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Turkey and Iraq going to war?

The US plays a difficult and complex game as it tries to manipulate Turkish President Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions whilst pursuing its own geopolitical objectives in Iraq and Syria.

As Turkey mobilises fresh troops on the Iraqi border, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned that an invasion of his country will mean war. “Turkey and its forces will be damaged and we warn them again, if their troops enter Iraq we will fight them and we will look at them and treat them as the enemy,” he said. 

Turkey has threatened to take part in the U.S.-led military operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with troops it already illegally has deployed in the country. The new invasion would be to take further Iraqi territory.

“If we engage in war with them, the Turks will pay a heavy price, they will be damaged,” al-Abadi vowed to reporters in Baghdad last Tuesday.  “We warn Turkey if they want to enter Iraq, they will end up becoming fragmented,” because Turkey is “not a country to able to fight outside their borders.” Turkey invaded Cyprus 50 years ago, he said. “but Iraq is not Cyprus.”

The silence from Washington is deafening. As corporate media depends on official U.S. sources, it too is silent on this new crisis. Are the hawks in Washington exploiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman dreams of capturing former imperial Turkish territory in Iraq (and Syria) to covertly achieve U.S. objectives?  Could this plan go horribly wrong if two of their major regional allies go to war?

Since American officials rarely explain fully what they are up to in the Middle East, beyond slogans like “Fighting ISIS” and “The War on Terror”, understanding U.S. policy in the region is reduced to educated guesses based on official and leaked statements and assessments of complex developments on the ground.

For instance, U.S. officials are backing Syrian Kurds, not Turkey, in the operation launched Sunday to take Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.  Less than two weeks ago Erdoğan proclaimed that during its invasion of Syria Turkey “will go towards Raqqah.” In the last debate, Clinton said the U.S.-led operation to liberate Mosul should continue to Raqqah. Now it has. But she didn’t provide any details.

Events on the ground indicate Washington has two policies: one public and the other hidden. (Just as Clinton in general advocated for in one of her paid speeches.)  Publicly the U.S. opposes Turkish military intervention in Raqqa and Mosul, while privately it is effectively riding Erdoğan’s outsized ambitions to let Turkish NATO troops create Hillary Clinton’s desired safe area.  This is on territory taken mostly from ISIS that could eventually stretch from northeast Syria into western Iraq.

There is abundant evidence that Turkey has supported ISIS from its inception. If Erdoğan is now fighting the terrorist group it may well be because he wants something like the Caliphate for himself, bringing it back to Turkey, which abolished it in 1924. And that just might fit into U.S. plans—which Obama has already allowed to be catered to Clinton’s.

“The goal here is to take back Mosul,” she said at the last debate, “… and then continue to press into Syria to begin to take back and move on Raqqah.”

A safe area in eastern Syria stretching to western Iraq could implement the so-called Plan B:  dividing Syria to weaken it, while also creating a “Sunnistan” corridor for the gas pipeline from Qatar through the Iraq/Syria border area to Turkey and on to Europe. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected a Qatar pipeline through Syrian territory in 2009. Some analysts think that spurred the Gulf-backed insurgency to overthrow him.  Settling for Plan B, or partition, would be an admission that Plan A, regime change, had failed.

There might also be another crucial task for Turkey on behalf of Washington’s hawks in both Syria and Iraq. Erdoğan may well target the Shia Turkmen Tal Afar area in Iraq.  The Shia-led Iraqi government wants to get it under central government control to possibly open a corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon—a corridor Clinton has vowed to close. Turkey could also cut this passage in northern Syria.

Is the U.S. allowing Turkish troops to create these facts on the ground?  It’s impossible to know for sure because of the lack of transparency coming out of Washington. But in this scenario Erdoğan gets to control Syrian Kurdish areas and possibly parts of Iraq, satisfying his neo-Ottoman fantasies, while Clinton gets her safe area with NATO troops, but without deploying U.S. soldiers on the ground.

Erdoğan’s Dreams of Ottoman Glory 

After Russia’s September 2015 intervention in the Syrian war seriously turned back the jihadists’ advances, their principal backers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, became so alarmed that in  In February they demanded the U.S. allow them to invade Syria. It was a momentous decision for Obama.  Would he risk war with Russia to save another regime change?

U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter “welcomed” the Saudi-Turk plan to launch an invasion by air from Turkey’s Incirlik NATO air base, and by land through the wastelands of Jordan or western Iraq. The Saudis staged a 30,000-man invasion war game in the desert. In the end Obama stood for reason and stopped it.

But in July an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was crushed. He seized the opportunity to eliminate almost all opposition to his nearly complete one-man rule. By late August Erdoğan was ready to make his move with no one left in Turkey to oppose him.

On August 24, with U.S. air cover, Turkey invaded Syria. This time Obama did not stop him. Washington clearly approved as its planes protected Turkish tanks and infantry rolling across the border. Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara a day before the invasion.

The pretext was to fight ISIS, but it became clear immediately that Turkey’s main target is the Syrian Kurds—one of ISIS’ toughest foes on the ground. The U.S. protested, but Washington surely knew what Turkey’s intentions were.   

The date of August 24, 2016 is significant. Exactly 500 years to the day, on August 24,1516, the Ottomans left Turkey to begin their empire by invading their first country—Syria.

This is hardly a coincidence when one considers Erdoğan’s history. He spurred a violent police crackdown in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 on demonstrators against his plan to build a replica of an Ottoman barracks in the park. In April, Erdoğan named a new bridge over the Bosphorus after Osman, founder of the Ottoman Empire. 

Turkish-backed rebels took the Syrian town of Dabiq from ISIS on Oct. 16. It was victory there in 1516 that established the Ottoman Empire.

The Safe Area

Hillary Clinton has been pushing for a no-fly zone and a safe area in Syria since she ran the State Department.  She has called for both as recently as the last presidential debate, despite the inherent dangers of confronting Russia. 

The safe area is supposed to shelter internally displaced Syrians to prevent them from becoming refugees. But it could also be used as a staging ground to train and quip jihadists intent on regime change, as was employed in Libya. A safe area would need ground troops to protect it. Clinton says there will be no US ground troops in Syria.

Turkey has also been clamouring for a safe area on the ground for the past few years. Erdoğan called for it (as well as a no-fly zone in northern Syria) as recently as last September in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.

The hawks appear to have bested Obama this time. He has not stood in the way of Clinton-allies in his administration letting Erdoğan pursue his neo-Ottoman fantasy (even fighting U.S.-backed Kurds) in exchange for Turkish NATO forces establishing a safe area without U.S. ground troops. Turkey and its rebel forces already control about 490 square miles in northern Syria.

Turkey and Iraq on the Boil

In early October Erdoğan began his war of words with Iraqi prime minister al-Abadi about 1,000 Turkish troops based at Bashiqa, around 10 kilometers from Mosul.  Iraq has been insisting the troops leave the country for months.

With the operation to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city about to begin last month it was clear to me that Erdoğan would threaten to take Mosul, based on a World War I-era Ottoman claim.

On Oct. 30, 1918 Britain and the Ottomans signed an armistice, but three days later British Lt. Gen. Sir William Marshall invaded Mosul and captured it on November 15. Arguing that they were double-crossed, Turkey continued to claim Mosul despite it being given to British-controlled Baghdad in the Treaties of Sevres (1920) and Lausanne (1923).

A 1926 League of Nations commission sided with Britain, and Turkey reluctantly agreed to its border with Iraq. But revanchists like Erdoğan still don’t buy it. “We did not voluntarily accept the borders of our country,” Erdoğan said on Oct. 27.

He then made no secret of his plans to enter Mosul.  “You are not on my level,’ Erdoğan told al-Abadi. “Know your place! Your screaming and shouting is of no importance to us. You should know that we will do what we want to do,” he said.

Al-Abadi insists that only the Iraqi Army and federal police are allowed inside Mosul. Even the Kurdish peshmerga have agreed to stay out. But Erdoğan continues to claim Mosul and even called for ethnic cleansing of Shia from the city, which had a pre-ISIS population of 2 million.

After American silence, al-Abadi threatened to fly to Washington to demand the U.S. stop Erdoğan.  Officially the U.S. has told Turkey to stand down. But it is not clear how much control Washington has over Ankara in this matter, or whether Erdoğan’s plans fit entirely into the hawks’ agenda.

And this has been the problem whenever the U.S. allows surrogates to think they are pursuing their own agendas in the service of America’s larger one.  One only has to think of the alliances with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s, General Noriega in Panama in 1989, and the frankenstein that the Islamic State has become.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint-chief-of-staffs, was in Ankara on Sunday meeting Erdoğan. It might well have been a tense meeting with a volatile leader. He said on  Sunday that Turkey is charting an independent course from the West, adding, “I don’t care if Europe calls me a dictator.”

The Americans must allow him to think he is acting independently, but without screwing things up for themselves.  After the meeting the two sides said the U.S. and Turkey would jointly “seize, hold and govern” Raqqa.

In Iraq, the biggest question for Washington is whether the U.S. can keep al-Abadi’s desire for Iraqi sovereignty and Erdoğan’s inner Sultan in check to prevent the two from going to war, while instead doing America’s bidding.

This won’t be easy if the U.S. intends for Turkey to take territory in northern Iraq.  A war between the two U.S. allies could threaten Washington’s aims in the region, whatever they may really be. 

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Joe Lauria
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.