Turkey's Ambitious Goals Surrounding the Mosul Operation

An Iraqi soldier attending the advanced infantry course provides security during chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense training at Camp Taji, Iraq. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

In trying to preserve stability, Ankara may wind up creating more problems.

The Turkish establishment is extremely apprehensive about the uncontrollable tide of change along its southern border. Pro-government sources, as well as opposition papers, are full of stories depicting sinister plans for excluding Turkey from regional geopolitics and, even worse, providing Western support for the PKK and its offshoots. In this reading, the threat of Islamic State (ISIS) lays the groundwork for a non-Sunni and pro-Western, pro-Israeli coalition, undermining Turkish interests. This interpretation also entails certain qualms about rising Iranian clout and Western legitimization of Iranian regional designs, especially following the nuclear deal.

The misunderstanding of the basics of regional geopolitics aside, this twisted interpretation of events has rendered the Turkish government and public opinion even more sensitive to the changing balances in post–Arab Spring Syria and Iraq. While Turkey initially welcomed the popular revolts in the beginning, in the name of advocating change and integration with the Arab world, today the Turkish government is fundamentally pro–status quo despite the impossibility of turning back the rising tide of change.

Turkey’s Agenda in Syria and Iraq

Turkish policy in Syria and Iraq is currently defined by a set of paradoxes: First, Turkey defends the territorial integrity of Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, primarily due to concerns about Kurdish independence. Yet, while the defense of Syria’s unity would ultimately mean unconditional support for the central governments in both countries, Turkey has not overcome its categorical opposition to the continued rule of Assad and recently entered into a war of words with Baghdad. Second, Turkey feels a historical responsibility to uphold the geostrategic balances vis-à-vis its national rivals—Iran and Russia—as well as to maintain the Sunni-Shia balance in its immediate neighborhood. Yet this balance has largely been lost due to the United States’ lack of commitment to Syria and readiness to cooperate with Iran and pro-Iranian elements in Iraq. Therefore, Turkey is wobbling between cooperating with its rivals and restoring cooperation with its allies—the United States and NATO—to reach its regional policy goals. Third, Turkey traditionally espouses a cautious policy towards regional conflicts, firmly upholding a policy of nonintervention. Today, Turkey is explicitly advocating for a return to the post-1918 status quo in the region but is also following an active, and in a way daring, approach with military presence in both Syria and Iraq.

Despite a new Turkish willingness to counter threats outside its borders, Turkey’s cross-border involvement in Syria runs the risk of confronting Russia and Iran, while in Iraq it has already faced opposition from pro-Iranian elements, above all the central government in Baghdad. Western support for Turkish regional goals has also been minimized as the United States tries to resolve Iraqi issues with pro-Iranian Baghdad and Syrian issues, until recently, with Moscow. The divergence with the United States in regional policies has been the main reason why Secretary of State John Kerry has failed to visit Ankara since September 2014. This, together with U.S. cooperation with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has further alienated Ankara from Washington and brought about recent moves for reconciliation with Russia. Turkish-Russian cooperation on regional issues, despite fundamental differences in their policy goals, might yield semi-concrete results in coordinating the humanitarian response, fighting back ISIS and thus minimizing the further spillover of the Syrian conflict.

On top of these regional entanglements, Turkey faces the transnational threat of terrorism from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is emboldened by international support in Syria and its increasing role in Iraq. The PKK has intensified its terror attacks in urban centers with the backing of its military leadership in Qandil, Iraq, and sister organization PYD/YPG in Syria. While the former is still acknowledged as a terrorist organization by the international community, the latter has reportedly received armaments and monetary support from the United States, the Assad government, Iran and, until recently, Russia.

Turkey also clashed with ISIS following its attacks on Turkish targets in urban centers and border areas. ISIS is said to demonize Erdoğan and aspire to conquer Istanbul as the capital of its caliphate. Moreover, secret ISIS cells in Turkey were involved in lone-wolf attacks that aimed to target Kurds and Alevis to create further division inside Turkey. Turkey thus opened up its airspace for allied operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and before August 24, land operations bombarded ISIS targets with artillery across the border. The ensuing military operation with the support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces has virtually cleared ISIS from the Turkish border and enabled deeper penetration of Turkish forces into Syria. The latter point basically defines the Turkish goals as the operation was code-named “Operation Euphrates Shield” to underscore the Turkish commitment to preventing a de facto Kurdish-PKK corridor from Kobane to Afrin linking eastern and western flanks of the Euphrates River. Ankara disputes the presence of PYD elements in traditionally Sunni Arab lands such as Manbij and has vowed to roll back the military march of the PYD west of the Euphrates.