Turkey’s insistence on playing a role in the battle to retake Iraq’s second biggest city Mosul seems to have paid off.
Despite the ongoing rift between Turkey and Iraq over Turkey’s participation in the operation, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has announced that Turkey is now taking part, with its F-16 jets on stand-by, and its forces based in Bashiqa camp actively fighting against ISIS.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the visiting French Foreign Minister in Ankara, Mr Cavusoglu said that Turkish artillery fire has so far killed 17 ISIS fighters.
Independent reporters in the region also confirmed artillery fire emanating from the Bashiqa base.
Turkey has been demanding a direct role in the field and a place at the negotiating table. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey has a historical responsibility in the region. Mr Erdogan’s harsh words directed at the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi have angered the Iraqi government and increased unease both among Turkey’s allies and other neighbours.
So much so, in an article published in the National Interest, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former American ambassador has warned that there was a “danger of a war within a war that could damage the prospects for retaking and stabilizing Mosul”.
The tone of the pro-government media in Turkey has been even more incendiary.
Staunchly pro-Erdogan columnist Ibrahim Karagul, writing in the daily Yeni Safak suggested that “the north of Mosul and Aleppo should be handed over to Turkey”.
Another columnist at the newspaper, Yusuf Kaplan has claimed that there was no such thing as ISIS. He described the new world order as “the UK being the brain, the USA a stick to beat others, the organizations such as Al-Qaida and ISIS the puppets and tools, Iran the sub-contractor, and Saudi Arabia the financier”.
These are, by no means, opinions of a few eccentric journalists. Similar views are expressed in other pro-government mainstream media outlets.
References to the Ottoman past and Turkey’s renewed regional ambitions are mainly for the domestic public consumption, but Ankara has other real strategic reasons to get involved.
Turkey’s main concern, both in Iraq and Syria, is to stop its own Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK, from gaining ground.
Despite a growing number of terrorist attacks by ISIS on Turkish soil in the last 12 months, ISIS is perceived as the secondary problem and there is also a tendency to underestimate its threat.
There seems to be an expectation that the battle in Mosul, in which Turkey seems so keen to get involved, will not last too long, and Turkey’s involvement might even speed it up.
Michael Weiss, author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror”, told a packed audience at The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), last week that he anticipated a prolonged effort to retake Mosul.
He told us that ISIS had two and half years to prepare for the battle, to set booby traps and explosive devices. It has bought the loyalty of many locals, individuals and tribes. It recruited a wide network of informants. Former Baathist, Soviet-trained Iraqi Mukhabarat men who know the terrain better than everybody else, now fight for ISIS.
Michael Weiss’ co-author Hassan Hassan, in an article titled “The Islamic State After Mosul” at the New York Times, has also warned that if the Islamic State loses Mosul, the group would have a clearly articulated contingency plan. It would retreat only to re-emerge again.
“The war against the Islamic State is unwinnable without filling the political and security vacuum that now exists in too much of Iraq,” Hassan Hassan said.
Michael Weiss, at RUSI, talked about ‘Europeanisation” of ISIS. As well as despatching fighters to Europe, now, the European jihadis were being promoted to senior posts in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Sunni Turkmens, Caucasians and Central Asians have also become more prominent in ISIS.
A defeat in Mosul would be avenged in the capitals of Europe. Keeping in mind the changing make- up of the organisation, the threat for Turkey’s cities would most likely be even greater.
This post is also available in: Turkish