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ANALYSIS: Iraq's Mosul offensive suits Turkey's regional power game

A reluctant partner of the coalition forces is willing to take an active role in Iraq's efforts to eliminate the Islamic State
Turkey is the largest country bordering the Islamic State, with its 1,300-km border with Syria and Iraq (AFP)

In the wake of the Iraqi army's Tikrit offensive against the Islamic State (IS), an eventual operation to liberate Mosul is on the way. While the northern Iraqi city was the biggest gain of IS since June 2014, the capital of Nineveh province sits on the intersection of many potential disputes in the post-liberation period.

It is reported that the Iraqi army consists of military advisors from Iran led by notorious Qasem Soleimani, former leader of the Quds force, the special operations squad of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). After the announcement of Turkey and the United States' agreement to train and equip Syrian rebels, the governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, announced that Turkey will also train and equip around 3,000 Mosul residents to fight against IS.

Now in exile, al-Nujaifi told al-Jazeera Turk last week that the training will take place in an area controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government. "Turkish officers will train and equip the conscripts, but under no circumstances will Turkey provide weapons and ammunition," he said.

Visiting his Iraqi counterpart, Khaled al-Obaidi in Baghdad on 4 March, Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz told the press that Turkey will be doing its best to support the Iraqi government. "Turkey is willing to do its part for the Iraqi army for its counter-terrorism efforts by logistically supporting it and sharing intelligence. We are also ready to train and equip Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces."

Just one day before this announcement, two Turkish C-130 cargo planes landed Muthenna Air Base, about 20 kilometres east of Baghdad, and delivered military supplies to the Iraqi army.

According to security policies expert Mete Yarar, Turkey's recent engagement in Iraq should not be seen as part of the "train-and-equip" agreement with the US, nor be evaluated in relation to Turkey's IS policy.

"Just a few months after [Ahmet] Davutoglu became the prime minister, Turkish special forces started training Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, and this alone is a sign why the recent train-and-equip deal is not related to Turkey's Iraq policy," Yarar told Middle East Eye (MEE).

It is yet to be seen why Turkey is suddenly very keen to help the Iraqi government fight against IS. The unwillingness of Turkey has taken its toll in Syria as for many months - neither the US-backed Syrian rebels nor Kurds have made significant gains against IS. Only after the success of the Kobane resistance has the situation changed for the better.

The Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane on the Turkish border was under IS siege for more than two months before it was eventually liberated by the efforts of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Syrian Kurds and coalition air strikes.

Assertive Turkey against IS?

Several game changers have perhaps allowed Turkey to reconsider its IS policy. Not only did Turkey conclude that IS was a threat to itself and to the Levant, but significant developments on the ground also pressed Turkey to adopt a proactive tone.

Unsurprisingly, it was only after the signing of the "train and equip" agreement with the US that Turkey conducted operation Shah Euphrates to evacuate its 38 soldiers inside Syria. The tomb, over which Turkey claims sovereignty, is considered a part of Turkey according to Ankara treaty of 1921 between Mustafa Kemal's government and France, which then governed Syria.

Similarly, Turkey had trouble in dealing with IS in the summer of 2014 when the group raided the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took 49 diplomatic personnel hostage. They were released only in September, but how and why were they released was never disclosed. Several reports argued that they were allegedly freed in return for dozens of IS fighters who had been languishing in Turkish prisons.

Abdulkadir Selvi at daily Yeni Safak argued that intelligence on the Iraqi army's Tikrit and Mosul offensive influenced Ankara to make the decision to evacuate the tomb, so that it could eliminate the only remaining weak spot against the IS outside Turkish borders. Selvi is known to have access to the official government reasoning.

According to Semih Idiz, a columnist at Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey's increased engagement with the anti-IS coalition should be regarded as part of its changing policy. "The train-and-equip agreement [with Iraq] is an extension of the one signed with the US three weeks ago. The presence of IS in Mosul in the long run is a direct threat to Turkey," Idiz told MEE.

Perhaps Iran's involvement since the beginning of IS activities in Iraq is playing a key role in Turkey's calculations. According to Fehim Tastekin, a columnist at the daily Radikal, it was Iran that supported Iraq first while the Iraqi army has been routed by IS.

"Iran helped Iraqi forces to form militia and reform the army, and also it was Iran that launched air strikes on IS positions first when the Islamic State fighters turned their direction towards Erbil," Tastekin recently wrote.

Though Turkey has been strongly criticised in various circles over its reluctance in taking any action against IS, for some analysts, its willingness to take an indirect part in the Mosul offensive tells another story.

According to Ihsan al-Shammari, political science professor at the University of Baghdad, "Turkey is trying to support its tools inside Iraq, and wants to be part of the victory against IS through its influence in the country."

"Ankara wants to send a message to Tehran to say that it still has sway in Iraq and has ties to a number of political parties, especially that Mosul was part of its backyard," he argued.

For Mete Yarar, however, Turkish officials' statements on Mosul is an outcome of a broader evaluation of policy options. "Turkey is the largest country bordering IS, [with its 1,300-km border with Syria and Iraq] and instead of reluctance in taking action against the armed group, Turkey wanted to see which country supports which faction since the beginning of the regional conflict," he contended.

"Deep divisions between different entities in the region under IS control forced Turkey to sit back and observe the bigger picture. The issue is not only the liberation of Mosul, but what will happen in the aftermath?"

Never-ending sectarian divisions

Upon the completion of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, speculation regarding the new Saudi leadership's plan to form a Sunni bloc against the increasing Iranian influence has come to the fore.

According to Tastekin, Salman's initiative is in line with the Turkish president's ambitions. "Erdogan, who in recent years has interfered in Iraq's domestic affairs to achieve just that, is now trying to end his diplomatic isolation by encouraging Salman to include Turkey in the Saudi plan," he recently wrote.

In line with Iranian involvement with the Tikrit offensive, the proxy warfare that has been going on for years in Syria is now re-emerging in Iraq. The war- and sectarian strife-laden country is on the verge of becoming the battleground of another round of conflict and destruction.

"Mosul's strategic importance is playing a key role in Turkey's decision making," Semih Idiz argued. "Especially after the consulate raid and Iran's involvement in the Tikrit offensive, once again, sectarian divisions will surface."

Indeed, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been warning all the parties directly or indirectly engaged with the upcoming Mosul offensive. Interviewed by Time Magazine during his US visit last week, Davutoglu said: "If Daesh [IS] is a big threat in Iraq, another threat is Shiite militias.

"This is very important. If Daesh evacuates Tikrit or Mosul and if Shiite militias come in, then there will be sectarian war. Therefore all these cities, Sunni-populated areas, should be liberated by the inhabitants of those cities," Davutoglu argued.

Davutoglu's warning could also be a sign of why Turkey is much more involved in Iraq than in Syria. On the top of existing two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, not only could another potential refugee influx further destabilise Turkey, but also, a divided Iraq might push the region into an even deeper mess in the post-IS period.

"Perhaps it is too late to prevent a sectarian conflict as militias on the ground are now being pronounced with forenames depicting their sectarian belongingness," Yarar said, referring to Shiite or Sunni fighters with allegiances to different authorities.

"Upon calls from some Arab tribes and Turkmens in the region, as well as per US request to counterbalance Iran, Turkey has to play an important role to guarantee the safety of many people, should Iraq disintegrate," he added.

"Strategically and on sectarian grounds, only Turkey could prevent Iran from getting the upper hand in the regional balance of power game."

Nevertheless, Tastekin believes that the outcome could be far beyond the intention: "This new polarisation Ankara officials promote as 'partnership against sectarianism' may well serve only to inflame sectarian conflict and negatively impact that stability."

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