Is a Turkey-Iraq war likely?
Turkish military operations have nothing to do with sectarian conflicts like Iraqi leaders claim
The political situation between Turkey and Iraq is at its worst. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reiterated that his forces will strongly participate in liberating Mosul from ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi responded by warning against provoking a confrontation if Turkey participated in the battle. Disputes go beyond the city of Mosul and reflect the struggle and threats facing the region.
Iraqi media outlets picture the Turkish role in Mosul as a sectarian one, opposed to the Shiites. This is an incorrect depiction that exploits the statements of Arab journalists who interpret Turkish statements based on their own whims.
Truth be told, Turkish military has never indulged in sectarian activities. The Turkish army has not engaged in a single battle against the Shiite or the Alawaites. It did not fight against the Assad forces or Iranian or Russian forces or Hezbollah.
All the battles which Turkish forces have fought have been against ISIS, the Kurdish-Turkish separatists and the Kurdish-Syrians allied with the latter. All these are Sunnis and not Shiites. It fought them because they represent a threat to Turkey’s unity and stability.
Therefore, Turkish military operations have nothing to do with sectarian conflicts like Iraqi leaders claim or like Arabs, who naively think that Turkey is willing to engage in sectarian conflicts. Turkey is itself a multicultural and multiethnic country.
I believe, the Turks are now paying the price of their mistakes when, during the beginning of the Syrian uprising when they avoided intervening in areas close to their borders. They did not specify the areas which they believe harm their national security and which they will defend by force.
For example, the Aleppo governorate represents their geographic and historical expansion. As a result, Iran exerted its influence inside Syria and is bargaining with the West and Arabs over it.
Ankara wants to fight ISIS in Mosul and to prevent the fighting from targeting the Turkmen and others. However, Iran is leading the military and political confrontation in Mosul and also against Turkey. As for the Iraqi government, we all know it’s helpless.
Despite the threats against its interests, I don’t think the Turkish leadership has the desire for a confrontation even though its army is much stronger than Iran’s and Iraq’s and is also better equippedAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Filling the vacuum
The Iranians have succeeded at filling the vacuum during the years after US President Barack Obama withdrew forces from Iraq. They formed sectarian militias, which challenge the government. They called them Popular Mobilization and worked to weaken the central authority like they did in Lebanon. These militias are now preparing to cross over to Syria as well.
The Turks have tried diplomatic channels and sent a delegation to Baghdad. The Iraqis responded and sent an envoy to Ankara. However, these efforts did not succeed.
So will the Turks defend the people of these areas through their forces which are present in the surroundings? Will they confront the Popular Mobilization forces which are heading to occupy Tal Afar? Will they do something if the Popular Mobilization forces crossed toward the Syrian city of Hasakah as there’s been preliminary information about that?
The Iranians are acting quickly as they race against time before the American elections are over and they want to benefit from the slogan of “fighting terrorism”. They want to expand and launch multiple wars to tighten control over strategic border crossings between Syria, Iraq and oil-rich zones.
However, despite the threats against its interests, I don’t think the Turkish leadership has the desire for a confrontation even though its army is much stronger than Iran’s and Iraq’s and is also better equipped. Iranian forces and their militias, which they brought from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon, are heading toward Turkish borders and are pursuing Syrian opposition forces which support Turkey.
They have also encouraged establishing a buffer zone for the Kurds and this is tantamount to a scarecrow to Ankara’s government. At the same time, the Turks are paying the price on the economic and security levels as they host more than two million Syrian refugees and face an Iranian-Russian scheme to transfer battles to their territory with the support of Turkish-Kurdish separatists.
The Iran factor
The Iraqis who openly support Tehran say if Turkey dares defy them in Mosul, they will work on fragmenting Turkey itself. The situation indeed is very difficult. The Turks will be once again be proven wrong if they think the war will end at the Ba’shiqah camp in Iraq where their forces are present. That’s not the case at all.
Iranians want to control the centers of political command in Baghdad and Damascus and oil-rich areas in Mosul and the Syrian city of Deir az-Zour and to restrain Turkey on the regional level.
Despite all this, I rule it out that threats between the Iraqi and Turkish commands will lead their two armies to a clash. These threats aim to besiege the Turks through intimidation to force them out so Iran can expand its influence over Nineveh, the surrounding governorates, the trade routes, south Syria and other passages.
Turkey is in a difficult position which requires from it to form an opposing camp that proves its credibility on the ground.
This article was first published Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 03, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.