Turkish ambitions to have a greater say in the future of Mosul could force the nation to accept greater cooperation with Russia and Iran.

Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance, near Mosul, Iraq, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. Photo: AP

U.S. and Kurdish forces have already launched a military operation to assist the Iraqi army in recapturing Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Since that became clear, the Turkish government has been staunchly insisting that Ankara should also participate in the operation. The Turkish military presence near Mosul, despite being protested by Baghdad, officially has the goal of supporting the Peshmerga and Sunni forces that are attempting to liberate Mosul.

However, official Turkish statements and the nation’s recent foreign policy in the region make many observers doubt the proclaimed intentions of Ankara. They argue that Turkey’s policy is mainly driven by its geopolitical ambitions in Iraq. For Russian decision-makers, it is important to incorporate Turkish efforts into its own Middle East policy and to channel Ankara’s ambitions into the Iran-Turkey-Russia framework of cooperation.

Why is Turkey in Iraq?

Earlier in October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the Turkish army should play a role in the Mosul offensive. He further insisted that no one would be able to prevent forces trained by Turkish soldiers and advisers stationed near Mosul from participating in the operation.

Such assertiveness describes in broader terms the current Turkish policy towards Iraq and Ankara’s intentions to be a part of the coming post-ISIS power politics. But it seems reasonable for Ankara to rethink its current hostile stance and to consider closer cooperation with Russia and Iran instead.

The Turkish military presence in Iraq is not something new. Cooperation on border security with Iraq has been ongoing since the 1980s, whereas the nation’s limited (but permanent) military presence started in the 1990s. Today there are around 18 Turkish military and intelligence bases mostly located in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan.

The main objective of the Turkish presence in Iraq is to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization in Turkey, EU and the U.S. For example, Turkey established a military camp in Bashiqa in March 2015 as part of its fight with ISIS. It provided training and military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga and local Sunni forces al-Hash al-Watani.

In December 2016, the Bashiqa camp became the center of a diplomatic scandal between Turkey and the Iraqi central government. The latter demanded from Ankara removal of the camp that was established “in violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” It is quite obvious that Baghdad has been serving as a conduit of Iranian concerns over the Turkish encroachment on its dominion in Iraq.

Faced with the lack of support from both its Western and Arab partners, the Turkish authorities were forced to mitigate the conflict and were trying to prove that its military presence was necessary to fight ISIS. Now, the same arguments are used to justify Turkish participation in the military offensive in Mosul. Turkey insists that its presence in Iraq is an indispensable element of the fight with ISIS.

On the other hand, Ankara seems to ignore ongoing skepticism over its true relations with the Islamic State. It is not a secret for anyone that, in the early stages of its existence, Turkey viewed ISIS as an effective force against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and Kurdish PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) groups. Both are primary enemies of Turkey.

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, still divided on the future of Syria"

Turkish officials, when asked about the necessity of its military presence, tend to underline that Turkish bases in Iraq are also ready to contribute to the ongoing fight against the PKK. Allegedly, Turkey is trying to block the advancement of the PKK-affiliated groups along the Syrian-Iraqi border around Sinjar. If those groups get control over the border, it would be easier for the Rojava region in Syria to survive a Turkey-imposed land blockade. Nevertheless, even if the PKK factor is acknowledged and taken into consideration, experts argue that the military presence in Iraq is already adequate for fighting PKK activity there and, in any case, must be coordinated with the central government.

So another major motive behind Ankara’s insistence to participate in the offensive might be Turkey’s ambition to retain the area around Mosul under its influence in the post-ISIS period, which promises to be very hectic. With a weak central government in Baghdad and rising influence of Iran in the post-2003 Iraq, the necessity to keep Mosul, the second largest city of the country, under Turkish influence, became not only a relatively easy task, but also a geopolitical imperative in Turkish Middle East policy. It partly explains why Ankara is so staunchly opposed to any involvement of Iran-backed Shia militias in the Mosul offensive.

However, both Ankara and Tehran are trying to avoid a direct confrontation. Instead, they are seeking behind closed doors all possible options to calibrate their respective policies in Iraq. In this regard, diplomatic initiatives of Turkey, Iran and Russia to find a stable mechanism of regional cooperation could contribute to stability in turbulent post-2003 Iraq.

Historical “injustice”

From the perspective of the current Turkish political establishment, Mosul was unjustly seized by Britain in 1918 and the newly founded Turkish Republic was forced by the Western powers to acknowledge the League of Nations’ brokered agreement. The loss of Mosul is, many say, a historical injustice inflicted upon the Turkish people and it must be undone.

The current revisionist foreign policy is driven by Turkey’s ambitious President Erdogan, who recently hinted in his speech to parliament that the Lausanne treaty must be reconsidered. (A peace treaty signed in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 24, 1923 officially settled the conflict that had existed between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied British Empire, French Republic, Kingdom of Italy, Empire of Japan, Kingdom of Greece, and the Kingdom of Romania since the onset of World War I – Editor’s note)

Since the early 2000s, Turkish foreign policy was largely shaped and given an academic framework by former Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmet Davutoglu. His proactive vision foresaw the revitalization of Turkey’s ties with its historic neighborhood and, more importantly, reactivation of its influence in the former Ottoman colonies, especially in Syria and Iraq. It is not only soft power that Turkish leadership has been using to secure its presence in Iraq. Ankara has actively been supporting various Sunni groups that were more or less interested in Turkish backing to counterbalance the Iraqi central government.

Therefore, the Turkish presence to a great extent was based on support of the centrifugal political forces in Iraq. In this vein, Turkey has been justifying its military presence by saying it helps kindred Turkmen and Sunni local populations who suffered the most from ISIS cruelty over the last two years. However, Turkey was not limited to that. It is providing political, financial and military assistance to the Iraqi Kurds, who represent so far the biggest challenge for the Iraqi central government. No doubt this support is more than just a step towards securing its say in local politics.

Friendly Sunni forces, whether they are Arabs, Turkmen or Kurds, are expected to serve Turkish interests in its future struggle with Iran over influence in Iraq, which historically was the basis for a geopolitical rivalry of the two regional empires.

Turkey could rely on Russian diplomatic assistance to overcome difficulties it faces today in Iraq. As it was mentioned in regards to the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in Iraq, Turkey risks colliding with another regional power, Iran, which is interested in preserving a united Iraq under full control of Baghdad.

Another issue of concern is Turkish support to the Kurds. Turkey seems to have no other option other than to support the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) government in Iraqi Kurdistan with little realization that Turkish military assistance serves the ultimate Kurdish interest – full independence from Baghdad.

What can Russia’s role be?

Russia could use its good relations with Iran as a tool to channel Turkish concerns and grievances into more cooperative dialogue and thus successfully engage both Tehran and Ankara in lessening Western influence in the region.

By being more responsive to Turkish security concerns, Iran and Russia could considerably lessen Ankara’s reliance on the Kurds. Finally, looking at the more tactical and near-term perspective, Turkey seems to be meddling in a highly complicated conflict where all sides seem ready to start fighting each other once Mosul is retaken from ISIS. This could make a Russian diplomatic project on a tripartite cooperation mechanism in Iraq attractive for Turkish decision-makers.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.