Peshmerga forces in the east of Mosul attack Islamic State targets. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer
Peshmerga forces in the east of Mosul attack Islamic State targets. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

Turkey has scaled down its demand for full participation in the military operations currently under way for the liberation of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Russia has scaled up its politico-military agenda in Syria, which will now be the “liberation” of the entire country under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.

This would be the latest sign of the fusion between the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the pragmatic interdependency that has developed between Turkey and Russia amidst an acceleration of US-Iranian engagement.

Three key objectives

The Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim clarified on Sunday that Turkey will not take part in any ground operations in Mosul. Turkey’s role will be restricted to provide air support, if necessary.

The revised Turkish stance follows the 2-hour visit by the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to Ankara on Friday during which he underscored again that Turkey must respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Carter apparently succeeded in snuffing out Turkey’s maximalist demand.

Turkey has three key objectives in Iraq – one, securing a place at the negotiating table to decide on Mosul’s future; two, accessing Iraqi regions near Mosul which PKK fighters (Kuridsh separatists) use as sanctuaries; and, whipping up jingoism domestically to rally support for President Recep Erdogan’s consolidation of political power.

Certainly, nationalism thrives on the dormant geopolitical ambitions in the Turkish psyche borne out of a strong sense of injustice that Britain had deprived their newly-created country of the regions of Mosul, Kirkuk and Suleimaniya (in northern Iraq) at the Lausanne Peace Conference of 1923.

Indeed, League of Nations, while saying Iraq would retain Mosul, did also accept that the region was “geographically and demographically closer to Turkey” and had pointedly declared Mosul as “disputed territory” between Turkey and Britain.

In the emergent situation, Turkey anticipates Iraq’s disintegration. A leading Turkish expert on Iraq (and advisor to Erdogan), Ilnur Cevik wrote this week that new states are taking shape in Iraq “as it was the case in the former Yugoslavia.”

Cevik visualizes a “Kurdish state in the north, a Sunni Arab state in the mid-sections of the country and a Shiite state dominated by Iran in the southern provinces.”

In some ways, what is unfolding is a sort of replay of 1923. If 93 years ago, it was Britain’s superior military power (and imperial chicanery) that had deprived Turkey of the former Ottoman lands in present-day Iraq, it is Baghdad (with the backing of US, a superpower, and Iran, a regional power on the rise) that blocks Erdogan from realizing Kemal Ataturk’s dream project known as the National Pact – namely, creation of a modern Turkish state that included Mosul, Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, extending north of Lake Van until the Black Sea.

Turkey ideally would hope for an autonomous Sunni power center in Mosul that exercised authority over Iraqi Kurdistan and depended critically on Turkey’s protection and help. Indeed, Turkey assembled over the years enough fire power to militarily intervene in the region when the situation is ripe.

Turkey keeps a tank battalion with two companies at the former Bamerni air base, a commando battalion at Kanimasi, two tank companies and a commando battalion at Bashiqa, and Special Forces liaison offices in 10 locations in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Additionally, Turkey also trained 3000-strong Sunni Arab militias with the intention to to deploy them on the Mosul front.

However, unlike in Syria, where Turkey brusquely dictates terms to the US as regards its proposed anti-IS operations, US keeps a significant presence in Iraq (close to 7500 allied military personnel) and calls the shots.

An unlikely phalanx

Unsuprisingly, the US has preferred that the liberation of Mosul is best handled by Iraqi forces and affiliated militia without Turkish involvement, which is also the demand of Baghdad and the secret wish of Tehran.

Curiously, Iraqi Army is also aligned with the Shi’ite-based Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the fight to retake Mosul, and the PMF factions are led by none other than the charismatic commander of Iran’s famous Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Simply put, an unlikely US-Iraqi-Iranian phalanx is actually masterminding and controlling the military operations in Mosul. While all three protagonists are committed to decimate the IS, a template of this unusual 3-way communion would also be their common suspicions over Turkey’s real intentions vis-a-vis the IS.

It is possible to see the above 3-way equation against the backdrop of a certain deepening of the US-Iranian engagement lately, as evident from the Obama administration’s moves to lift certain sanctions against Iran.

For example, Western companies can now do business with Iranian companies that may be linked to politicians and generals in Tehran (including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards commanders) who figured in the US’ sanctions list previously.

Equally, the Obama administration has begun allowing Iran to use American dollars in its business dealings with foreign companies. Furthermore, there are reports that the Obama administration has quietly given consent to the removal of several banks including Bank Sepah and Sepah International from the UN sanctions list.

Without doubt, all this is brilliant news for the Tehran elites. How it rubs on the US-Iranian tango in Iraq and Syria will be hugely consequential in the period ahead.

Enter Russia. Clearly, Moscow is mostly keeping quiet about the developments over Mosul, while keeping an eagle’s eye on what happens to the IS fighters in Mosul. The Russian commentaries have expressed an overall apprehension that the IS fighters might be pushed into Syria.

Having said that, Moscow cannot but be waking also the fault line that pits Turkey and Iran against each other on Mosul, with the two ancient rivals keenly trying to avoid a direct confrontation.

To be sure, in addition to Turkey’s continued need of Russian acquiescence over its ‘Euphrates Shield’ operations in northern Syria, Ankara would also count on whatever Moscow could do to help resolve the contradictions involving Iran and Iraq today in Iraq.

Russia is indeed partnering Iran in the Syrian conflict and the two countries also work together with Iraq in the coordination center set up late year in Baghadad to fight terrorism.

Facts on the ground

All the same, a Russian diplomatic offensive to mediate between Ankara and Tehran seems highly improbable for a variety of reasons. Iran has seldom accepted outside mediation on issues that impact its core interests. And Iraq’s stability impacts Iran’s national security.

Besides, Iran’s medium and long-term interests would lie in normalization of relations with the US. Conceivably, Moscow would be having a sense of unease about the recent trends in US-Iranian engagement. Over and above, Iran aspires to be an independent player in its region.

Nonetheless, in immediate terms, Turkey’s quandary works to Russia’s advantage. This is already visible in the ‘neutral’ stance that Turkey has taken with regard to the Russian-Syrian operations in Aleppo.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan disclosed last week that in a phone conversation with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, they discussed the Russian wish that Ankara should persuade the al-Nusra fighters to leave Aleppo without further fighting.

“We (Turkey and Russia) have given necessary instructions to our colleagues and have started to work in this direction. And we also discussed an agreement on how to drive out the al-Nusra from Aleppo and provide peace for the city’s inhabitants , an for this we need to work together,” Erodgan said.

He added that if there is an exodus from Aleppo due to the fighting, Turkey will be willing to accept at least one million refugees.

Now, Erdogan has extended a big helping hand, which Putin will only clasp with both hands at a time when Russia is racing against time to create new facts on the ground, establishing its pre-eminence in Syria in the coming two months or so before the Obama presidency ends.

Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin spokesman voiced confidence on Sunday that Russia’s objective will be to help the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wrest control of the entire country. With Turkey’s cooperation, anything becomes possible for Russia on the Syrian chessboard.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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