Ankara is hoping a coalition victory in Ramadi will counter Iranian influence in northern Iraq
By: CF Brennan
Turkey’s December 4th deployment of a large battalion to Camp Bashiqa near Mosul in northern Iraq may draw Ankara deeper into the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq. The incursion, ostensibly a mission to train anti-ISIS militiamen, has brought Ankara head to head with Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq, which view Turkey’s heightened presence as a threat to their power broker status in Baghdad. As Iranian proxies work to undermine Turkey’s influence in northern Iraq, Ankara may take measures to curb their importance by heightening its support for US-led battles against ISIS in Ramadi and elsewhere. In the coming weeks, a successful push by US-backed Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to secure Ramadi would empower forces independent of Tehran, including Turkey, to more easily counter Iranian influence in northern Iraq.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had originally requested Ankara’s presence in Camp Bashiqa in 2014. Yet the December 4th deployment drew sharp criticism from Abadi, who denounced it as an unsanctioned military incursion. Abadi’s criticism came just days after leading Shia parliamentarians threatened Abadi with a vote of no confidence if he accepts any new US or US-allied forces. The response to Turkey’s positioning near Mosul highlighted the growing influence of Iraq’s hardline, Iran-backed Shia militias, which have long pressured Abadi to reject all non-Iranian and non-Russian military aid.
Under international pressure, Turkey made a partial withdrawal from Bashiqa on December 14th, and again on December 18th. Since then, Ankara has heavily criticized Baghdad, which Erdoğan accused of pursuing sectarian policies at the behest of Tehran, and basing its decisions on “the latest developments in the region, that is, the steps taken by Russia and Iran.”
The deployment, though aggressive, aligns with Turkey’s long-term objectives, which seek to ensure the stability of the Turkish-Iraqi border region and reinforce the control of pro-Turkish Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Reinforcing the governing KDP, partly led by KRG President Masoud Barzani, enables Ankara to safeguard Turkey-KRG relations, which include lucrative trade and efforts to train KDP forces to contain Turkey’s domestic Kurdish nationalist movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey’s deep ties to Iraqi Kurdistan have allowed Ankara to maintain a consistent military presence in northern Iraq since 1997, as well as oil and trade relations. Ultimately, Turkey hopes to position itself as a key provider of stability in any post-ISIS scenario in northern Iraq. “The basic goal of the troops,” stated Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu stated on December 27th, “is to better protect our trainees on duty against Daesh, and Mosul’s people.”
Turkey’s steps toward de-escalation have been purely gestural. Along with a refusal to fully withdraw from Bashiqa, Davutoğlu added that Turkey would continue with its “military arrangements” in the area as it sees necessary. On December 17th, ISIS mortar fire wounded four Turkish servicemen at an unnamed training camp outside of Mosul. The fact that Turkish troops were within mortar range of Mosul just days after allegedly downscaling its Bashiqa operations suggests that Turkey has little intention of abandoning its interests in the area.
If Turkey wants to guarantee its influence in northern Iraq it must empower the US-backed ISF, which will counter Iranian influence in Iraq as a whole. The ongoing battle for Ramadi presents the clearest opportunity to achieve this goal. The counteroffensive is the most high-profile anti-ISIS operation in Iraq, and is currently carried out by US-backed Iraqi forces. A string of recent ISF gains culminated in the December 27th seizure of Ramadi’s central government complex, and the collapse of a consolidated ISIS presence within the city. As Sunni tribal and ISF troops begin the process of uprooting ISIS elements from Ramadi’s suburbs, the US-led coalition will look to promote the ISF as the leading anti-ISIS force and Iraq’s most reliable guarantor of security.
The complete ISF recapture of Ramadi will not be a panacea for Tehran’s tightening grip on Baghdad. Iranian proxy militias are still reveling in the credibility they gained by expelling ISIS from Baiji in northern Iraq in October. Additionally, the US Coalition in Ramadi will need to prevent the late arrival of pro-Iran militias, who may attempt to take credit for the final expulsion of ISIS. Nonetheless, such a prominent success by US-backed forces could push Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to more openly welcome US assistance, and to mend the damaged relations between Baghdad and Ankara. Abadi announced on December 25th that the primary objective after Ramadi will be retaking Mosul; if Turkey could prove of vital assistance in the securing of Ramadi, the Iraqi government will likely be more receptive to assistance from Turkish forces already posted outside Mosul.
While the deployment of Turkish ground forces into Anbar remains highly unlikely, airstrikes coordinated with US intelligence in ISIS-held Ramadi suburbs would be a practical escalation of Ankara’s role in the conflict. Ankara could additionally offer its resources to assist in the training of ISF and Iraqi Police officers involved in clear-and-hold operations around the city. Since the Bashiqa controversy, Turkey joined a Saudi-led Sunni anti-terror alliance, and entered into further talks with US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who urged Turkey to take greater efforts against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.
The continued deployment of a high-profile Turkish ground force in Iraq would invite rhetorical and possibly violent retaliation by Iranian proxy militias, which could ultimately garner them support as defenders of Iraq’s territorial integrity. But Turkey is also unlikely to give up on its sphere of influence near Mosul. In fact, the December 17th ISIS attack on Turkish troops has bolstered the popular opinion in Ankara that Turkey is justified in intervening in areas that Baghdad cannot control.
Washington is keenly aware of the current level of Iranian pressure on Abadi, and has pursued a short-term goal of de-escalating the Bashiqa conflict. But Washington and Ankara’s long-term objectives are now aligned in Iraq. By ramping up support for US-led battles against ISIS in Ramadi and elsewhere, Turkey may undermine the political status of the very Iranian proxies that now threaten Turkish interests in northern Iraq.
CF Brennan is an independent researcher based in Turkey specializing in Turkish and Middle East security issues.
Photo credit: ISF soilder 2010, Omar Chatriwala Wikimedia Commons