Turkey, Iraq at odds over troop deployment

Turkish soldiers in Suruc, Turkey, positioned a few hundred meters from the border with Syria. (File photo: AP)

The deployment on Dec. 3 of several hundred Turkish soldiers to northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul, has sparked a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Baghdad.

The declared aim of the deployment is to provide routine training for Kurdish fighters in a camp in the Bashiqa region, which has been under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since June 2014. The move by NATO-member Turkey is not part of the U.S.-led coalition’s activities.

Baghdad gave Turkey an ultimatum on Sunday to withdraw its troops within 48 hours, otherwise it might take the case to the U.N. Security Council.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum called the Turkish deployment a “violation” of international law and his country’s “national sovereignty.”

The head of the parliamentary security and defense committee, Hakim al-Zamili, has urged Iraq’s prime minister carry out airstrikes against Turkish troops if they insist on remaining in Iraqi territory.

While Baghdad says the deployment happened without its knowledge or approval, Ankara says it was a routine rotation of troops.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said his country “is there to train soldiers against ISIS, but the Iraqi government showed sensitiveness on this issue.”

In a letter to his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave assurances that Ankara would resolve Iraqi concerns.

Turkey on Dec. 8 said it had stopped the transfer of additional forces, but with no withdrawal of existing ones.

Coordination

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgic announced: “We’ll solve this problem and increase coordination to the highest possible level.”

The camp, where 2,441 people have been trained so far, was set up by Turkish forces at the Mosul governor’s request, and in coordination with the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

About 80 Turkish trainers were already in the camp before this deployment for more than a year, in a bid to train Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen forces.

With this latest deployment, the number of Turkish troops in Iraq has reached about 3,000. There are some 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq to train and advise local forces.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman Safeen Dizayee said the presence of such forces was not new to the region, and Turkey had been involved in various ways by training Kurdish forces against ISIS.

“There’s a need for more trained and prepared units to liberate Mosul, to take part in the future operations as well as to maintain security in the post-liberation period,” Dizayee told Al Arabiya News.

“There has to be high-level talks between Ankara and Baghdad. Turkey as a neighboring country can play a positive role, and there should be more coordination and cooperation between both countries in various fields.”

Motives

Aydin Selcen, the former consul general of Turkey in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the latest military deployment showed that Turkey had transformed its temporary training camp in Bashiqa into a permanent military base, sending a political message to all parties to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Selcen considers this move bold, unconventional and highly risky. “The reaction of Baghdad derives from the fact that these tanks and troops were deployed without taking into consideration the pro-forma diplomatic sensitivities,” he told Al Arabiya News.

“Was it really indispensable for Turkey to take this action at this particular time and date, while managing so many risks simultaneously at such high velocity?”

Selcen, who served in the Turkish embassy in Baghdad from 2003 to 2006, said the environment in certain parts of Iraq is not friendly to Turkey.

He cited the suicide attack against the embassy in Oct. 2004, and the killing in Dec. 2004 of five members of the Police Special Operations Branch in Mosul.

Dr Saban Kardas, president of Ankara-based ORSAM (the Middle East Strategic Research Center), told Al Arabiya News: “I don’t expect that Turkey would manipulate this particular military presence in order to take a new position against regional powers.”

He said Baghdad’s strong reaction was mostly related to intra-governmental disputes, while Abadi also wanted to emphasize his opposition to foreign troops in Iraq.

Turkish PM Davutoglu commented on Wednesday on sending troops to Mosul and said that these trainers in Bashiqa camp were threatened by ISIS because it is 15-20 km from Mosul.

Concerns

Pointing out that Bashiqa is a Yezidi-majority town, Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, said this was widely perceived as a “return of the Ottomans,” and the Yezidis remember a series of massacres under the empire.

“This makes them increasingly pessimistic about their future in Iraq and in the region,” Van den Toorn told Al Arabiya News.

She said many also think the move is to counter the presence and strength of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), especially after the large role they played in the liberation of Sinjar district center.

“This will balance their power slightly, and boost that of the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP], Turkey’s Kurdish ally,” she added.

“In Iraq and in the region, this will up the ante in direct and indirect ways, and could lead to a further amassing of other forces, for example increased Russian forces or strikes in Syria, a new deal between Baghdad and Russia, or an increased Iranian presence, especially toward the Mosul and Nineveh battlefront.”

KRG President Masoud Barzani has arrived in Ankara on Wednesday, and met with various Turkish officials, including Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:49 - GMT 06:49
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