Turkish Ambitions and Mosul After ISIS

Matthew Petti, Columbia University

With the eyes and cameras of the world on the Nineveh Plains, the armies of several nations began their march, mounted on tanks and pickup trucks. This modern twist on a Biblical scene took place on October 16, 2016, as the opening act of the Mosul offensive. Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian militias, backed by the Iraqi Army as well as the fifteen nations of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, sought to liberate the largest city still controlled by the self-declared “Islamic State,” also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. This motley coalition was a diplomatic masterstroke, as groups with wildly different goals were convinced to fight together on the same front-lines.

However, one nation was conspicuously absent from this ecumenical gathering. Turkey, which shares over 200 miles of border with Iraq, is arguably the most important power in Upper Mesopotamia. Along with Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is one of the few competent militaries to share borders with Iraq. Additionally, the Turkish military is deployed on Iraqi soil only a few miles north of Mosul, and Turkey is allied with the United States through NATO. Nonetheless, disputes with the Iraqi government over the future of Mosul prevented this seemingly-obvious participant from joining the fray. The conflict between Turkey and Iraq underscores the problems with the alliance to liberate Mosul, and highlights potential dangers after the battle is won.

The modern Republic of Turkey is caught between its secular reformist tendencies and its status as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire. While a strain of post-WWI Turkish politics has looked to Europe as Turkey’s future, there remains a strong sense of attachment to the former Ottoman territories across the Middle East, a sense which has been intensifying under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration. Part of this “neo-Ottomanism” involves the idea that Turkey’s borders were unjustly drawn, and that the Turkish Republic should include much more of the territory of its imperial predecessor.

While many ideologues around the Middle East are unhappy with the post-Ottoman map, nationalist neo-Ottomanism has become acutely relevant as two former Ottoman provincial capitals—Aleppo and Mosul—are ravaged by war. East Aleppo, which has been held by the Syrian opposition since 2012, is now the scene of brutal urban combat as the Syrian military attempts to reassert control over the country’s largest metropolitan area. Mosul, meanwhile, is two de facto capitals of ISIS—alongside Raqqa, Syria—and is today the largest urban center under its control. Multinational forces are now beginning efforts to liberate that city, in order to drive ISIS from Iraq. Turkey is involved with the Battle of Aleppo, covertly supporting rebel groups inside the city, and overtly occupying much of its outskirts as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.

The presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil is a potential vehicle for neo-Ottomanism. Although Turkey is currently fighting an insurgency among its own Kurds, and strongly opposes the Syrian Kurdish project for an autonomous region, the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is a major ally of Turkey. Both governments share an interest in fighting the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along the border, and the ruling Barzanî family looks to Ankara for help in suppressing domestic opposition. Additionally, the KRG relies on Turkey to export its own oil without using Iraqi ports. The territory of the present-day KRG was once encompassed by the Ottoman “vilâyet” (province) of Mosul, and Turkey could support a Kurdish independence bid as a way of asserting its primacy over the region.

The Iraqi Kurdish government is unlikely to try to take Mosul, unwilling to shed blood for a city whose population is too heterogenous to join an ethnic secession project; however, it may attempt to use Mosul as a bargaining chip to gain Kirkuk, a disputed region claimed by the Iraqi central government but administered by the KRG. Additionally, the Nineveh Plains around Mosul—which are currently occupied by the KRG—are likely to be the subject of a major dispute. Its large population of Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians, who do not entirely trust the KRG, have been agitating for an autonomous region of their own, and the territory is also claimed by the Iraqi central government. Joining the mix, several thousand Turkish troops are deployed in Bashiqa, a town on the Nineveh Plains, as part of a training mission in support of the KRG.

However, disputes with Iraq—which still has a strong central government—have prevented Turkey’s direct involvement in the Battle of Mosul. The status of the Turkish forces in Bashiqa is a long-standing dispute between Baghdad and Ankara, exacerbated by recent comments made by Erdoğan regarding Mosul: “After liberating Mosul from [ISIS], only Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Sunni Kurds should stay there.” Doubling down, Erdoğan and pro-AKP media began expressing interest in redrawing Turkey’s borders to include Aleppo and Mosul. These statements elicited widespread condemnation from political factions in Iraq, and resulted in the Iraqi government denying Turkey a role in the liberation of the city.

That outcry was well-earned, as Mosul is not an exclusively Sunni city. In addition to a large Shi’a population—as exists in the rest of Iraq—Mosul hosts many minorities native to Upper Mesopotamia. Êzîdî Kurds, who practice an indigenous religion, and Assyrians both inhabit the city in addition to Muslims. All three of these groups were expelled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains by ISIS, and would no doubt like to return. In addition to alienating all of these groups, the Turkish government’s newfound interest in expansionism has also understandably elicited concern from other regional powers. Indeed, alleged Russian or Syrian helicopters attacked militias participating in Operation Euphrates Shield, perhaps as a warning against Turkish irrendentist ambitions.

Despite the short-term damage they caused, Erdoğan’s comments on Mosul highlighted the Turkish government’s new view of its regional role. In the midst of an escalating sectarian conflict across the Middle East, many Gulf States are attempting to assert their role as the patron of Sunni Muslims, but Turkey’s reputation for modernity and imperial history have given it a leg up. As it increasingly identifies with its Ottoman heritage, Turkey sees itself as a protector of a conservative Sunni bloc. As the various factions around Mosul squabble, Sunni Muslims who identify with their religious sect rather than their ethnicity or nationality are likely to grow in numbers. While the Ottoman Empire won’t be restored any time soon, Ankara could attempt to assert its role as the protector of Mosul’s Sunni populations.

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