Threats of Turkish expansionism in Syria and Iraq disguise Ankara’s containment policy.
Turkey’s military deployments to Syria and Iraq appear to be an assertion of its foreign policy. Some observers fear the move could be an attempt to annex their neighbours’ territory. Yet Turkey’s ambiguous actions in these complex conflicts shadow its objective of containing its regional rivals.
THE KURDISH PROBLEM
In the past year, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy has increasingly featured loud public statements about historical injustices forced on Turkey by Western powers after the First World War. These complaints, which refer to the loss of former Ottoman territory, combine nationalist and Pan-Turkic sentiments to present the AKP as the defender of Turkmen living in neighbouring conflict zones – at least those who are Sunni Muslims. The AKP has also ramped up its attacks against Kurdish self-determination, both domestically and in Syria.
Much of the rhetoric can be attributed to Turkish domestic politics, especially after the close-run general elections in 2015 and before April’s upcoming constitutional referendum as the government appeals to voters’ sense of nationalism. However, military deployments to both Syria and Iraq also involve real strategic concerns.
Syrian Kurds have developed significant military capabilities. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) lead the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria. The PYD is also affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency in Turkey’s southeast. Turkey wants to stop the formation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria, the creation of which would set a dangerous precedent for Ankara’s efforts to stifle the PKK’s ambitions.
THE COMPLEXITIES OF OPERATION EUPHRATES SHIELD
Turkey’s twin objectives of defending Turkmen abroad and thwarting Kurdish nationalist ambitions have coalesced as the Syrian civil war drags on. The SDF have moved into Arab and Turkmen dominated areas and they are making steady gains to consolidating their territory. Meanwhile, Turkish attempts to seize Kurdish-held territory have been thwarted by two developments: the strengthening of US support to the SDF and the SDF’s cooperation with the Assad regime and Russia.
For all the initial pro-Turkish rhetoric coming from the new US administration, US Central Command reportedly made commitments to protect the SDF-held town of Manbij. Perhaps hedging their bets, the SDF also agreed to transfer the defence of the line west of Manbij to Syrian government forces. If these developments are an indication of real and lasting foreign policy direction of either the US administration or the Russian government, Turkish efforts against the SDF will need to be fundamentally re-evaluated.
Long term Turkish foreign policy goals in relation to Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq are even more difficult to determine. Turkey’s interests in those cities stem from a desire to protect the Sunni population and prevent forces aligned with either Bagdad or Tehran – or both – from dominating the region. But Turkey’s options in northern Iraq are limited, and Ankara ‘s current course suggests an ambiguous policy of favouring Kurdish self-determination.
Turkey retains a military base near Mosul, the status of which Bagdad strongly questioned following the Turkish parliament’s approval of the deployment of additional Turkish troops to Iraq in late September 2016. The Turkish government changed its policy regarding these troops by announcing they will vacate the base after the end of operations to liberate Mosul from ISIS. With that fight moving into its final stages, it is clear that the Turkish role was not significant; its military presence was smaller than that of the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Peshmerga. At this stage, Turkey’s involvement in the battle for Mosul appears to extend only to limited operations and aiding local partners whose ultimate goals may be different from Ankara’s.
The road from Turkey to either Mosul or Kirkuk – both of which are much closer to the Turkish border than to Baghdad – leads through Iraqi Kurdistan, which is largely under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK). Hence, any Turkish foreign policy in relation to northern Iraq is intertwined with its obscure position on the status of this region. Turkey has cordial relations with the Kurdish President, Masoud Barzani, whose stated objective is independence from Iraq. While Turkey does not generally support independence, it has a strong trade relationship with the region. The Turkish government recently honoured the visiting Barzani by raising the Kurdish flag at the Ankara and Istanbul airports (albeit curiously alongside the Iraqi flag).
Further Turkish troop deployments to the region are feasible given the close proximity and infrastructure between Mosul and the Turkish border. However, serious efforts by Turkey to influence events in Mosul and/or Kirkuk would undermine the PDK’s goal of gaining independence or even retaining their current autonomy, undermining the party’s hold on power. The subsequent vacuum may be filled by Kurdish forces less inclined to Ankara’s demands, and possibly in favour of the enhancement of authority by Baghdad or Tehran.
In light of this, the Turkish military presence in the Mosul region is likely a warning to deter attacks on Sunnis following the defeat of ISIS. Turkey may also want to support the PDK while curbing its independence agenda by reminding the PDK of the region’s reliance on Turkish support. To do all this with reasonable credibility, Turkey needs to assert its right to be in northern Iraq and be seen to be doing more than it actually can – and possibly even wants to.
This complexity illustrates that, despite megaphone diplomacy that threatens Turkish expansionism, Turkish military deployments are primarily focused on cautious containment of the ambitions of others.