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Late November 2015, Turkey sends troops, tanks, and heavy artillery across the Iraqi border positioning themselves just outside Iraq’s second largest city Mosul with the claim that they were there to train the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State who’s been occupying Iraq since 2014. As soon as Turkey moved troops across the Iraqi border, it was met with heavy dissent from the Iraqi prime minister as well as the United States. Why would Turkey put troops near Mosul without getting permission from the Iraqi government first? The answer is “territorial gains.”
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Turkish President Erdogan, whether by means of foresight or having been advised, made this calculated move to position a few hundred of his troops near Mosul because he knew at some point, the Islamic State was going to have the squeeze put on them by not just the Iraqi and coalition forces, but the Kurdish Peshmerga as well.
The Kurdish Peshmerga of northern Iraq have had their fair share of notable battles to retain their autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan; one of these battles was the 2003 “Operation Viking Hammer,” which paired the Peshmerga with US Special Forces against the Ansar al-Islam terrorist faction who was occupying parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga never had a problem fighting and have fought alongside the US Special Forces; they never needed training by Turkish troops to begin with.
As Iraqi cities and towns become liberated one at a time, with the most noted to date being the Battle of Fallujah where Iraqi and coalition forces liberated the city from the Islamic State this summer. The last remaining Islamic State strong-hold would be Mosul, where the self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, finds himself holed up with nowhere to run.
As Iraqi, Peshmerga, and coalition forces prepare for the Mosul offensive, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi again demanded that Turkey remove its troops from northern Iraq and again, it fell on deaf ears but this time it came with a tongue lashing from President Erdogan himself. The battle for Mosul is now merely hours away and the issue of Turkey keeping troops on Iraqi soil without permission must be tabled for now; too much is at stake for Iraq and the fight on Islamic State.
On October 16, the battle for Mosul commenced with the Kurdish Peshmerga leading the charge and within 24 hours, the Peshmerga made substantial gains with the liberation of seven villages near Mosul; a definite blow to the Islamic State for these villages to be liberated as quickly as they were. No doubt this small victory by the Peshmerga showed up on President Erdogan’s radar, for it was only 24 hours after this that he issued a statement claiming Mosul is part of Turkish soil.
On October 17, Turkish President invoked an early 20th century irredentist document stating that the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk are part of Turkey. This document, dated in the 1920’s and sealed by the Ottoman Parliament at the time, is called the Misak-i Milli and President Erdogan is under the impression he can muscle his geopolitical will on Iraq by invoking it.
Why the sudden invoking of this nearly century-old document? To stop the territorial gains the Kurds are making in Iraq and prevent them from making any further gains. Since 2014, the Iraqi Kurds have expanded their territory in the region by 40%, which has caused tensions between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq itself. Now a third element, Turkey, is attempting to impose its will in regards to Iraqi territory, thus causing an already tense issue to become a volatile one.
The brazen words of emboldened President Erdogan and his justification for occupying Iraq is due to the border the two countries share:
“A history lies for us. If the gentlemen desire so, let them read the Misak-i Milli (National Oath) and understand what the place means to us. They say Turkey should not enter Mosul. Come on! How do I not enter? I have a 350 kilometers (217 miles)-long border with Iraq. And I am under threat from that border. They tell us to withdraw from Bashiqa. Nobody should expect us to do so. It is impossible for us to remain outside [the Mosul equation].”
This posturing by President Erdogan in Iraqi affairs, especially in the form of dictating to Baghdad that they should not mess with Mosul’s demography (Mosul is predominantly Sunni Arab after the Kurds were displaced and Mosul was partitioned in 1926) has the Shia, primarily Muqtada al-Sadr’s loyal following, demanding Turkey remove its troops from Iraqi soil; the fight for territorial gains is getting a whole lot stickier thanks to Turkey.
Let’s not forget the Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq who are also fighting Islamic State who would love nothing more than to gain control of Mosul, which Turkey would have a hard time with if this were to happen despite words spoken by Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif,
“We will leave Iraq whenever Iraq asks us to. And we will help Iraq to confront terrorism, as long as Iraq wants us to.”
Even if Iraq asked Iran to leave, they would more than likely stay because of the fragile state the region is in, which leads to the very real possibility that Iran could take control of Mosul, either by proxy or other means.
Once Mosul is liberated from Islamic State, the real battle begins – the political and territorial disputes inside Iraq and with foreign players like Turkey attempting to force Iraq to carve up Mosul, it’s now clear that President Erdogan is bullying his way into Iraq with his own land grab. He’s been able to maintain a military presence in Iraq since November 2015 and no one has stopped him, including the United States and United Nations, and he knows it; he’s exploiting this lack of action for gain in the form of claiming territory in Iraq.
Theresa Giarratano is a retired US Army NCO studying Middle Eastern affairs with special emphasis on global terrorism. Her current status is assisting the Kurdish people by disseminating information regarding the fight against ISIS via social media platforms.