Will Turkey go to war in Northern Iraq?

Since Turkey’s refusal to withdraw its military forces from its training camp in Bashiqa, Northern Iraq last December relations between Baghdad and Ankara have been at an all time low.

Even after the start of the Mosul operation against Islamic State (ISIS) on October 17 there has been no thaw in these tensions, if anything they are getting worse. The Iraqi government opposes any Turkish participation in the Mosul operation and has made repeated demands for Turkey to withdraw its forces, many in the Iraqi parliament even want the Turkish presence officially labeled an occupation of Iraqi territory.

The Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has bitterly condemned Baghdad in response, insisting it has a right to intervene in Northern Iraq wherever, and against whomever, it sees fit. This has raised the prospect of the Turkish military engaging forces other than ISIS in Northern Iraq. Let’s take a look on the possible adversaries in Iraq.

PKK-trained Yezidi militia in Sinjar (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr).

PKK-trained Yezidi militia in Sinjar (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr).

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
At the end of October, Erdoğan stated that Turkey “will go on this [Operation Euphrates Shield] campaign in Syria and Iraq, and now in Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar. Why? Sinjar is about to be the new Qandil [for PKK]. Thus, [Turkey] cannot allow it to happen in Sinjar, because there is PKK there.”

Sinjar and the wider region was where ISIS committed one of its most infamous crimes: the massacre of thousands of Yezidi men, women and children and the clear attempt to eradicate that entire people. The PKK, who have long maintained a base in the Qandil mountain range, fought ISIS to a standstill in Sinjar for over a year. When the city was finally liberated by the Kurdish Peshmerga, the PKK maintained a presence, against the wishes of the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey has been bombing the PKK in Qandil for years, to little avail. A permanent PKK foothold in Sinjar would doubtlessly irk them to the point they would contemplate launching an incursion to rout them out. Whether this will simply consist of a series of airstrikes against the group there or an actual ground attack has yet to be seen.

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, PMU enter the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of jihadist-held Mosul, on November 1, 2016, during the ongoing operation.

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, PMU enter the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of jihadist-held Mosul, on November 1, 2016, during the ongoing operation.

The Iraqi militias
There is also no love lost between Turkey and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the coalition of mostly Shiite militias formed by the Iraqi government following Mosul’s fall in mid-2014. Many militias fighting under the flag of the PMU are backed by Iran and staunchly oppose Turkey’s troop presence in Bashiqa.

When the PMU were allotted the task of securing Mosul’s western periphery – allowing them to play a role in the operation but not to enter the Sunni-majority city itself, to avoid possible sectarian conflict – they immediately announced their aim to take Tal Afar from ISIS. This alarmed Turkey which warned the PMU against committing any abuses against the Turkmen residents of that city, even threatening to intervene against them if they done so.

Since then Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has said that the PMU will not enter Tal Afar and that the town will be liberated by the Iraqi Army, possibly alleviating a potentially lethal conflict between Turkey and the PMU. However, this does not rule out the possibility of some kind of a clash between Turkey and the Iraqi militias, either directly or indirectly. Turkey’s aforementioned presence at Bashiqa is primarily to train the Nineveh Guard militia (formerly known as the Hashd al-Watani), a Sunni-majority militia commanded by the former governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi. The Iraqi government blame al-Nujaifi for allowing the Turkish Army to Bashiqa and have even went as far as issuing a warrant for his arrest.

The Nineveh Guard may end up clashing with the PMU in the future if their paths collide, or if they choose to target each other. This could see a proxy war of sorts evolve between Iranian proxies and Turkey’s proxy. A direct clash between the Turkish Armed Forces or a future PMU attack on Bashiqa could also be potentially very destabilizing if it escalated and both sides started pouring in more men resources to Nineveh to face off each other. While Turkey might have the initial advantage of being able to target the PMU with artillery and airstrikes the PMU may be able to muster more manpower and declare a jihad against the Turkish outsider, something which would have widely destabilizing affects on the region.

Convoy of Iraqi armored forces.

Convoy of Iraqi armored forces.

The Iraqi Armed Forces
The least likely but most dangerous scenario is one that involves a direct clash between the Iraqi and Turkish Armed Forces in Nineveh. Possibly initiated by forceful Iraqi attempts to stop more Turkish deployments in its territory. If Turkey were to escalate such a war it would need to confront Iraqi armor and engage the Iraqi Air Force, which now possesses formidable F-16s and advanced Russian helicopter gunships (Mi-28N and Mi-35M).

The Turkish Armed Forces may be reluctant to do this since their entire F-16 fleet is not currently in operation following the failed July 15 coup attempt and the subsequent purges in the military. In Syria Turkey reportedly temporarily halted air support to its Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy fighting ISIS and Kurdish forces in northwest Syria since Damascus threatened to target their jets and even deployed anti-aircraft missiles to show it could do so. In addition Ankara has demonstrated a limited ability to readily deploy effective armored forces in Syria.

Also, the Turks would be less likely to take the risk of escalating any clash with the Iraqi Armed Forces into a full-fledged war, especially at a time when the Iraqis are at the forefront of an American-backed war in Mosul.

This entry was posted in English, International, Iraq, Turkey.

One Response to Will Turkey go to war in Northern Iraq?

  1. Yahya Bostan writes in Erdoğan’s mouthpiece, the Daily Sabah, that forming a new military base in the Sinjar-Tal Afar line would serve not only Turkey’s interests but also receive the support of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

    He identifies two main threats for Turkey in this region:

    • The PKK, which allegedly are paid by Baghdad and which joined with 500 fighters the operation in Sinjar. According to Bostan, this lead to tensions between the PKK and the KRG.
    • The PMU (aka Hashd al-Shaabi), which he describes as “the Shiite version of Daesh”.

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