By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Recent breaking news has revealed that Turkey has a limited number of troops in northern Iraq. What they are doing there, how long they have been there and what the larger strategic vision might be is unclear. When Iraq summoned the Turkish envoy Saturday night (December 5) it became a full-fledged diplomatic spat, yet another for Ankara after recent tensions with Russia. Yet this initiative in Iraq may be a bold move worth looking at in detail.
Over the weekend of December 4th a story broke in international media about Turkish troops in northern Iraq. The initial reports seemed alarmingly confusing. “Turkish troops in Mosul training Iraqi army,” claimed some on Twitter. But by December 4th things had firmed up a bit, with Turkish press and others reporting it.
“Turkish troops reportedly entered Iraq on Dec. 3, allegedly arriving at the Al Shikhan militia camp to help forces retake Mosul from the Islamic State, according to sources in the National Crowd for Liberating Ninevah militia and an anonymous peshmerga official, Aena News and Shafaq News reported Dec. 4,” claimed Stratfor Global Intelligence.
The fact is that there has been rumors on Twitter dating back months about Turkish moves regarding Mosul. An account related to the National Democratic Forces of the Syrian regime had mentioned an “assault on Mosul” in November. Kurdish twitter users wondered why Turkey would move now, after not caring about Mosul before.
Italian journalist Alessandro Scipione claimed that “Shia militias say Turkish troops based around mosul to help international coalition.” Another journalist named Mona Alami claimed Turkish troops were “training with Hash al-Shaabi.” CNN Turk claimed on December 4th that “1,200 Turkish troops” had moved to Bashiqa in northern Iraq in the Nineveh plains.
It was Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s office who choose to break the news beyond rumors, condemning a Turkish military presence in Iraq on December 3. Al-Arabiya seems to have received intimation from his associates and claimed in a report that “3 battalions entered Iraq to participate in liberation of Mosul.”
An online paper reporting on Yezidi (Yazidi, Ezidi) affairs noted that the Turks would be based in a Christian-Yezidi town, the aforementioned Bashiqa (Bʻashīqa or Ba’ashiqah). But this was creating tensions, “Yezidi representatives expressed criticism concerning the arrival of Turkish soldiers. The creation of the Turkish base was against “all reason”, said a Yezidi Peshmerga who wished to remain anonymous.” The line taken here must be understood as a Yezidi view more connected to the PKK and YPG, which is more hostile to Turkey than the current government of the KRG. The article noted, “The Kurdish government under the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) maintains close economic ties with Turkey.”
When Iraq’s government condemned the Turkish presence, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Dovotoglu claimed it was an ongoing, “routine” mission and part of normal training activity that was ongoing for a year. The war of words upped on December 5 with France24 reporting in depth on it and Iraq demanding withdrawal. Reports also reduced the number of Turkish troops involved to as few as 130, including some armored vehicles. But many media are taking the Iraq line seriously, that this is a “violation of international law.” The Kurdish press is treading more carefully, reporting it without full comment on the ramifications. The Turkish story that the troops were “training Iraqi troops near Mosul,” seemed contradicted by the Iraqi government’s own response. They are not Iraqi troops, so who are they?
Reuters confirmed what other rumors had indicated, “A small number of Turkish trainers was already at the camp to train the Hashid Watani (national mobilization), a force made up of mainly Sunni Arab former Iraqi police and volunteers from Mosul.” Hurriyet added some details, including placing the number of tanks at 20-25 and claiming 2,500 had been trained at the site over two years.
Iraq’s President, Fouad Massoum has condemned the Turkish presence as a “violation of international law.” Massoum is a veteran Kurdish politician who is a member of the PUK, the second-largest party in the KRG, which traditionally has warmer relations with Iran and the Shia than the KDP, the leading party in Kurdistan which has had more cordial relations with Turkey.
So what is going on? An Al-Arabiya article seems to hint at the interesting matrix of forces at play. “It has trained more than 2,000 of our Mosul brothers, contributing to the freeing of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization,” Dovutoglu said. The camp was “set up almost a year ago at the Mosul governor’s request.” Let’s go back to June of 2014 when 500,000 people fled Mosul as ISIS advanced on the city. At the time Athil al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the central city, “accused [Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki of ignoring his advice on the security situation and instead relying on information from military in Baghdad.”
Supporters of Nujaifi are sometimes called “Nujaifis” and the camp that Turkey is running was rumored to be training “8,000 Nujaifis, Turkmen and Kurds,” on Twitter. The KRG is hosting more than 1 million Arab refugees, most of them Sunni Arabs or Christians, many from Nineveh and some from other provinces. It stands to reason that training these men to re-take Mosul could play an integral part of the Mosul operation that may come later this year. Arabiya confirms that the Hashd Watani is made up of Mosul volunteers, and that the US was aware of the deployment. “Powerful Iraqi Shiite Muslim armed groups have pledged to fight a planned deployment of U.S. forces to the country. Turkey has in recent months been bombing Kurdish militant positions in northern Iraq,” Arabiya notes. There have been rumors of greater US involvement on the ground in the war against ISIS.
So now the puzzle begins to take shape. Turkey is interested in helping preserve a Sunni presence in Mosul for the liberation of the city from Daesh. Working with the US it is trying to cater to the interests of the 500,000 refugees from Nineveh plains. The KRG has similar interests. Neither want the Shia militias rampaging through Mosul and cementing the millions of Sunnis and Christian refugees sheltering under the KRG’s protective peshmerga blanket.
Now for the last part of the story. Khalid al-Obeidi, the Iraqi defense minister recently toured the area of Sinjar and the “PMF training base in Zilikan” on November 27. The next day he met with Masrour Barzani, chancellor of KRG security. Obeidi is from Mosul. In English he writes “PMF” which is usually an acronym for Hasdh al-Shaabi, but in Arabic he writes “Hashd al-Watani” which is the name for the Sunni forces. Obeidi noted that he spoke about “preparation for start of ops to liberate Ninewah.” The Defense Minister therefore seemed to intimate about this camp, although not the Turkish aspects, but the aspects of planning and the role of this militia.
On December 5th Rudaw revealed video of what was apparently the Turkish camp. “The Turkish troops are stationed in Zlekan and Bashik [Bashiqa], towns in eastern Mosul province. According to information obtained by Rudaw, 150 to 200 troops entered the province with 15 tanks, 8 small armors, 4 larger armors, 13 military vehicles, one ambulance, 7 lorries loaded with ammunition and bullets, and a water tanker,” they wrote. Christiaan Triebert, a security analyst, geomapped the location of one of the alleged camps on Twitter. Some Kurds, especially those more supportive of the PKK, have expressed surprise at the Turkish presence on Twitter. “Why does the KRG increase Turkish presence when they are so hostile to us.”
Given Turkey’s bad relations with YPG and PKK (including persecution of Kurds in Turkey), and it’s clashes with Russia and sour relations with Assad, Russia and Iran, is this a power-play to play a larger role in the post-ISIS Middle East and reach out to Kurdistan as part of a larger alliance with the Gulf?
Given accusations of Turkey’s tepid confrontation with ISIS, does this signal a new policy of cracking down on ISIS and recognition ISIS will be destroyed and that Turkey wants a greater role in what emerged after?
Now that the Turkish role has been plastered across the front pages of media around the world, what will become of this initiative.
***Update, December 6***
Turkey has said it will stop deploying more troops to Iraq, but will apparently keep the training mission, even as Twitter users began to geo-locate pics of a “secret” Turkish airfield and other alleged Turkish presence.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wrote a letter to Abadi, “No further forces will be deployed to Bashiqa until concerns of the Iraqi government are overcome…Turkey is ready to deepen its cooperation with Iraq in coordination and consultation. Those who are disturbed by the cooperation of Turkey and Iraq and who want to end it should not be allowed to attain their goal.”