Kirk H. Sowell
Iraqi security forces began direct operations to liberate Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, from Daesh (ISIS) the morning of Oct. 17. Kurdish peshmerga forces, which controlled much of the area east and north of Mosul before 2014, began taking a series of villages east of the city. They are accompanied by the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, with the Iraqi army’s newly created, U.S.-trained 15th Division making up the core of the assault force in the city proper. Nearly 80,000 troops total are involved, many fighting in ancillary operations on Mosul’s outskirts or supporting combat troops.The counterterrorism operation takes place within the context of a power struggle between Baghdad and Ankara. While announcing the start of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took a veiled swipe at Turkey, saying that “in recent days there are those who have tried to stir up trouble and delay the offensive.”
This follows a week of media attacks between Abadi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has set off ongoing Turkey-bashing in the Iraqi media. The point of dispute is a small Turkish military base established in December 2015 near Bashiqa, a small town just outside of Mosul in territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, even though it is within the legal borders of the province of Ninevah. This area also contains Ninevah’s largest oil reserves, including those that are the subject of an exploration contract signed with ExxonMobil in 2012.
The Abadi-Erdogan media exchange arose following news that Turkey has stepped up training and arming its Sunni Arab proxy force to focus on urban warfare. The Iraqi concern is less that Turkish troops would take Mosul than that their proxy would, which consists of some local Mosul police but mostly of former regime military personnel who are politically loyal to former parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Turkey’s primary Sunni Arab ally. After 2003, Nujaifi established himself as the province’s voice of Arab nationalism. His brother Atheel al-Nujaifi led a winning list in Ninevah’s 2009 local elections, whereupon he served as governor until 2015. Following Turkey’s change in Kurdish policy, which led Erdogan to ally with Massoud Barzani, in 2010 the Nujaifis flipped and formed an alliance with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. Since then the Nujaifis have pushed for an autonomous Ninevah region with self-governing powers similar to those currently exercised by the Kurds.
If successful, the Nujaifis would bring Ninevah under greater Turkish influence similar to the way Kurdish provinces are dominated by the KDP. Indeed, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who was removed as governor in mid-2015, openly defended Turkey’s moves to establish a sphere of influence in northern Iraq during the initial controversy last December after Turkey established the base near Bashiqa. He has continued this line, defending Turkey’s role early this month by comparing it to Turkey’s recent Euphrates Shield offensive in northern Syria.
Turkey’s backers in Arabic-language media likewise acknowledge the strategic intent. Burhan Koroglu, a Turkish academic, explained on Al-Jazeera that Turkey’s role stemmed from “four hundred years of rule” in Mosul, and on Dijla, an Iraqi Sunni television channel, two Turkish commentators likewise framed the recent additional deployment to Bashiqa as an extension of Turkey’s historical role in the region, and a way to protect local Sunni populations. Arming and training an army of loyalists will allow Atheel al-Nujaifi to depict himself as having played a key role in Mosul’s liberation, positioning himself to return to power in next year’s provincial elections.
Barzani’s KDP has also helped Turkish policy in Ninevah. The KDP has been Turkey’s key partner in building the physical and commercial infrastructure for independent oil exports from the KRG and Kirkuk, which have led to strong disputes with Baghdad. But there is also a security component to Barzani’s alliance with Turkey – of which Bashiqa is an important part. The initial deployment took place on Dec. 3, 2015, and six days later Barzani traveled to Ankara to meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirliogu and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. It appears that this meeting finalized the agreement for the Bashiqa base. Yet while Baghdad and Ankara discussed training Iraqi forces inside Turkey, a topic Abadi had publicly broached with then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in November 2014, Baghdad never approved the base.
The problem posed by Turkey’s role is that it widens Iraq’s political and sectarian polarization. Anti-Turkish sentiment is strong among Shiite Iraqis, not only because of Turkey’s role in Iraq but also because of its support for Sunni armed groups in Syria. The loudest and most threatening voices come from Shiite militias, which have threatened to attack Turkish forces directly. Furthermore, 19 Shiite militia groups released a statement threatening “Turkish interests in Iraq,” meaning that Turkey’s once-strong commercial presence in the south, which has declined in recent years, would be eliminated completely. In Ninevah, Shiite militias have the strongest interest in Tal Afar, the Turkmen-populated city west of Mosul were Daesh recruited strongly from Sunni Turkmen and cleansed the Shiite Turkmen population after taking it in 2014.
Abadi himself has attacked Turkey’s presence at nearly every public event in recent weeks. At an event in Karbala on Oct. 9, coinciding with a Shiite religious procession, Abadi said that he worried “it will lead to Turkish forces coming into military conflict inside Iraq,” adding that “they are impeding the effort to liberate Mosul.”
Yet Abadi’s criticisms of Turkey have been mild compared to most Shiite leaders, and he has tried to strike a balance, one expressed by his emphasis during the launch of the operation that only army and police units, not militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd), would enter Mosul city itself. This is in contrast to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose unofficial campaign to return to power with the aid of Iran-backed Shiite militias is focused on an anti-Barzani, anti-Turkish line. Maliki previewed this in an Oct. 3 speech in Karbala in which he derided Abadi’s government as “weak” and played up the Turkish-Kurdish threat in Ninevah, warning against “expansionism” and “demographic change” in “this Arab province.” Similarly, in an Oct. 15 televised address to mark the Mosul operation, Maliki gave the conflict a different frame than Abadi, emphasizing the Turkish threat and pressing for a rollback of the Kurds as well, referring to parts of Ninevah controlled by the KDP. And unlike Abadi, Maliki framed the Hashd as a branch of the armed forces of equal stature with the army.
While cooperation with Barzani and the KDP on both security and oil matters serves the public interest, it leaves Abadi vulnerable. While Abadi has upheld Maliki’s centralist policy on oil exports, he has also tried to work with Barzani, reaching a deal in August to split Kirkuk oil exports and holding two public meetings with him in Baghdad in September about the Mosul operation, at the beginning of both of which he referred to Barzani as “president of the Kurdistan Region.” This brought him under criticism from Maliki supporters, given that Barzani’s term expired on Aug. 19, 2015, and his refusal to leave office has been a key factor in Kurdistan’s institutional breakdown. While Turkey could end up empowering the Iran-backed factions it claims to oppose, it is difficult to see a successful endgame for its intervention. In part this is because of the collapse of its Iraqi allies’ coalitions. Barzani’s relations with other Kurdish parties have deteriorated to the point that the Kurdistan Alliance parliamentary bloc in Baghdad recently disintegrated, and Nujaifi’s Sunni Arab alliance, represented by the Muttahidoon bloc, has also collapsed, with two of its three factions turning against him. This leaves the pro-Turkey Barzani-Nujaifi alliance with just 35 of 328 MPs in parliament.
Thus Abadi’s insistence that only army and police forces will enter Mosul may not only refer to Shiite militias, but also a determination to keep Nujaifi’s Sunni militia out and cut Turkey off. Given the loss of support among Arabs in rural Ninevah for the Nujaifis, who have already suffered as a result of their ties to Barzani, it will be harder for Atheel to return to office following the next election without a prominent role in Mosul’s liberation.
Given the likelihood of sectarian militia conflict over Tal Afar, Ninevah could remain a polarizing flashpoint after Mosul is liberated, impacting the next election.
Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 20, 2016, on page 7.