Creating new perspectives since 2009

Turkey’s options: Operation Euphrates Shield or the Mosul Battle

October 12, 2016 at 11:59 am

At the beginning of October, the Turkish parliament renewed the memorandum mandating the army to carry out military operations beyond its borders, specifically in Syria and Iraq. This angered the central government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, and led to a protest, which, in turn, disrupted Turkey’s considerations associated with its future operations in both countries, particularly with regards to the battle to liberate Mosul from Daesh.

Battle for Al-Bab

After completing the first and second phases of Operation Euphrates Shield in record time — liberating Jarablos from the clutches of Daesh, deepening the areas of control, and securing the town of Al-Rai — Turkey’s sights turned to the third phase and the liberation of the city of Al-Bab, close to Aleppo, the tightening of control over Manbej and the expulsion of the Kurdish militias from the latter. Due to the fact that the US did not withdraw its cover for the Kurds, as evidenced by the fact that they continue to hoist the American flag at some of their sites, Turkey’s actions have succeeded in terms of Manbej and it has positioned itself towards Al-Bab.

Contrary to the first steps in the operation, which passed very quickly and without any real losses, predictions for liberating Al-Bab indicate that it will need more time and more preparation, and there is the potential for greater losses. For a start, more troops will be needed, as well as a secure corridor between Al-Bab and the Turkish border, and an increase in the areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey. Furthermore, there are a large number of local inhabitants compared to Jarablos and the surrounding area. This poses a challenge in terms of how to avoid civilian casualties.

In addition, the fierce resistance expected from Daesh because of Al-Bab’s status for the group and the religious significance of the town of Dabiq makes it difficult to imagine the extremists withdrawing readily from the area, as was the case with Jarablos. There are also military and logistical challenges, including the minefields that have slowed the progress of the Turkish troops. Finally, there is a possibility that the battles for Al-Raqqah and Mosul will be delayed, according to the plans of the international alliance.

Turkey wants to achieve a number of goals from this battle, the most important of which is to renew and sustain the legitimacy of its military presence in Syria by facing Daesh. It also wants to prevent the control of Al-Bab by Syria’s democratic forces, which are mostly made up of Kurdish militias, and in doing so quash the idea of a Kurdish mini-state, which is desired by the Kurds in order to maintain territorial contiguity between their three cantons.

Turkey also wants to expand the areas that are under the control of the Free Syrian Army to 5,000 square kilometres. This would increase the chances of convincing Moscow and Washington to impose a no-fly zone in areas without Daesh, allowing the return of some refugees.

Establishing the Free Syrian Army as a local player capable of facing Daesh as an alternative to the People’s Protection Units and the democratic Syrian forces in US strategy is also a Turkish objective, especially in the expected battle for Al-Raqqah. All of this will strengthen Turkey’s cards at the negotiation table when the future geophysical and political maps are redrawn. This was boosted by Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and its achievements to-date in Operation Euphrates Shield.

Mosul and Ba’ashiqah

Turkey’s moves towards Al-Bab slowed down given the priority of Al-Raqqah in its vision of hitting Daesh strongholds before other parties. It is also due to the aforementioned logistic and military challenges.

However, the US-Russian dispute over the ceasefire has delayed the Al-Raqqah battle and pushed forward the liberation of Mosul as the priority of the international alliance, led by Washington. This is at the heart of the tension between Baghdad and Ankara.

Despite the Turkish parliament’s move, it is merely the renewal of a memorandum for next year, without any changes to the number of Turkish troops present in Ba’ashiqah Camp or the task assigned to them. Al-Abadi’s government raised the ceiling in its statements objecting to the decision, considering the Turks to be an “occupation force”. It was not content with the diplomatic letters sent to the UN Security Council; Baghdad also felt the need to threaten a “regional war” if Turkey does not withdraw its troops, saying that they “are not in Iraq on a picnic”.

The statements made by Ankara ranged between stressing concern for Iraq’s security and the integrity of its territory, and insisting that it will not withdraw its troops. Some statements even called Al-Abadi’s statements “dangerous and provocative”; the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, advised Iraq to stick to what needs attention and not to blame Turkey, which has helped it do what it needs to.

Turkish assessments indicate the desire of several parties to hinder its participation in the battle in order for Ankara not to have a say in the future of Iraq. The Turkish government, meanwhile, is trying to involve itself whilst training the National Popular Mobilisation Forces in Ba’ashiqah. There are estimated to be around 3,000 fighters there, in addition to nearly 2,000 members of the Iraqi Peshmerga.

Post-Daesh considerations

It is clear that the position of Al-Abadi’s government towards Turkey is purely political and has nothing to do with sovereignty. This is not only because it has not objected to the military presence of other countries, but also because the camp at Ba’ashiqah has existed for some time now without causing any problems. The crisis only arose in December last year after Ankara increased the number of its troops at the camp. This led to the UN Security Council recommending both parties to resolve the issue by means of direct bilateral talks.

Hence, the issue is related to the post-Daesh period, considering that those participating in the “liberation” process will contribute to forming the society in Mosul and the political structure of Iraq in the future. Hence, there are various parties keen to join this operation, including the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilisation Forces, Iraqi Peshmerga, the international alliance, Turkey and even the Kurdish PKK (which is banned in Turkey as a “terrorist group”). This complicates matters.

Ankara’s insistence on participating in the Mosul battle, along with other affiliated parties, is based on trying to reduce the risks of sectarian polarisation and establishing stability in Iraqi politics in a manner that gives it relative balance in its competition with Iran. On top of this it hopes to hinder attempts by the PKK and affiliated parties to gain international legitimacy by participating in the battle, as its Syrian branch, the Syrian Democratic Union Party, did.

It seems that Turkey’s position is weak because the central government in Baghdad opposes its presence, along with the various US statements in favour of Al-Abadi and calling for Turkish cooperation with the Iraqis regarding the Ba’ashiqah Camp and the Mosul battle. Whether Ankara likes it or not, Al-Abadi’s government has sovereignty over Iraqi territory and has a mandate to govern. This means that Turkey faces being censured by the Security Council.

Baghdad thus has the initiative in the political and legal sense, while Ankara has the upper hand militarily. If Turkey is forced to contain the tension between itself and Baghdad, then the latter would not be able to face it in open battle. If there is an urgent need for local forces to face Daesh on the ground, what would be the solution?

There are a number of proposed scenarios related to the legal circumvention of Al-Abadi’s position by means of Masoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdish region, asking Turkey to participate on its own or as part of the international alliance to face Daesh. It seems that such options are neither guaranteed nor desired by the US, as Washington wants the battle to have a unified leadership for the purposes of effective coordination, free of internal conflicts and clashes on the side.

Hence, the realistic solution lies in a Turkish initiative to begin dialogue with Baghdad and provide reassurances to it regarding its military presence in Iraq and its purpose and goals. This should include Turkey’s acceptance of the Baghdad government’s supervision of the Ba’ashiqah Camp and complete coordination with it regarding the battle for Mosul, the participating forces and Ankara’s willingness to train any forces chosen by Baghdad.

This means the recognition of Iraq’s sovereignty and respect for its decision-making bodies, along with dedicating Turkey’s participation as part of the international alliance to achieving common goals. Such goals include the points over which Ankara entered discussions with Baghdad and reached an advanced stage before being thwarted by Iranian pressure. It seems that, today, Turkey is keen to reactivate these talks under the auspices of Washington, or maybe even Moscow, which now has a good relationship with both parties.

Translated from, 11 October 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.