Late last week, hundreds of Turkish troops and about 20 tanks made their way across the Iraqi border, and south to the town of Bashiqa, located just a dozen or so miles northeast of ISIS-held Mosul. The Iraqi government was caught seemingly totally off guard by this move. As a result the Iraqis have demanded Turkey pull their forces out within 48 hours or they will take their case to the United Nations.
Khaled al-Obeidi, Iraq’s defense minister, made it very clear that Turkey’s sudden escalation into the ground conflict in Iraq was not invited, planned, nor even announced. He’s quoted in RT.com thusly:
“No matter the size of the force entering Iraq, it is rejected. It was possible to undertake this sort of prior coordination without creating circumstances which contributed to a crisis between the two countries.”
Turkey claims the base near Bashiqa was set up at the request of Mosul’s governor and in coordination with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. They also say it has been operational for years. Some sources state that a small group of Turkish military instructors at the site have been training a group of “Hashid Watani,” also known as the National Mobilization Force, which is made up Sunni ex-police and soldiers. Other sources state that the site is being used to train Kurdish fighters.
Turkey has ongoing relations with Iraqi Kurds and their “Peshmerga” militia, which are based primarily out of nearby Erbil, in northern Iraq. Kurdish PKK in Syria and parts of northwestern Iraq are viewed as terrorists by Turkey and are bitter enemies of the Turkish state. This is the same Kurdish faction that Turkey has been actively bombing in Syria and Iraq after entering the air war against ISIS.
Reuters quoted one Turkish official as saying “our soldiers are already in Iraq. A battalion of soldiers has gone there. Training was already being given in that region for the last two to three years. This (the deployment) is a part of that training.”
Regardless of who is being trained at the complex, the area has been in flux over the last year and a half, with ISIS holding many nearby towns at one time or another. How exactly this fits into Turkey’s claim that the base has been operational for so long is unclear. Even if the base has been in Turkish hands for even just a matter of months, not years, the recent arrival of heavy armor and a massive increase in troop strength at the site is puzzling; for the Iraqis, it is very alarming.
Turkey has responded to Iraq’s claims that their movement of troops by saying they would not send in any more forces. Yes, you read that right: they did not say they would withdraw the forces they just sent into the country, just that they would not augment this already beefed-up garrison at Bashiqa any further.
This obviously isn’t going to go over great with the Iraqi government, nor with the ever more powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia cohorts also operating in the area (watch this 60 Minutes segment for a quick overview on the Shiite militia situation in Iraq by clicking here). The U.S. supposedly knew of the training operation and of Turkey’s move to build-up its end-strength drastically at the site, although Washington says it had nothing to do with it directly.
Turkey may have decided to add the couple hundred troops and 20 or so tanks to its Iraqi training operation out of concerns that the looming “Mosul offensive,” the long-awaited operation by Iraqi allied forces to take the city back from ISIS once and for all, may push enemy fighters their way. Under such circumstances a heavy force protection posture may be a necessity. (Although one would think ISIS fighters would attempt to run west, toward Syria, not east, deeper into Kurdish dominated territory.)
Like some of Turkey’s other military moves as of late, namely shooting down a Russian attack jet for straying into Turkish airspace for mere seconds, this latest action, at least at face vale makes little sense and leaves many questions unanswered.
Why would Turkey want to get involved at this level with the nasty ground conflict in Iraq, especially without coordination with the Iraqi government? Why is the Turkish training base so close to a massive ISIS stronghold? What does the Kurdish government in Erbil say about all this? Additionally, would it not have been far easier and less politically sensitive to move the relatively small training operation instead of putting so many forces at risk and causing an international incident in the process?
Above all else, Turkey’s little excursion into Iraq is just another reminder of how the whole geopolitical and military situation in the region has become something of a free-for-all. Without a plausible and comprehensive strategy, with clear and incremental goals, put in place by the U.S. to take the fight to ISIS, the situation will only get worse, not better.
As the fight against ISIS in Iraq becomes more complex and the various players become more deeply entrenched and invested in it, it will become harder and harder to have peace should it actually end. In other words, if things don’t change soon, even if ISIS is purged from Iraq, a bloody civil war would likely follow.
As for President Obama’s Oval Office speech last night (from a lectern in and empty room, in front of an oddly empty Resolute Desk, how strange was that?), we have absolutely nothing new to talk about.
Obama’s “strategy” for defeating ISIS is really just a very expensive shot clock that will turn blood red and buzz loudly in 410 days. The worst part is that for every day that goes by where a clear and plausible strategy is not established, it will be much tougher for the next Commander-in-Chief to do so.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.