As Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces have launched the long-anticipated offensive to take back Mosul from Islamic State, or ISIS, with preliminary gains on the battlefield in the early stage of the campaign, Turkey’s president pressed for inclusion of Turkish forces in the operation that may endanger entire initiative already fraught with myriad challenges.
Appears as determinant and defiant as before, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that “Turkey will be in the operation and at the table.”
“Our brothers are there, and our relatives are there. It is out of the question that we are not involved.”
His remarks came after a push by peshmerga forces earlier on Monday morning as part of the military campaign to flush out ISIS militants from Iraq’s second largest city. About 4,000 peshmerga forces began to advance and took control of a string of villages in the early phase of a campaign that is expected to last weeks, maybe months, depending on the resistance put out by ISIS fighters holed up the city.
At least 10 villages were reclaimed by the Kurdish peshmerga forces to set the stage for a full-scale assault on outskirts of Mosul, the populous Iraqi city that fell into the hands of extremists more than two years ago. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of long-awaited offensive at around 2 a.m. local time.
“It is impossible for us to stay out of it [the Mosul operation], because history lies there for us,” the Turkish president said at an international conference in Istanbul on Monday. His comment was bound to stir a new round of controversy around the offensive as Iraqi prime minister again underlined that only Iraqi armed forces and police would be allowed to the city.
The Iraqi prime minister renewed his call on Mosul residents to take up arms against ISIS and stir a rebellion in solidarity with the Iraqi forces to doom ISIS resistance from within. The ISIS has carried out many executions of suspected residents for attempting uprising against its rule in the city.
Turkey’s push for involvement in the operation has generated an escalating row with the central Iraqi government, which is determined to keep non-Iraqi actors out of the operation. Erdogan’s defiant tone was not lost on the Iraqi side whose grudge has morphed into bitter opposition and enmity toward unwanted Turkey’s military presence on Iraqi soil.
While the U.S. did not directly mention name of any country, it stressed that any presence of foreign forces in Iraq must get the approval of Baghdad.
In a blunt warning to Ankara, leader of a powerful militia and formidable figure in Iraqi political scene, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said Turkey should withdraw its forces before it gets humiliated by Iraqis. On Monday, he called on his followers to stage a protest outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad, a sign that the discord is sharply turning into a sectarian one.
The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Iraq last week escalated into mutual recriminations between leaders of both countries, with Erdogan blasting Abadi for his criticism about Turkish military presence.
Of all concerns, Ankara’s anxiety are driven by fears about a new exodus of refugees amid UN warnings about the mass displacement of residents in early weeks of the Mosul operation, and a new sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiite militias once the city is liberated.
There Erdogan’s comments came on Monday, echoing Ankara’s long-standing concern about a new, bloody front in sectarian strife that already tore Iraq and Syria apart. “The insistence that Turkey be left out of the Mosul operation is because we would prevent a sectarian conflict there,” state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
The Turkish president proclaimed that Turkey cannot accept a new conflict, cannot say ‘yes’ to Sunni-Shiite strife.
But Turkey’s argument to convince others about why the Turkish forces would take part in the offensive fails to win minds, let alone hearts, of others, especially the administration in Baghdad, which warned of a regional war if Turkey pushes forward to execute its plan.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani who extolled early gains of Kurdish peshmerga forces in Mosul operation renewed his call on both sides, Turkey and Iraq, to “reach a consensus.” The president of the Kurdish region has worried about the fallout of the Turkish-Iraqi row on the risky Mosul campaign.
Although it enjoys a cordial relationship with the KRG, Ankara is also against a Kurdish takeover of the administration in Mosul after defeating ISIS.