Mosul operation sees Turkey flex its muscles

Ankara’s new security doctrine sees a greater role for military intervention in its ‘backyard’.

Turkish television is suddenly awash with talk of Turkey’s “historic rights” in Mosul, displaying maps of the late Ottoman era that place the city under Turkish rule. Newspaper columns draw attention to one of the founding documents of the modern republic – the 1920 National Pact signed by the outgoing Ottoman parliament – which places Mosul inside Turkey’s national borders.

The Mosul frenzy was kicked off by a public spat between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in advance of the military campaign to recapture the Islamic State stronghold. Ankara expected the Turkish military to have a role in the offensive — something that was supported by the US Defence Secretary but rejected by al-Abadi.

In particular, Ankara wanted a role for the Sunni forces (al-Hashd al-Watani) it had been training at a base north of Mosul and loudly protested the presence of Shia militia forces (Hashd el-Shaabi) in the liberation of the city. Another problem for Ankara was the possibility that, just like in Syria, the Pentagon would rely on PKK-affiliates in parts of the campaign. Turks asked that the Sincar Resistance Units be excluded from the planning of operations in Iraq. 

But as is the custom in Ankara, these demands quickly turned into a loud public campaign, further escalating tensions with Baghdad.

“We have a historical responsibility in the region”, Erdoğan said, “If we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason. […] We have to solve the Mosul problem in Mosul. If we sacrifice Mosul, we will have the problem at our borders.”

Already unhappy about the presence of Turkish troops in the Bashika region of Mosul, the Iraqi government and citizens reacted harshly. Al-Abadi warned against Turkish intervention in Iraq, saying, “We are ready for them. […] This is not a threat or a warning, this is about Iraqi dignity.” In the end, Turkey was excluded from the Mosul offensive – but the several hundred Sunni fighters trained by Turkey are participating. 

Erdoğan’s remarks about Mosul and his subsequent comments disparaging the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 — which defined the borders of modern Turkey — have alarmed neighboring countries, many of which are former Ottoman territories. “We are not happy with these borders”, Erdoğan said point blank, “Our territory which was 2.5 million square kilometers in 1914 shrank to 780 thousand square kilometers nine years later, when Lausanne was signed… Those that are trying to imprison Turkey in a vicious circle since 1923 want to erase our thousand-year history in this region.”

Going it alone

Rather than irredentism or a yearning for territorial expansion, Erdoğan’s statements mark a new – and bolder – Turkish national security doctrine in the Middle East. Turkey has long given up ambitions to enter the European club and has instead focused on playing a leading role in its own neighborhood. But with a very specific set of principles.

The fundamental difference between Erdoğan’s new doctrine and the nearly century-old position of the Turkish establishment is a greater enthusiasm for foreign intervention. The Kemalist Republic – with the slogan “Peace at home, peace in the world” – was essentially isolationist, disowned anything to do with the Arab world, and, with the exception of the Cyprus invasion in 1974, shied away from foreign adventures. By contrast, Ankara’s new security establishment sees a lead role for Turkey in the Middle East, particularly in the former Ottoman territories.

This has led Turkey to reduce emphasis on its much-touted “soft power”– once deemed as the key to spreading Turkish influence in the region— and instead focus on military power to further its interests. As the Sykes-Picot borders evaporate and centralised governments in Iraq and Syria weaken, Ankara wants to have greater military influence on the region that Turkish officials refer to as their “backyard”.

For the first time in the history of modern Turkey, Turkey is providing patronage to militia groups outside its borders. In Syria, it has provided military aid to numerous opposition groups and trained several local militias, most notably the Sultan Murad Brigades. Turkish special forces and units are already in Syria and have been there since the military intervention into ISIS-held Jarablus in August. Ankara wants to carve out a “safe zone” between the two Kurdish-held cantons in northern Syria and Erdoğan has declared plans to go so far as Manbij and al-Bab in Syria, suggesting a zone roughly twice the size of Luxembourg.

In the Bashika region of Iraq, north of Mosul, Turkey has deployed 600-800 troops equipped with tanks and artillery, despite objections from the Iraqi government. The Turkish military also trains a force of over one thousand Sunni Arabs, ostensibly intended for post-war stabilization operations.

Backing the Sunnis

Turkey’s new security doctrine has an unmistakably sectarian dimension, although Turkish officials do not openly admit it. Amidst upheaval in the region, Turkey sees itself as a natural counterbalance to Iranian influence and is willing to act as the patron saint of the scattered Sunni masses. For the past few years it has made a conscious effort to depict itself as a Sunni power and has actively supported Sunni groups, political parties, and non-governmental actors Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.

Turkey’s main allies in Iraq, such as the former governor of Mosul, Atheel Nujaifi, tend to favour the notion of Sunni autonomy in Iraq. After years of talking about “Iraq’s territorial integrity” the concept looks increasingly appealing to officials in Ankara, who now see it as the natural path of evolution for Iraq. With a Sunni zone in Iraq and another in Syria, Turkey sees its military and political influence expanding beyond the national borders.

A final feature of Turkey’s new doctrine, as hinted at by Erdoğan, is the pre-emptive nature of combating “foes” outside its borders. Turkey has long been attacking PKK targets in the north of Iraq during a period of heightened tensions with the group. But lately it has also been striking ISIS and Kurdish YPG forces in Syria pre-emptively. “From now on we will not wait for problems to come knocking on our door, we will not wait until the blade is against our bone and skin, we will not wait for terrorist organizations to come and attack us”, Erdoğan recently said.

This is all in line with the current mood in Turkey’s ruling AKP. Echoing the Turkish president is the pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper, whose editor-in-chief Ibrahim Karagül recently wrote, “As soon as the wars currently continuing on Syrian-Iraqi lands are concluded, that war is going to move to Anatolia. There is no doubt about it. Because the eventual target of all the crises in the region is Turkey. The big target is Turkey. Therefore, Turkey needs to expand its area of intervention and never step back until all the terrorist elements and foreign elements in the north of the Mosul-Aleppo line are eliminated.” Karagül argued that Mosul and Aleppo should be governed by Turkey, just like the old days. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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