U.S. still number only around 1,500. The Sunni militias and Kurdish Peshmerga trained by Turkey, on the other hand, number around 6,000. 

So the U.S. is still waiting to reach the targeted number for the Mosul operation.

On the other side, Turkey’s priorities in Mosul are on four fronts. First of all, Ankara wants Mosul to be saved from ISIL due to its longstanding, historical relations with Mosul. It is also worth mentioning that Turkey’s consulate in Mosul was taken, along with official hostages, by ISIL in 2014.  

Secondly, Turkey aims to put an end to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) presence in Sinjar, a district of Mosul. Thirdly, Ankara also wants to protect the Turkmens in Tel Afar, which is another district of Mosul and Iraq’s mostly predominantly Turkmen-populated city. Fourthly, the return to Tel Afar of the Shia Turkmens, who had to flee upon ISIL’s occupation, is another of Ankara’s priorities.

Last but not least, Turkey wants to prevent Tel Afar from becoming a Shia base. This is because the Shia “Hashd al-Shaabi” forces, who are under Iran’s control, might intervene in this city, which could also trigger a sectarian clash between Sunni and Shia Turkmens in Tel Afar.

Tel Afar lies to the west of Mosul, bordering Syria. Ankara has already received information that Shia militias from Syria are surging into the city. Hence, Turkey’s main concern is therefore that the city will merge with the Shia influence in Syria and fall totally under Iran’s influence.

Having said that, Turkey’s preference is to not send any fighting force on the ground once the operation has started. But this might change in the event of two scenarios: If ISIL massacres the Turkmens in Tel Afar and/or if the PKK, which controls Sinjar, leaks into Tel Afar, Ankara is planning to send troops to Mosul. 

Meanwhile, Turkey’s concern regarding the PKK is multifaceted. One of them is that the financial and arms aid from Baghdad to the Shia militias partly reaches the PKK. Ankara has confirmed that some of the 50 different groups under the Shia “Hashd al-Shaabi” forces deliver some of the money and arms aid to the PKK.

Secondly, the PKK announces almost every day that it wants to contribute to the Mosul operation. Ankara is closely following whether Baghdad and Washington will allow this to happen.

On the other side, Baghdad does not want to include anyone else in the operation. It has only declared its need for military training. Ankara and Baghdad are therefore engaged in intense discussions regarding the Mosul operation, as well as regarding Turkey’s presence in the camp in Bashiqa, a town only 10 km from Mosul. As a reminder, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on all Turkish troops in Iraq to be withdrawn after Turkey had deployed troops in Bashiqa in December 2015. This is still the most problematic issue between the two capitals. 

It has recently been reported that this camp will become internationalized. The current plan is to bring it under the control of the international coalition against ISIL, the technical and military details of which are being discussed between Ankara and Baghdad. 

Another item on their bilateral agenda is future cooperation against the PKK in Iraq, which might pave the way for concrete steps to be taken in the upcoming months. 

Besides these items, Turkey has been engaged in training some fighting forces for the Mosul operation. In the Bashiqa camp it has been training a group called “Hashd al-Watani,” which is composed of volunteers from Mosul. They are predominantly Arab Sunnis but include also Turkmens and Kurds, together numbering more than 3,000.

In addition, Ankara has also trained some 2,700 Kurdish Peshmerga in camps within Iraq’s Kurdistan Region Government (KRG). Turkish soldiers will be coordinating all these fighting forces as advisors on the ground.

Last but not least, Ankara has emphasized that Turkey could have contributed much more in Iraq if there had been closer cooperation with the U.S. in Syria. Meaning: If Washington had paid more attention to Turkey’s sensitivities on the PYD/YPG presence in Syria and had responded to Turkey’s request for the formation of a safe zone in northern Syria.