By Patrick Martin
Key Take-Away: Turkey deployed an armored battalion northeast of Mosul, ostensibly as part of a training mission for Kurdish Peshmerga and a local anti-ISIS militia. Turkey’s forces bolster Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a primary rival to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) active in Syria, Turkey, and parts of Iraq. Turkey will also maintain influence over any future operation to recapture Mosul and Ninewa from ISIS. Turkish military forces have been present in northern Iraq since 1997, but the size and composition of the new force, reports that Barzani has granted the Turks a permanent base outside of Mosul, and the expected deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Iraq have made Iraqi politicians extremely sensitive to the arrival of any foreign forces. The deployment has sparked a rhetorical backlash from Iraqi politicians that will likely outweigh any impact the Turkish force will have on the battlefield. The Turkish deployment will generate greater resistance from Shi’a political parties against the involvement of any foreign military force in Iraq and will make it even harder for Iraq’s Prime Minister Abadi to publicly support any additional Coalition deployment, such as the U.S. Special Operations forces that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on December 1. The Iranian-backed militias have already threatened the Abadi government with a no-confidence vote if he accepts U.S. forces.
Turkey increased its influence over future developments in northern Iraq by deploying an armored battalion on December 4 to a camp in Mount Bashiqa, less than ten miles northeast of Mosul in Ninewa Province. Video footage showed Turkish forces transporting armored vehicles “towards Mosul.” Turkey’s announced that the force will replace a force that had been present at Mount Bashiqa in order to train Kurdish Peshmerga. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denied that Turkey had any intention of seizing territory and asserted that Turkey would assist its “Iraqi brothers” in fighting both ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish terrorist group that has waged an on-and-off insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. Turkey may nonetheless seek to establish a permanent military base in Bashiqa, according to Turkish media. The deployment grants Turkey continued leverage to ensure that pro-Turkish elements ultimately control Mosul and its environs following any operation to recapture the city from ISIS.
The deployment of Turkish troops is not in itself a new development but rather is part of a longtime effort to secure Turkish influence in northern Iraq. Turkey has maintained a military presence in Dohuk Province along the Turkish border since 1997 as part of an agreement signed with Saddam Hussein in 1995 to monitor the outlawed PKK and prevent it from crossing into Turkey. This force remained in place throughout the U.S. occupation without any objections from former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Turkish trainers in Bashiqa had been present in Iraq for “more than two years,” according to Turkish army sources, but the new force is likely larger than its predecessor, consisting of “hundreds” of Turkish troops and up to 30 tanks and armored vehicles. Turkey has also launched periodic ground and air assaults against PKK targets in northern Iraq, including major incursions in October 2011 and in September 2015. These cross-border raids involve hundreds of ground troops and airstrikes against PKK targets as far east as the Qandil Mountains on the Iran-Iraq border, where the PKK maintains its headquarters.
The recent deployment into northern Iraq differs from past deployments in three ways. First, Turkey does not appear to have undertaken the action in order to contain the PKK directly, as there is no significant PKK activity in or around Bashiqa. The base is also located too far from other priority territory for the PKK, including Sinjar west of Mosul, to be used as an effective staging point for future operations against the PKK. Second, the Turkish battalion, deployed to an area within the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) – areas that have substantial Kurdish populations but remain outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey likely intends to support Barzani and the KDP in securing control over the DIBs while also positioning its own forces to better influence what forces participate in the future operation to recapture Mosul, formerly an ethnically diverse city including Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. Third, the Turkish deployment came only four days after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that additional U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) would deploy to Iraq to conduct raids and intelligence-gathering in Iraq and Syria, an announcement that generated denunciations from the Shi’a political parties and threats of no-confidence votes against the Prime Minister, forcing PM Abadi to reject publicly the presence of foreign ground troops in Iraq. The Turkish troops thus deployed at a particularly sensitive time.
Turkey also maintains close connections with key players in northern Iraq. Turkey has cooperated with Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani since 2013, particularly over crude oil exports through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. Barzani and Turkey share a mutual distrust of the PKK, and the KDP currently competes with the PKK for control over Sinjar district. Turkey also possesses close relations with former Ninewa Province governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, who maintains a camp of former local police and Arab fighters in Bashiqa called the “National Mobilization.” Turkish support was essential for Atheel al-Nujaifi’s elevation to the Ninewa governorship in 2009. Finally, Turkey has close relations Osama al-Nujaifi, Atheel’s brother and the leader of the Sunni Etihad bloc in the Council of Representatives (CoR). Turkey will likely leverage these connections in order to secure greater control over what armed and political actors participate in operations to recapture Mosul. In particular, Turkey will likely support the Nujaifis over Sunni Arabs with whom Turkey has not cultivated relations.
Turkey’s deployment of troops sparked strong rejection from the full spectrum of Iraqi political actors. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Iraqi President Fuad Masoum strongly condemned the deployment as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanded that Turkey conduct an immediate withdrawal. All major Shi’a parties denounced the deployment as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, with a leading Sadrist official calling for Iraqi airstrikes on the Turkish force if it did not depart the country. Another pro-Maliki CoR member suggesting that “a Russian force” could intervene to expel the Turkish battalion. The KDP’s primary political rival, Gorran, rejected the Turkish deployment as a violation of international law, though Gorran’s position more likely stems from its feud with Barzani over control of the KRG than any real concern for Iraqi sovereignty. A leading member of Sunni Etihad, Muhammad al-Karbouli, also rejected the Turkish deployment that came without an agreement with the Iraqi government. Etihad’s statement was nonetheless less vehement than any Shi’a political party’s rejection, and Karbouli also took the opportunity to denounce the corrosive effect of “outlaw militias” – referring to Iranian-backed proxy militias – on the ability of Iraq to resist foreign pressure.
Turkey remains unlikely to withdraw its forces from northern Iraq in the near-term, given the current lack of leverage its opponents currently possess to reverse its decision. Neither the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) nor the Iranian proxy militias realistically possess the ability to expel the Turkish force from Bashiqa. Both forces lack a meaningful presence in the region as well as the freedom of movement to deploy near Mosul. The Iraqi government thus remains limited to rhetorical condemnations and appeals to the U.S. to force a Turkish withdrawal. The U.S. will not likely press Turkey on the issue, as anonymous U.S. defense sources merely indicated that the U.S. was "aware" of Turkey’s intentions. Iranian proxy militias, however, could challenge Turkey elsewhere in the country. Iran likely ordered Iranian proxy militias to kidnap 18 Turkish construction workers on September 2 in order to pressure Turkey into ordering Turkish-backed rebels to cooperate with a ceasefire around the besieged Shi’a majority towns of Fu’ah and Kifriya in northern Syria. The kidnappings provided sufficient leverage against Turkey and the kidnapped workers were released after Syrian rebels enacted a local ceasefire. Iran could pursue similar actions against Turkish assets in Baghdad or in southern Iraq.
This situation may escalate further if Iran views the deployment as threatening its vital strategic objectives in Iraq or Syria. Iran rejects any foreign forces other than their own on Iraqi soil and backs the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Barzani’s rival in Iraqi Kurdish politics trying to contest his control over the Kurdistan regional presidency. Iranian proxies also recently sparred violently with the Peshmerga in Tuz Khurmato in eastern Salah al-Din proxies on November 12. Iran has also angered Turkey by repeating false Russian rhetoric that Turkey purchases oil from ISIS, part of a disinformation campaign that followed Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane over Turkish airspace on November 24, while Turkey and Iran remain in a proxy contest over control of Aleppo in Syria. Should Iran decide to resist Turkey’s escalation in ways that the Prime Minister will not or cannot, the Prime Minister Abadi may face a vote of no-confidence, which the Iranian-backed militias have already threatened.
Shi’a parties will use the episode to pressure PM Abadi to strongly reject foreign intervention, particularly if reports that Turkey and Barzani signed an agreement to establish a permanent Turkish base in Bashiqa are correct. These calls could complicate U.S. plans to additional Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Iraq to as a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” that will conduct raids and intelligence-gathering in Iraq and Syria. The timing of the Turkish deployment will make it even harder for PM Abadi to approve of the U.S. SOF deployment announced on December 1. PM Abadi could also face further pressure to accept Russian assistance, an outcome that has become popular among Iranian proxies and the Sadrist Trend since Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria on September 30. Russian airstrikes would run counter to U.S. regional interests and interfere with the Coalition’s ability to conduct its own airstrikes as well as advise and assist operations in Iraq.