ISTANBUL — Turkey's government, which likes to consider itself a "regional power," has forced the country back under the protective shadow of NATO (where it was during the Cold War) thanks to an unplanned crisis with Russia. In the face of Vladimir Putin's unabating rage after the shooting down of a Russian plane, the limits of Turkish geopolitical ambitions have been exposed.
And yet despite such a troubling crisis, the government in Ankara now finds itself in a standoff with another pivotal country: Iraq, with Turkish military sent troops to a training camp in Bashiqa, north of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Baghdad's immediate response: Pull your troops back within 48 hours or we will employ every alternative — including going to the United Nations Security Council. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded Thursday that he has no intention of withdrawing troops.
Although the height of the tension is now largely passed, it is a reminder of Turkey's errors in Iraq, including then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's visit to Kirkuk without notifying Baghdad, and bypassing the Iraqi authorities while transporting Kurdish oil. More crises are sure to follow.
Those in power in Ankara who use the term “dynamic foreign policy” act surprised again. The political climate that leads to the shooting down of a Russian plane for barely entering its airspace, also somehow forgets about another country's sovereignty as they march tanks into their territory to build a base just up the road from Mosul.
Turkey's official explanation for its new military presence around Mosul is that the former governor Esil Nuceyfi asked for help to combat ISIS. Davutoglu, now the Turkish prime minister, discussed the matter with Iraqi President Haider-al Abadi in Baghdad on Dec. 20, 2014. Then Turkey started training with the approval of the Iraqi government. But Iraq says that Turkey's actions go well beyond troop training and that the military transfer was made without notification.
Baghdad has insisted that any training of anti-ISIS forces must be done through the Iraqi defense ministry. "This condition applies to everyone but Turkey disregards it,” an Iraqi source told me.
Even the United States, which has a comprehensive security and cooperation deal with Iraq, does not treat Baghdad like Turkey has. For example, the U.S. and its western allies send aid to Kurdistan's government via Baghdad.
Of course, Turkish military presence in Iraq is not a new thing. There are Turkish soldiers at many points along the border, most notably in Bamerne. There are also military liaison offices in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. The Turkish military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan has roots going back as far as the first Gulf War.
Kurdish troops in the town of Sinjar, Iraq — Photo: Mitchell Prothero/TNS/ZUMA
Ankara insists that their current aim is limited to training Peshmerga fighters and other troops in the area, but it seems that their presence turned into what amounts to a small Turkish military base, judging by the tank concentration.
My Iraqi sources say there was simmering tension over payment claims for the troops in Bashiqa, but I believe there are deeper political conflicts. It could be one or more of the following factors:
Maybe Turkey wanted to say "I play a part in the Middle East game, too," and make itself more visible near Mosul after Moscow used the downing of the Russian plane to undermine Turkish military plans in Syria.
Maybe the Bashiqa military presence is an act of intimidation to the Kurdish forces present in the area.
Maybe it's an expression of Turkish ambitions as "the new Ottomans" wanting to be among the forces to rescue Mosul.
Maybe this is all about the security of the oil deals made with the Iraqi Kurdistan government.
Still, it is hard to understand what the end game is. We may easily be wrong again, just as we were in assuming Turkey would never dare shoot down a Russian plane over "rules of engagement."
Ankara's foreign policy has shifted to follow a Sunni sectarian line, and the Iraqi government and people who were driven away from their homes in Mosul blame Turkey's allies in the area for the fall of Mosul to ISIS.
Turkey does not want Shia militia and Iranian forces to enter Mosul — the U.S. is on the same page on this score. But the question has become: "Who will rescue Mosul?"
The pro-government media of Turkey claims the military of Mosul disbanded because they were all Shia and did not want to defend the city. It is also claimed that the Popular Mobilization Forces are all Shia and that they are under the command of Iran.
The Shia represent 65% of the Iraqi population. The Sunnis are very much a minority if you do not include the Kurds among them. Those who do whatever they can to alienate the Shia do not do much to encourage the Sunni clans to rise against ISIS.
The Iraqis I talk to — who includes ethnic Turkmens, natural allies of Turkey — say the Popular Mobilization Forces are fighting for Iraq, of which Mosul is a part. "All Iraqis are there to save Iraq," says one source. "That includes the Shia and the Sunni, the Christian and the Muslim. It is not anybody's place to say the Shia are not welcome."