Will Turkey, Iran & Iraq make the Mosul Campaign a Land Grab?

By James Miller | ( RFE/RL ) | – –

We may be witnessing the end of the extremist group, the [so-called] Islamic State [group] (IS), as we know it.

Over the weekend, the coalition of Turkish military soldiers and Syrian rebel groups, backed by a small number of U.S. Special Operations Forces and air support, captured the Syrian city of Dabiq from IS. In and of itself, this would be an important battle. The Turkish-led coalition is now set to advance toward Al-Bab, IS’s westernmost stronghold in northern Syria, a position that lies on the most important road that runs between Aleppo city and Turkey.

Perhaps even more importantly, IS’s propaganda states that Dabiq is the city from which the apocalypse will start. The city is so important to the extremist group that its English-language magazine, one of IS’s most important recruiting tools beyond the physical borders of its "state," shares the city’s name.

And yet, there was no epic battle for Dabiq. The last 100 IS militants withdrew without a fight. There will be no apocalypse, it seems.

But that wasn’t even the main headline. On the morning of October 17, the world awoke to find that a full-throated effort to dislodge IS from its most important stronghold in Iraq, Mosul, had been launched by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi military, bolstered by U.S. air strikes and Special Operations Forces.

An animation made by LiveUAMap shows how IS’s easternmost flank began crumbling in just a few hours. Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani told Al-Jazeera that the operation had captured over 200 square kilometers of territory from IS on Day 1. Al-Jazeera also reported that this included nine villages outside the main city. Progress on Day Two was slower, but still steady.

Simply put, the "dawla," the state controlled by IS, is collapsing. To be sure, the fight for Mosul will be very tough. Videos taken by international media organizations like CNN show IS fighters dug in. One fighter is seen jumping out of a hole and shooting Peshmerga fighters in an ambush before blowing himself up in an unsuccessful suicide attack. IS also launched several waves of car-bomb attacks against the Peshmerga front lines. Despite the hopes of many in the anti-IS coalition, it seems the extremists are going to fight for the villages outside Mosul, and everyone seems to fear that the fighting inside the city will be even worse.

But Mosul will fall. The crumbling of the dawla is now inevitable.

Turkish forces are rolling across IS’s territory in Syria in the west, the battle rages in Mosul in the east, and at IS’s center, Kurdish forces, backed by the United States, are within 50 kilometers from the extremist group’s headquarters, Raqqa.

A World War II Land Grab

This situation has a historic parallel. In 1944 and 1945, the defeat of the Axis powers was already nearly guaranteed. In Europe in particular, what transpired then was a race between competing interests to capture as much territory as they could before the war came to a close. The Soviet Union stormed into German-occupied territory from the east, the allied powers of the United States, United Kingdom, and a coalition of fighters from across the world pushed from the Atlantic Ocean in the west. After the war was over, the United States sought to shape the territory it controlled through the Marshall Plan, a bid to rebuild and unify Western Europe in order to prevent future conflicts there and stop the spread of communism. The Soviets in the east were less subtle, opting to directly control the territory they had captured in the hopes of advancing their own imperial goals. The result of the final days of the war with Germany thus shaped the entire future of geopolitical and regional power dynamics, which resonate to this day.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance to the east of Mosul to attack IS militants on October 17.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance to the east of Mosul to attack IS militants on October 17.

With such grand consequences, it’s easy to forget that all of this was determined inch by inch, foxhole by foxhole, region by town by neighborhood, by the actions and reactions of individual soldiers and commanders on both sides.

In the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are all competing for power, but so, too, are various sectarian groups — Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds. What may appear like a united front to end IS is really a fractured coalition of powers, each with competing interests.

Inside Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga are clearly making a power play, asserting its military might while wrangling for political — and perhaps physical — territory. Iraq’s Kurds have wanted greater autonomy or independence from Baghdad for a very long time, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq granted them that opportunity. IS poses an existential threat to that autonomy, but it also presents a great asset. By the end of this campaign, the Kurds will have played a major role in the reestablishing of order in the country, and they will have proven their military effectiveness.

Against this backdrop, the besieged government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is struggling to win the narrative. Abadi has been locked in a prolonged battle with those who oppose his reform agenda, including his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who has undermined him at nearly every opportunity. But Abadi has also had to placate Shi’ite militiamen, many loyal to the infamous Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are frustrated at the lack of reforms and Abadi’s desire to free Iraq from sectarian politics, which hard-line sectarians like Sadr blame for the growing influence of the Kurds and the previously unchecked power of IS: Sunni militants. Abadi has attempted to stress the involvement of Iraq’s military in the victories over IS. In reality, Shi’ite militias played a major role in the victory over IS in Fallujah and are likely to be heavily involved in the Mosul campaign, as well. While the extent of the ties between the various Shi’ite militia groups and Iran is a complicated issue, clearly Iran is also seeking to increase or at least maintain its own level of influence in Iraq through Shi’ite dominance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped.

Further complicating the picture: the involvement of Turkey in both the Syrian and Iraqi fronts. In August, just one month after a failed coup attempt aimed to topple the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria to launch their own offensive against IS. At the time, however, I wrote that Turkey’s primary motive was obviously not the fight against IS. After all, Turkey has shared a border with IS for two years. Instead, Turkey was reacting to U.S.-backed Kurdish groups that were rapidly advancing deep into IS territory, occupying space that was once controlled by moderate Syrian rebel groups that Turkey has supported for years.

Not only was Turkey watching its proxies lose territory to IS and the coalition that supports the Syrian government, Erdogan was also watching one of his principal rivals — Kurdish groups with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — fill that vacuum.

In the short term, Erdogan’s gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped. IS is retreating, almost without a fight. The Kurdish groups have withdrawn from some of the territory right on Turkey’s border.

About one month ago, I sat down with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy meeting in Kyiv. He was enthusiastically bragging about Turkey’s intervention in Syria and broke the news to me that U.S. special operations forces were assisting the mission, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield. But in comments made during a panel earlier that day, Simsek stressed that the Erdogan government is beset by enemies on all sides — IS and Kurdish extremists had both ramped up terrorist attacks in the months preceding the coup, and then there was the coup itself. Simsek stressed the narrative that followers of Fethullah Gulen had infiltrated all levels of the Turkish government and the crackdown on dissenters and the purge of suspected Gulenists that many in the West claimed was authoritarian was really the reestablishment of democratic values.

Journalists and experts present for Simsek’s comments were rightfully skeptical. Still, the exchange was a clear illustration of the central issue in Turkish politics: Many aspects of Turkish society — from the economy to the security situation to Turkey’s regional standing — have been challenged in recent years. Turkey’s intervention in Syria, and the Turkish government’s purge of suspected Gulenists, are Erdogan’s attempt to reestablish some element of control, at least over the narrative, if nothing else.

RFE/RL spoke with Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C., who stressed that Erdogan is busy creating a narrative.

"The economy is doing terribly," Tanir said. In order to distract from Turkey’s problems, Erdogan, much like Putin, has created external crises for him to fight, whether that be Gulenists and the Kurdish PKK at home, or IS and the Kurdish groups affiliated with the PKK beyond Turkey’s borders. One consequence of the coup, Tanir explained, is that the Turkish media have either been targeted by the postcoup purge or are now echoing the Turkish government’s party line.

"There is no critical media left in Turkey, and so whatever Erdogan says right now goes straight to the public," he said.

Erdogan, however, will soon face another problem with this narrative: His intervention in Syria is literally running out of room. With Dabiq having been liberated from IS, Turkey will set its sights on Al-Bab, a large and strategic town on a key road that runs from Aleppo city to the Turkish border. However, once Al-Bab is in Turkish control, Erdogan will have a new problem: In order to advance to IS’s next stronghold, Raqqa, Turkey may have to move through territory currently controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups or by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the moment, neither of those options is attractive to Turkey as they could broaden the conflict and alienate either Russia or the United States — or both. There may be nowhere to go.

In other words, if Erdogan is dependent on external crises to serve his political needs, he may run out of crises. It is for this reason that Erdogan wants the Turkish military to get involved in the fight for Mosul.

On October 18, Erdogan said that Turkey has a "historical responsibility" in Mosul and Kirkuk, as they were both historically Turkish land, therefore, "If we say we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason."

Iraqi men use a shoe to hit a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they gather outside the Turkish consulate in the southern city of Basra to protest against the continued presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq on October 14.

Iraqi men use a shoe to hit a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they gather outside the Turkish consulate in the southern city of Basra to protest against the continued presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq on October 14.

He also warned Iraq’s Shi’ite militias, which have been accused of anti-Sunni atrocities, to not get involved in the fight. As of right now, however, the government in Baghdad has rejected Turkey’s request to join the fight in Mosul, and on October 18 thousands protested outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad against a Turkish military presence in Iraq. Two of Turkey’s best-known media organizations, Daily Sabah and Anadolu, said that the protests were "dangerous" and had been organized by Muqtada al-Sadr.

If Turkey is not allowed to intervene in Mosul, will it try to anyway? Will Turkey attack Kurdish forces in Syria, even if it angers the United States?

"What’s going on in Iraq and Syria is a land grab," Tanir told RFE/RL. Various factions — the Kurds, the Turks, the Shi’a — are all using the fight against IS to advance their own causes. And just like how the 1945 land grab in Europe and Asia set the stage for the Cold War, so, too, will the events in the Middle East impact the power struggle in the region for years to come.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL



Related video added by Juan Cole:

Los Angeles Times: “Battle for Mosul: One the front line near Nawaran, Iraq”

9 Responses

  1. So many words about all the competing players, and yet the Syrian Arab Army and the Russian airforce is mentioned exactly once – and then only in passing.

    Spectators, apparently.

    Which would come as something of a shock to both, I imagine.

  2. Syria has already said they would attack Turkish forces if the latter attack the Kurds, so Turkey really has limited options there. I agree there are better pickings in Iraq, but I don’t think their relations with the Peshmerga is good.

    I do take issue with your characterization of the ‘infamous’ Sadr. Why? Because he was fervently anti-American after the start of that criminal war in ’03. He did try to unite with the Sunni in their opposition to the Americans. If he had his way we might not have had all the sectarian bloodshed that followed.

  3. The “historic parallel” to the United States, Britain, and France pushing into German-occupied territory from the west and the Soviet Union pushing from the east is a superficial analogy at best. For one thing, the allies pushing from both west and east were liberating, and in the Soviet case occupying, whole nation-states that were under German control and occupation. The one exception was Germany itself, which was divided among the allies.

    In the current case involving the various players in Syria and Iraq, we are witnessing the potential dismemberment of sections of the two nation-states. Moreover, in the World War II case, the United States could have pushed further and occupied both Berlin and Prague, but the decision was made, for both political reasons and in recognition of the tremendous sacrifices made by the USSR, to allow the Soviets to take both. The two sides met at the river Elbe.

    Finally, the worldwide repercussions of the division of Europe were historically much greater than would be those resulting from the dismemberment of parts of syria and Iraq. that’s not to say there would be no repercussions, but they would not have the political, economic, and ideological effects that resulted from the division of Europe between East and West for 45 years.

  4. “This situation has a historic parallel…..[i]n Europe, in particular, what transpired was a war between competing
    interests to capture as much territory as they could…..”

    The 2003 invasion of Iraq had little to do with fear or genuine concern about purported “weapons of mass destruction” possessed by the Baathist regime in Baghdad – it had far more to do with the fact Iraq is one of the most strategic locations on Earth from a defense and foreign policy perspective:

    (1) it had been under the Russian sphere of influence for decades and had the former Soviet Union to the north;

    (2) it has Iran directly to the east;

    (3) it has the oil-rich Persian Gulf states directly to the south;

    (4) it has Israel to the west;

    (5) it has substantial crude oil reserves.

    The United States began covert operations against Saddam Hussein via executive order by President George H. W. Bush directed to the National Security Council and the CIA issued immediately after the close of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

    Shortly after the Baathist government in Baghdad collapsed, the Baathist regime’s intelligence agency chief and Iyad Allawi – who would become a future Iraqi president – were transported to Langley, Virginia to restructure a new Iraqi government and intelligence service – along with a 3-billion dollar appropriation from U.S. Congress.

    Congress also allocated 500 million dollars for the U.S. intelligence community to establish their own network of bases inside Iraq.

    Same situation happened with Nazi Germany – the Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen was not only not prosecuted by the Allies – but stayed on as the intelligence director of West Germany for over twenty years following the end of WWII and was relied on by the U.S. intelligence community for authoritative reports. His “Gehlen org ” spy ring transmitted valuable intelligence on Soviet Union railway facilities and military installations until it was finally penetrated and broken up by the KGB.

    West Germany became the host of 250.000 American military personnel during the Cold War as well as an industrial juggernaut that exported valuable products such as automobiles and machinery to the U.S. after the end of WWII. The U.S. also exploited Nazi missile technology not only for its NASA program – but also to establish its ICBM network

    The U.S. and it allies saw the conquering of Iraq as an economic, military, and intelligence opportunism imperative – not as a concern over purported “weapons of mass destruction.”

    Iran and the U.S. are the main players in the Iraq “power play” today – as the Warsaw Pact and NATO was in Germany in the decades following WWII.

  5. “On October 18 Erdogan said, that Turkey has a “historical responsibility” in Mosul and Kirkuk, as they were both historically Turkish land.”

    In fact, the whole of Iraq and Syria were “historically Turkish land” under the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic empire that subjugated its Muslim brethren for more than four centuries every bit as much as the British and French did for a mere 38 years. It is odd that the British and French are tarred with the epithet of “imperialists” while the Ottoman Turks are rarely mentioned as such, a result of the inability of the Islamic Umma to criticize one of its own.

    • You missed my point, Herbert, which is that the British and French are labeled Near East “imperialists” for their 38 years of hegemony in Iraq and syria, while the Islamic Imperialist Ottoman Turks are not tarred with the term in spite of more than four centuries of hegemony over their Islamic brethren. My point was that the Islamic Umma is loathe to criticize one of its own whose record of imperialism in the Near East far exceeds that of the British and French.

      • Bill, you’re being silly. It is like expecting the Spanish to see the Habsburg Empire as foreign imperialists. You are mixing up two separate concepts, “empire” (the normal form of government in the early modern world) with imperialism, the European capitalist incorporation of much of the world into an economically exploitative and often racist, illegitimate order.

        • No one is denying that European powers engaged in imperialism. Yet one should not be blinded by Lenin’s critique that imperialism represented the highest form of Capitalism, which generally implicated the West.

          There is a good argument to be made that the Ottoman Empire was just as imperialistic as Western powers. The difference between the two was Western imperialists emphasized manufacturing while the Ottomans emphasized agriculture. Ottoman bureaucratic and military expenditures were financed by taxation of its subjects, who were just as subject to rule from the center in Istanbul as any other subjects of Western powers were subject to rule from the center in London or Paris.

          There are varying interpretations of imperialism and colonialism, as well as similarities and differences between the two. Nevetheless, to return to the original subject, Otto9man rule extracted wealth from the Empire’s subjects every bit as much as the British and French mandatory powers did, and they did it for a much longer period.

Comments are closed.