North Africa, West Asia

Turkey’s Mosul dream: showing up uninvited to a party or having prepared its seat well in advance?

Turkey is already shouldering the greatest portion of the burden for Syrian refugees.  It should temper its approach regarding Mosul accordingly.

Emre Turkut
22 October 2016
Uncredited/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Smoke rises as people flee their homes during clashes between Iraqi security forces and members of the Islamic State group fleeing Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 18, 2016. Uncredited/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The long-anticipated operation to free Mosul from the clutches of ISIS was preceded by rising expectations. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi announced the commencement of the operation on 16 October. But one bitter dispute has left its mark on the process.

While the entire world has been trying to make sense of the Mosul operation, remarks by Turkey’s President Erdogan fell off the radar and have gone virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world.

As many discussions were revolving as to which groups would be included in the coalition, no consideration was given by Prime Minister Abadi to the Turkish troops at Bashiqa. In response, President Erdogan spoke out firmly: “It is out of the question that we are not involved.” But, why does President Erdogan so passionately want to be included in the Mosul coalition?

When Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent added Mosul to Ottoman territory in 1535, the Ottomans ruled a huge empire stretching from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula.

Starting with the June 2011 election, the AKP’s core Islamist elements have been open about their dream of reviving Ottoman glory. Over time, in President (and former Prime Minister) Erdogan we have begun to see an authoritarian figure with robust Islamist credentials who, when dealing with both domestic and international politics, makes references to Ottoman rule as justification for his fanciful policies.

The most glorious time of the Ottoman Empire was concurrent with the capture of Mosul in the 1530s, and the frequent allusions to the Ottoman past today in Turkey are rooted in Suleyman’s reign, which was clearly a watershed in history.

When it comes to the current Mosul situation, President Erdoğan has played the same historical card by citing the National Pact (Misak-ı Milli) of 1920 as the basis for Turkey’s claim to be included as a member of the coalition for the Mosul operation.

The National Pact covered present-day northern Iraq, including Mosul, Irbil, and Kirkuk, which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. One can argue that Turkey’s interest thus stems from the National Pact of 1920 – a pact that defined the territory of post-war Turkey.

Those who raise this argument are have some validity, but only partially. I think the National Pact alone does not suffice to explain Turkey’s desire to be an actor in the region. A historical nostalgia for the heyday of Ottoman rule, however, does. And it is still unclear whether a 1920 territorial pact is sufficient to justify Turkey’s involvement or whether it will even be taken seriously.

To be fair, Turkey has been using Iraqi territory to fight the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party - Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) since the 1990s. Starting with Saddam Hussein’s rule and until, finally, last year, there was mutual agreement between the governments of Iraq and Turkey (as in the early 1980s), or at least tacit consent (as after the early 1990s).

Moreover, Turkish forces have been in Mosul’s Bashiqa base since December 2015, tasked to train the Sunni militia. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Abadi recently characterized the deployment of Turkish forces as a blatant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, and has asked repeatedly for a withdrawal.

In response, President Erdogan has ruled out withdrawal and rejected any claimed violation of sovereignty by stating that Abadi himself requested Turkey’s assistance in 2014.

In 2014 many may have had doubts about the true motives of this deployment, or the wisdom of such a venture at so fragile and delicate a moment.

While the deployment has left some unanswered questions in its wake, it seems that Ankara may have foreseen the current game well in advance and was preparing for its role as a team player and assuring its place at the table in the end game.

What is more, Turkey’s reservations about the Mosul operation seem to have been fulfilled. Turkey has clearly made its Sunni leanings in Iraq apparent over the past few years, in response to which it has received much criticism for being driven by sectarian motives.

However, notwithstanding Turkey’s so-called sectarian motives and Turkey’s demands to be included in the coalition, the Sunni militias trained by Turkey are included in the Mosul offensive. But Shi'ite militias are not. 

Nevertheless, Turkey must ground today’s policies on a rational assessment of current realpolitik, rather than historical nostalgia.

The UN has warned that the Mosul offensive could trigger another exodus of refugees. It is estimated that one million people could be displaced and some 700,000 might be in need of emergency assistance. 

Turkey is already shouldering the greatest portion of the burden for Syrian refugees.  It should surely temper its approaches regarding Mosul accordingly.

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