U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Turkey and Iraq have reached an agreement in principle that would allow Turkish participation in an operation to take Iraq’s second largest city back from the Islamic State, ISIS, after talks with top Turkish authorities in Ankara on Friday.
The tentative agreement is expected to soothe concerns in the middle of the ongoing campaign to liberate Mosul as the escalating discord between Baghdad and Ankara poised to derail coalition unity to flush out ISIS militants from the city.
In Ankara, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Turkish counterpart, Fikri Isik, in a visit aimed at defusing tension between Turkey and Iraq in the face of the largest military campaign since Iraq’s invasion in 2003 that is expected to shape the future of Iraq and the battle against ISIS in the region.
“There will have to obviously be something that the Iraqi government will need to agree to and I think there is an agreement there in principle,” Carter told journalists.
“I’m pretty confident — on the basis of all the conversations we’ve had — that we’ll be able to work through those practicalities in a way that takes care of the sensitivities of all of the parties,” the Associated Press quoted the US defense secretary as saying.
The Turkish defense minister confirmed Carter’s remarks and made a similar statement about a tentative agreement that clarifies the nature of the Turkish involvement.
Carter pointed out that Turkey has had a historic role in the region and it would play a vital role in the fight against ISIS both in Syria and Iraq. He also said there are things that Turkey could do that would positively contribute to the war effort.
Turkey and Iraq are locked in an unfolding row over the presence of Turkish troops at Bashiqa camp near Mosul. President Erdogan and Iraqi leaders, mostly Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, engaged in mutual recriminations, trading barbs, in the escalating spat that rang alarm bells in Washington. The U.S. is worried that the crisis could imperil efforts to retake Mosul.
Carter’s visit came against this backdrop. Carter said Iraq understands that Turkey is a member of anti-ISIS coalition and that it will play a role in counter-ISIS operations in Iraq.
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters traveling with Carter in Turkey that the U.S. is trying to arrange a meeting between Turkish and Iraqi officials next week to resolve the dispute.
The U.S. was raising the issue of a Turkish involvement in the campaign in its talks with the Iraqi leadership. But whether it would be a direct military role or not remains unknown for the moment. The U.S. defense official said Turkey could provide humanitarian and medical assistance, and other non-military contributions during the campaign.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim previously said Turkish fighter jets took part in the Mosul operation.
“We will work jointly on Turkey’s participation in the Mosul campaign and on Turkey being at the table in the process after that,” Reuters quoted the Turkish defense minister as saying in an interview on state broadcaster TRT.
The U.S. official said Washington understands Turkey’s legitimate concerns over the Mosul operation.
To the surprise and fury of Iraqi officials, President Erdogan cited an Ottoman-era manifesto to make a case for the Turkish role in the Mosul campaign. His reference to Misak-i Milli (National Pact or National Oath) generated enthusiasm among nationalists and his constituency while it elicited concern and backlash from the Iraqi side.
Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraqi territory in a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
While Carter’s visit designed to mediate a resolution of the dispute between Turkey and Iraq through diplomatic engagement that could eventually pave the way for some form of Turkish role in the Mosul campaign, there are still unresolved contentious points that block full-fledged cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. against ISIS.
The U.S. alignment with the Syrian Kurdish militia remains a source of ensuing friction between sides as Ankara presses for an end to U.S. assistance to Kurds.
On Friday, media reported that Turkish fighters jets pounded targets and positions of the Syria Kurdish YPG militias, a major U.S. ally against ISIS in Syria. Turkish army reported that it destroyed 18 targets and up to 200 militants were either killed or wounded in a barrage of air strikes.
Carter declined to comment on Turkey’s bombardment of Syrian Kurdish positions. He said he has few details on the incident, and there are questions about the total casualty and whether the targeted ones were U.S.-linked Kurdish forces or not.
The Turkish defense minister told media that he raised the issue of the YPG during the meeting with Carter and sought U.S. effort to ensure withdrawal of the Kurdish militia from Manbij to the east of Euphrates. The U.S.-backed YPG, along with other Arab forces under the umbrella of Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, of which YPG makes up the majority, recently captured Manbij from ISIS.
Despite its pledge under U.S. pressure, the militants linked with the YPG still remain in the city. Ankara insists their withdrawal from the city. Turkey wants Kurdish forces on the eastern side of Euphrates and regards any crossing to the west as a violation of its red lines designed to curb Kurdish expansion toward northwestern Syria.
Before the meeting, the U.S. defense secretary said he would raise the issue of sovereignty of Iraq during his talks with Turkish authorities.