Turkey, US Increase Involvement in Mid. East Wars: Dangers of Mission Creep

Turkey, US Increase Involvement in Mid. East Wars: Dangers of Mission Creep

On Dec. 6, Turkey said it won’t send more troops to Iraq without the Baghdad’s approval after the Iraqi government said it may appeal to the United Nations to secure the withdrawal of Turkish soldiers deployed recently to the country. «Our Prime Minister has stressed in his letter that there will be no transfer of forces to Bashiqa until the sensitivities of the Iraqi government are addressed», the Ahmet Davutoglu’s office said in the statement. 

The Turkish Prime Minister briefed his Iraqi counterpart on the deployed Turkish troops’ training mission without specifying whether they would be withdrawn. Ahmet Davutoglu explained that Turkey had been invited in by the Ninewah Provincial government with the consent of the Iraqi government, and that actually some Turkish troops had been there as trainers for a year now. He said that the regiment has trained 2000 local Iraqi fighters to take on Daesh (the Islamic State-IS). Iraqi forces have been preparing a counter-offensive to recapture Mosul, which was seized by IS in June 2014. The operation has been repeatedly postponed, mainly because Iraq's troops are thinly stretched and had to fight in other parts of the country.

Baghdad said the deployment was done without consultation and was a violation of national sovereignty. Prime Minister Abadi reiterated that foreign ground combat troops were not needed in Iraq. Powerful Iraqi Shia Muslim armed groups have pledged to fight any such deployment. In an interview on Dec. 5, Hakim al-Zamili, the head of Parliament’s security committee and a Shiite militia leader, said the Iraqi military, if necessary, should strike the Turkish positions in the north. «I have sent a letter to Abadi and told him that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected, and we have weapons and F-16 planes and must use them to hit the Turkish military force in Mosul, so no one will dare violate the sovereignty of Iraq», he said.

«This latest deployment increases Turkey’s presence and, without question, will be viewed as part of a larger project to annex Iraqi territory», Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said by email on December 6 before Turkey’s promise not to send further troops. «For many, this will be viewed as an attempt to break up the Iraqi state».

On December 8, Iraq asked NATO to put pressure on alliance member Turkey to withdraw its troops immediately. «NATO must use its authority to urge Turkey to withdraw immediately from Iraqi territory», Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement, posted after a 48-hour deadline set by Baghdad for a withdrawal of the troops expired. Abadi spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone, the statement added, calling the deployment a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.

Turkey maintains close connections with key players in northern Iraq. Ankara has cooperated with Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani since 2013, particularly over crude oil exports through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. Barzani and Turkey share a mutual distrust of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), and the KDP (the Kurdistan Democratic Party) currently competes with the PKK for control over Sinjar district. The Kurdistan Regional government (the KRG) said that the Turkish presence is legitimate and part of the international coalition effort against Daesh (the Islamic State). Turkey also possesses close relations with former Ninewa Province governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, who maintains a camp of former local police and Arab fighters in Bashiqa called the «National Mobilization». It has close relations Osama al-Nujaifi, Atheel’s brother and the leader of the Sunni Etihad bloc in the Council of Representatives (CoR). Turkey will likely leverage these connections in order to secure greater control over what armed and political actors participate in operations to recapture Mosul. In particular, Turkey will likely support the Nujaifis over Sunni Arabs with whom Turkey has not cultivated relations.

Turkey opened the Bashiqa training base for Iraqi forces at the end of 2014, around the same time as it opened two camps in the Soran and Qalacholan districts of Kurdish northern Iraq. Several hundred Turkish soldiers have been deployed to provide training for Iraqi troops in an area near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which is under Islamic State control.

The Islamic State overran Mosul, a city of more than 1 million people, in June 2014, but a much anticipated counter-offensive by Iraqi forces has been repeatedly postponed because they are involved in fighting elsewhere.

The events highlight the extent to which Iraq is divided, essentially split between areas controlled by the Islamic State, the northern Kurdish region, and a Shiite-dominated zone that includes Baghdad and the south and that represents the extent of the central government’s control. Should Mosul be cleared of the Islamic State the Turkish heavy weapons will make it possible for Turkey to claim the city. The risk is big that Turkey will eventually establish its control over Mosul.

Should the city stay in the hands of the Islamic State Turkey will make a deal with it and act as its protector. It will benefit from the oil around Mosul which will be transferred through north Iraq to Turkey and from there sold on world markets. The Turkey’s troops deployment looks very much like an attempt to seize Iraq's northern oil fields. Turkey will have a permanent military base in the Bashiqa region of Mosul as the Turkish forces in the region training the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been reinforced, Hürriyet reported

The deal regarding the base was signed between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani and Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu, during the latter’s visit to northern Iraq on Nov. 4. At that Massoud Barzani is no longer president of the KRG.

His mandate ran out and the parliament refused to prolong it. Besides, Mosul and its Bashiqa area are not part of the KRG. Barzani is illegally selling oil that belongs to the Iraqi government to Turkey.

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On Dec.1 the United States said it was deploying a new force of special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against Daesh there and in neigbouring Syria, ratcheting up its campaign against the group. The U.S. will deploy around 100 special operations forces (SOF) to join the 3,500 U.S. troops already stationed in Iraq.

Described as a specialized expeditionary targeting force, the troops will «conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders», said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the US Department of Defense.

The deepening involvement comes a little more than a month since Washington agreed to send 50 special operators to Syria in October.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress, «This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria».

«We are prepared to expand it», Carter said describing the mission.

The addition of more troops to Iraq and Syria represents a significant deepening of the U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State. Until now, the Obama administration has been reluctant to commit ground forces to the fight in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Special Ops have previously conducted some secretive missions on the ground in Syria as well. But the deployment marks the first permanent presence of American ground troops in Syria since the U.S. began leading an international effort last year to confront Daesh. 

The office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said it welcomed foreign assistance but Iraq’s government would need to approve any deployment of special operations forces anywhere in Iraq.

Abadi reiterated that foreign ground combat troops were not needed. Powerful Iraqi Shia Muslim armed groups have pledged to fight any such deployment of US forces to the country.

The US SOF increasing presence in Iraq and Syria is fraught with negative consequences. The White House has already called this mission «open ended». It brings to mind the story how the Vietnam War started. The decision exposes SOF to risks and opens the door for further escalation. Since Mr. Obama’s initial deployments of several hundred troops to Iraq to help local forces, the number has grown to about 3,500, and the roles have grown as well. While Mr. Obama and his administration have maintained publicly that they are not putting American combat boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, the definition of combat has changed several times since the United States began airstrikes against the Islamic State in August 2014.

The deployment again raised the question of the president’s legal authority to order such a mission. While Iraq’s government has invited American forces into their country, the Syrian government has not. Congress has not approved the deployment. Last time President Obama tried to send troops into Syria, Congress was opposed. The leaders of congressional opposition to the idea of sending SOF to Iraq and Syria, Alan Grayson for the Democrats, and Justin Amash for the Republicans, are already preparing to oppose the action. There is no arrangement to cooperate with the Russian military in Syria on preventing incidents. 

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The recent situation creep in Iraq and Syria is fraught with dangerous consequences. No previous arrangements with other actors are in place to reduce the risk of incidents. International law is violated, as legal governments are ignored while forces are being deployed on the territory of Syria and Iraq. And the both deployments seem to pursue quite different goals. History is full of examples when such unilateral actions led to dire consequences. 

Tags: NATO  Iraq  Kurdistan  Turkey  US