Factions and Fault Lines

The ongoing proxy war in Iraq and Syria is complicated by Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions.

By Syed Ali.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is digging into the wars in Iraq and Syria. He has insisted on Turkey taking part in operations to liberate Mosul from ISIS. “Turkey has a historic responsibility in the region,” he said, referring to the large number of ethnic Turks living in the area. Turkish troops were already present in Iraq, with forces in a town called Bashiqa, north of Mosul and involved in training local Sunni militias to fight against ISIS. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, however, has condemned the Turkish presence in Iraq, which has worsened the diplomatic rift between the neighboring countries. Even the United States, Turkey’s NATO partner, has stressed that all countries must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Iraq’s concern is that Erdoğan’s determination to join in the battle for Mosul is not merely a matter of protecting his own borders, but part of an expansionist drive. Historically, Mosul was an Ottoman dependency. Erdoğan’s scarcely concealed ambitions to restore Turkey’s Ottoman legacy will not only endanger coalition operations against ISIS but also risk starting a new sectarian war in the region.
As civil war has flourished across Iraq, a major cause of concern for Turkey has been the Iranian-backed Shia militias, many of which fought alongside Iraqi security forces in the battle of Fallujah. Atrocities committed by these militias against civilians fleeing ISIS-controlled regions has sparked mistrust between the Baghdad-based central government and Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

The Iraqi government’s failure to exercise control over Shia militias has increased Sunni alienation in Iraq. Hoping to counteract this, Prime Minister al-Abadi announced that only Iraqi security forces would be allowed to enter the city of Mosul, ideally preventing the massacre of Sunni civilians—but the international community needs to monitor if the Iraqi government has the capacity to fulfill its promises to the residents of Mosul, or risk a repeat of the incidents at Fallujah.

Erdoğan’s involvement in Syria and now in Iraq will come at a great cost for Turkey. Turkey has tried its best to support the overthrow of Bashir al-Assad, starting with funding and training hardline anti-Assad militias and culminating in the shooting-down of a Russian military jet by the Turkish Air Force, resulting in a violent diplomatic row that ended only when Erdoğan apologized to Vladimir Putin. Ankara’s increasingly interventionist posture is a dangerous game that continues to threaten to further destabilize the region but also puts Turkey’s internal stability and international standing at risk.

By defining himself as the defender of Sunnis in the region, Erdoğan is trying to change the understanding of the sectarian rift in Iraq, openly challenging the …

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