Monday, 7 December 2015

Rumours of Turkish troops in Iraq reveal Ankara's changing strategy

Reports over the weekend that Turkey deployed three regiments into Iraq appear to be untrue. Yet the rumours highlight how Ankara is changing its view about its near abroad.

On Saturday, a handful of media stories warned that hundreds of Turkish troops crossed into Iraq to Nargizliya militia camp near the northern city of Mosul in Nineveh province. Reuters reports the soldiers are providing training for Iraqi troops as part of a “routine exercise”.

According to news service, the troops were already in Iraqi Kurdistan and moved to Mosul accompanied by armoured vehicles. US and coalition commanders in Baghdad say they were aware of the deployment.

Iraq’s foreign ministry called a meeting on Sunday with the Turkish ambassador to demand Ankara pull out its troops. In contrast to the coalition statements, Baghdad claims it was not told of the troop movement. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denied this, saying Turkish troops were sent to the camp over a year ago with Baghdad's approval.

If a large Turkish force had entered Iraq it would indeed be a significant escalation of combat power. The initial rumours counted three regiments entering Iraq. A regiment is approximately 1000-3000 troops, although some militaries calculate differently. As it turns out, the actual size was a much smaller force of 130 Turkish troops – nearer the size of an infantry battalion.

That the rumours gained such impressive traction in world media is important in itself. Turkey has been involved in escalating military engagements over the past few months, from airstrikes on Kurdish and Islamic State defensive positions to the shooting down of a Russian SU-24 bomber in northern Syria. It is also facing a return of left-wing and ethnic terrorism and an increase in Islamic extremism.

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also had a tough year. It failed to organise a political coalition after it lost the general elections in June. It then managed to claw back sufficient popular support for a majority victory during the November follow-up elections.

Now that Mr Erdoğan controls the government – coupled with the fact that Turkey boasts Europe’s largest military force (after the US) – the Turkish state is in a strong position heading into 2016. Yet Mr Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party is resisting getting too involved in the region, despite its growing power.

This puts it at odds with the US and other of Ankara’s NATO allies who want Turkey to shoulder greater security responsibility for the region. Try as it might to avoid the conflicts to its south, Ankara is being drawn into the conflicts against its will. But if it is inevitable that Turkey become more involved, it must do so on its own terms. Top of mind for Mr Erdoğan is the Kurdish question.

Ankara considers the Kurds to be an existential threat to the Turkish state. This ethnic population wishes to carve its own country out of a space stretching from northern Iraq, through Syria and deep into Turkey proper. Turkey has been fighting Kurdish militants for decades, it does not want to accidentally usher in a Kurdish state by upturning the status quo in Syria and Iraq.

But geopolitical reality has a way of forcing nations’ hands. Turkey is no exception. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Turkish state retreated into itself becoming more secular and adopting a policy of non-interference in its near abroad. It is only recently that the Turks reluctantly decided some measure of interaction with the Middle East is necessary. This does not mean Turkey desires the conflict.

But Turkey’ non-interference strategy is coming apart. The shootdown of the Russian bomber was a clear sign Turkey is no longer happy to let events play out as they will in Syria. Russia moving too freely inside Turkish borders without response risks telegraphing weakness to its neighbours, all of whom are hoping to secure a slice of the splintering Mesopotamian pie.

That Turkey has limited numbers of troops in Iraq should be seen as a strategic imperative, not adventurism. It is in Ankara’s interests to maintain the stability of the Iraqi government and join the US-led coalition to some degree. Turkey can be expected to increase its exposure to conflict over the foreseeable future, but a deployment of thousands of Turkish troops into Iraq or Syria would have been out of character.

What is interesting is how much the media in the region and others clearly expect Turkey to dive deeper into the fray, and potentially soon. This is a situation so widely expected that a routine rotation of 130 Turkish troops was exaggerated to appear as thousands. This is a notable insight on the political temperament of the region.

It is no surprise either that the rumours centre on the Iraq city of Mosul. Iraq’s third-largest city has been under Islamic State control since mid-2014, much to the group’s fighting credit. Both the US and Turkey are discussing how they – along with Iraqi forces – might recapture the city in coming months. Kurdish and Iraqi security forces are already working to sever the supply lines between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa – the Islamic State’s de-facto capital – in preparation.

Defeating the militants in Mosul would be a huge boost to the fragile anti-IS coalition. It is precisely this fragility keeping the forces arrayed against IS from conducting the anticipated operation. The level on infighting between the Shiite, Sunni and tribal forces is frustrating many observing Western commanders. And given how exaggerated the Turkish troop movement was in the media, some sort of strike on the city is probably being formalised.

Overall, Turkey knows it must tread carefully in the complex environments of Syria and Iraq. There are large players with non-overlapping interests involved, and Ankara does not wish for a larger security problem. Yet it knows those players will one day leave the region. It, however, cannot leave.

Turkey is unfamiliar with playing the role of kingmaker, and even less comfortable with shouldering the responsibility for whatever Syria and Iraq are turning in to. Expect to hear Turkey mumble and groan in the coming weeks and months, but do not be surprised to see it commit to more military engagement in the region. Turkey is re-learning how to play the long game in a high-stake world.

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